Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 46 (2015)
This book is a reprint of the 1967 edition published by the Athlone Press, one of '56 classic works of literary criticism' that Bloomsbury is reprinting from Athlone Press. This opportunity to revisit and reassess works that were highly regarded in their day should be welcomed and one hopes that the archives of other academic publishers may also be subject to similar treatment. It is not good for the health of literary criticism if significant studies of the past are not easily accessible to readers and critics in the present.
I remember reading this book fairly close to when it was first published. The 1960s was an interesting time for George Eliot studies. Criticism of Eliot seemed to have stabilized. The decline of her reputation evident in the first decades of the twentieth century and, sometime later, criticism drawing on Jamesian ideas about the nature of fiction, which influenced the New Criticism in its generally negative attitude to the Victorian novel, had kept Eliot's literary status fairly low even if critics were not as dismissive of her work as Edwardian critics such as Edmund Gosse and George Saintsbury had been. Notable post-Second World War studies by F. R. Leavis and later by Barbara Hardy and W. J. Harvey, however, significantly turned the tide in her favour so that Eliot could no longer be tenably described as moralistic and artless. Hardy in The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in form (1959) and Harvey in The Art of George Eliot (1961) in particular defended Eliot persuasively from the strictures of Jamesian influenced formalist objections to various aspects of her fiction. During the 1960s one had a sense that it was no longer necessary to defend Eliot from the negative assessments of critics in the first half of the twentieth century. Critics could now focus on her writing in itself in the assurance that she was a significant literary figure whose work was worthy of study and interpretation. This 1967 collection of essays is the product of that sense of assurance. A whole book is devoted unapologetically to Middlemarch by a variety of critics who accept virtually unreservedly its greatness and who subject it to critical scrutiny from different points of view. The essays that make up the book are more various than I had remembered. There is coverage of textual matters, intellectual background, the novel's contemporary reception, and its artistic achievement. W. J. Harvey's essay on its contemporary reception was particularly interesting for though some reviews now seem to be wrong-headed, one can't help but be impressed by the many serious and detailed discussions devoted to the novel. The contrast with reviewing of serious fiction at the present time is striking. British critics are in the majority in this collection but an American New Critical perspective is included. Mark Schorer, one of the few New Critics who had a serious interest in Victorian fiction, in an earlier essay of 1949 had been fairly critical of the form of Middlemarch, arguing that the book had the wrong kind of unity despite the intricacy of its construction, but though he still has some worries in this later essay, his view of the novel is much more positive: 'it produces a nearly coherent vision, as well as a unified one' (p. 20). This suggests a shift towards a more positive view of Eliot even on the part of American critics influenced by New Critical concepts.