English, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 46 (2015)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


Only by combining papers on Romola and Felix Holt. did the 2013 George Eliot Conference manage to attract a tolerably-sized audience; no such problems for the 2014 Conference on Middlemarch. This excellent event was oversubscribed and had to be moved to the biggest room in the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. Barbara Hardy (Birkbeck, London and Swansea) and Louise Lee (Roehampton) yet again organized everything, bringing together a group of speakers who made us think about widely differing issues to do with Eliot's occasional uncertainty, Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell, the sex lives of young nineteenth-century women, Eliot's indebtedness to Hegel's phenomenology, Eliot and Gothic literature, the pitfalls of authorship, horses as metaphors, Eliot's evolving humour, and the 1994 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch.

Following words of welcome from Barbara Hardy, John Rignall (Warwick) offered 'Middlemarch & The Franco-Prussian War’, a paper reflecting on how that war coincided with the halting development of the novel. The horrors of that war, he argued, especially Prussia's militarism, influenced her spirit of writing. For Eliot, it was a 'hideous present', a serious distraction, not least because war challenged her faith in meliorism. Eliot's letters of the period show her questioning the validity of writing under such dreadful circumstances, and that uncertainty, Rignall argued, is reflected in the characterization of Dorothea. The latter's 'enforced detachment' resembles Eliot's: just as her creator worried about French bloodshed, so Dorothea frets about how best to help local people combat abject poverty. She is the first of Eliot's women characters searching for a useful role in life. The theme of melancholy pervades the novel, Rignall said, but that does not mean Eliot was melancholic herself. Middlemarch does find solutions for people, despite overwhelming adversities, illustrated by Dorothea's eventual destiny, which was shaped by her 'finely-touched spirit'.