Tag Archives: George Eliot

Forthcoming publication: Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation

I’m very pleased to say that my monograph Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation is scheduled for publication with Palgrave Macmillan in September 2015, and a short blurb and contents can now be found on the publishers’ website.

And here’s a quick preview of the various novels discussed in chapter:

Chapter 1: ‘Wandering out into the World’: Walking the Connected Nation

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

George Eliot, Adam Bede

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Chapter 2: ‘Flying from the grasp’: Embodying the Railway Journey

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret

Chapter 3: ‘It’s all one’? Continental Connections

Charlotte Brontë, The Professor and Villette

Charles Dickens,  Little Dorrit

Chapter 4: ‘The distance is quite imaginary’: Travelling beyond Europe

Charles Dickens,  David Copperfield

Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford

Conclusion: The Mobile Nation of The Moonstone

The Moonstone

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“A fiery devil, thundering along”: HS2 and the Victorians

Over the last few months, debates over the High Speed 2 railway line have been mounting, with a succession of reports on the future of the line following the submission to Parliament of the HS2 bill back in November 2013. I’ve followed with interest the development of the planned line over the last few years, with a focus on two areas that will be affected if the HS2 line goes ahead: where I currently live in Warwickshire, the HS2 line will pass about a mile from the University of Warwick’s campus, cutting across the Kenilworth fields and passing  just north of Leamington Spa; and then further down the route passes a few miles from my hometown in South Bucks, where there remains a campaign to further protect the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), including ancient woodland, which the line traverses. HS2 Studying as I do the Victorian railways, it’s been interesting to see the resonances in response to the HS2 line in the context of arguments surrounding the “coming of the railway” in the 1840s. In particular, it’s been indicative to identify a reiteration of ideas around the railway as a symbol of modernity. For the Victorians, the railway was the most evocative symbol of a new, modern era, often depicted as a “fiery devil, thundering along” (Dombey and Son) that seemed to come from another age and was pernicious in its spread into the furthest corners of the country that had yet been (seemingly) untouched by modernity. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874 – but set earlier in the century), the “projected line was to run through Lowick parish where the cattle had hitherto grazed in a peace unbroken by astonishment” (chapter 56); in Bleak House (1852-53) Dickens depicts an era pivoting on the edge of the railway era, contrasting the rural quietude of a place that is thus far beyond the reach of modernity – “the post-chaise makes its way without a railroad on its mind” – with the anticipation of the coming railway line which will soon change this: “with a rattle and a glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon paler” (chapter 55). Wherever it went, the railway decisively announced that modernity had arrived, and had irrevocably changed the landscape: Dombey and Son shows us a landscape literally torn apart by the new railway line, Staggs’ Gardens “rent to its centre” and in a mess of chaos and confusion as the building of the railway tears houses to dust and creates a chasm in the city landscape.  HS2 sign HS2 poses much the same problem: as in the Victorian period, the requisite of the railway track to follow as straight a line as possible necessitates that everything in the projected path is demolished, moved or transported in order to make way for the tracks. There are countless areas where housing will be knocked down: in Burton Green, the track will cut through “straight as a ruler” and “slice” the village in half; in the Chilterns, the line will “bisect” the AONB although this has been avoided in plans for the northern phase 2 of the route. In this recent episode of Countryfile, farmer Robert Brown is among those to speak of the impact that the line will have on farmland (from c.17 mins in): running through the existing field layout, the route will change the way in which the land is managed and accessed, severing an existing field in two. It’s the same problem faced by the farmers of Middlemarch, who are occupied by “the vivid conception of what it would be to cut the Big Pasture in two, and turn it into three-corned bits, which would be ‘nohow’” (553). Railways don’t just destroy spaces, they change the organisation of space and restructure how it can be moved around.

There are of course crucial differences with the Victorian period, but what is interesting is the perception, as in the Victorian period, that this represents the onset of modernity for rural regions. HS2 does, of course, entail hardhitting and forceful destruction; but at the same time, HS2 is just one component of contemporary modernity’s impact upon the land. Every day, rural (and urban spaces) are being reshaped by the demands of new (and often contested) structures and it can no longer be said (if it could even of the Victorian period) that there are areas “untouched” by modernity: the rural areas through which HS2 travels are no less “modern” than the cities where it originates; modernity is here, now, in the machines that work the land, in the fibre-optic broadband cables that run beneath it, and in the planes that fly overhead. But as in the Victorian era, there is something about the railway that generates a more resonant and deeply felt response: then as now, the railway seems to stand for something more than the sum of their parts, forming an evocative site around which these other ideas about space and modernity coalesce. Railways make visible the latent structures that already permeate and produce the landscapes of modernity: as in the instances above, railways have a tangible impact on the organisations of locales and regions; in the railway network, uneven development becomes visible as those “off the railway” lose out; and in some iterations, the railway even becomes placed as the Moloch-like god of capitalism, which we are asked to view as an “act of faith“.

How the HS2 plans play out in practice has yet to be seen, and there is still time in which some of these impacts can hopefully be reduced, if not averted altogether: the next round of petitioning starts in July, and with near-daily news reports on the case against HS2, it can but be hoped that the government will reassess the situation; meanwhile attention is beginning to turn to phase 2 which will continue the line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, and it will be interesting to see how the impact is perceived in these regions too.

New travel writing reviews

2 new book reviews in the next issue of Studies in Travel Writing: Juliet Johnston’s Victorian Women and the Economies of Travel, Translation and Culture, 1830 – 1870,  an interesting exploration of the interrelations between translation and travel that highlights women’s work as translators in the nineteenth century; and Kathleen McCormack’s George Eliot in Society: Travels Abroad and Sundays at the Priory, an insightful new account into the social activity, at home and abroad, of Eliot’s later years.

George Eliot: guest post on the FWSA blog

George Eliot 2The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association blog recently started an exciting series on historical groundbreaking women, showcasing the life and work of some fascinating and lesser-known figures, and I’m very pleased to have contributed a post on George Eliot. Although Eliot is well known, I’ve tried to offer some thoughts on the complexities of her ‘groundbreaking’ life and work, and to draw out some smaller examples from her fiction that might not be so widely recognised.

And if you haven’t done so already, do go and check out the rest of the series, and indeed the whole blog which is full of excellent feminist content!

Publication: Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture

vn_vol4_2_cover

The latest issue of Victorian Network, “Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture”, is now available. I had the pleasure of guest editing this issue, which was a fantastic job due to both the excellent contributors and editorial board involved. The issue features essays that cover a myriad of themes on sexuality and marriage: fallen women in Gaskell, sexual risk and theatrical performance, masculinity and marital rape in Trollope, ageing and sexual selection in Haggard, pederasty in Wilde, and concealed eroticism in Eliot. My introduction to the issue discusses George Eliot’s Adam Bede and surveys the critical field on sexuality and marriage in Victorian studies.

I hope you enjoy reading the issue as much as I enjoyed putting it together!

“A group of true peasantry?”; Rural Realism and The Village

Peak DistrictI’ve been watching with interest the new BBC series The Village that follows the life of a rural Derbyshire community in the early 20th century. Among the most common response to this seems to be that the series is too depressing and bleak in its portrayal. Now admittedly with at least one death per episode, the background of World War I, and the on-going themes of poverty, domestic violence, criminality and injustice, set against a landscape that is not so much idyllic rolling hills but rather rugged, bleak, and by the looks of things, darned windy… it does not make for cheery Sunday night viewing. But I’m finding it enjoyably refreshing to see a series portray rural life without the twee gloss of rose-tinted nostalgia for an idyllic English past, and instead approaching something closer to the “rural realism” as described by George Eliot.

George Eliot’s early works – Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861) – all focus around rural Midlands locales in the early part of the nineteenth century, and in doing so address a key problem that Eliot had earlier noted as dominating over typical representations of rurality. In 1856, writing in the Westminster Review on Riehl’s Natural History of German Life, Eliot argued that the true condition of the rural classes had been obscured from view:

How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories.  Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry?

There are, she notes, certainly many depictions of the rural peasantry, but these show “the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred”, rather than “the truth of rustic life”:

The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the checkered shade and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale.

Yet, Eliot counters, “no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry”; if we look more closely, we find that

The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humor twinkles, the slow utterance, and the heavy, slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant.  

The rural scenes of Eliot’s early fiction therefore move away from the idyllic towards a closer observation of the conditions of rural life and people. There are certainly instances where we find nostalgia for the rural past creep in as rebuttal to the forces of modernity, most famously in the “old leisure” passage of Adam Bede which looks fondly back on “those old leisurely times” that have gone, “gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars”, and replaced by the steam-engine that “only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in” (AB chapter LII).

But Eliot also complicates this with the harsh realities of rural life, particularly with regards to the moral codes of the community: as she points out in the essay on Riehl, rural simplicity does not beget intrinsic morality, for “to make men moral something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass”. Accordingly, her fiction repeatedly shows up the problems of the moral codes of rural communities, from the suspicion with which “settlers from distant parts” are regarded by a community for whom “the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery” (Silas Marner, chapter 1), to the stringent gendered codes that operate to exclude sexually transgressive women whilst giving slight punishment to the men who are responsible for their wrongdoing (as in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss).

And I think The Village works in this vein of “rural realism”, offering a portrayal that complicates the idyllic simplicity and the intrinsic morality of the countryside with a rather harsher vision of rural life. Particularly notable I’ve felt is this idea of the complicated moral codes that operate within the community: social relations continually shift from a sense of a closely bounded community within the village, to the familial isolation upon the farm, and there’s a similar sense of unstable social codes operating in the shifts between exclusion and inclusion of individuals based on moral judgements that are at times dubious or wrongly biased. In last week’s episode, Grace Middleton’s internal struggle at the religious salvation of her previously violent drunk husband nicely pulled out the complexity of individual emotional responses vs the wider sense of what is “right” in the community, in a way that nicely captured the moral tensions and individual difficulties faced. Throughout, the harsh realities of rural life continually intersect with these themes, coming back to the basic facts of life and death on the farm, whilst recognising the wider forces that are shaping, and shaped by, the rural landscape.

The Village isn’t without its problems – it’s taking me a while to get on board with the Big House family and the obvious move to the “all is not as grand as it seems” theme that seems to preside over most of their story-lines – and it’s not without the occasional vision of “cheery villagers on the green”. But it’s nonetheless an important shift in the representation of rurality, and a welcome turn away from the simplified idyllic vision of the rural past towards something more closely evoking Eliot’s call for a vision of rural realism.

From the archive

I’ve been enjoying The Guardian’s “From the Archive” blog series, which is tracing the history of the paper’s reportage from its beginning in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian, progressing through the years by selecting a highlight from each year every day. They’ve now got to the end of the nineteenth century, and some of my top picks so far have been:

The opening of the Stockton-Darlington railway in 1825, describing in great detail how the “locomotive engine, or steam-horse, as it was more generally termed, gave ‘note of preparation’; the cry of ‘all ready,’ was heard, and the enging with its appendages moved forward”, with “no less than 548 persons” on board.

The return of HMS Beagle from its voyage of discovery from 1825-36, surveying, amongst other things, “the whole coast of Chile and Peru […] no port or road-stead has been omitted,” and completing “a very valuable chain of chronometric measurements”.

A review of Gaskell’s Mary Barton which is decided to be “as a whole, beautifully written” but the “authoress” has worked “gravely against truth, in matters of fact either above her comprehension, or beyond her sphere of knowledge”.

Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition in 1851:”interest and excitement” prevailed throughout the “multitudes” of visitors from all sections of society; “the English showed most curiosity about the foreign half of the exhibition, while foreigners eagerly inspected the British department”.

An 1861 report on Crinoline: A Real Social Evil, in response to “recent deaths resulting from the prevailing fashion among ladies of wearing extended crinolines”, crinoline is here denounced as “responsible for more deaths than any other fashion ever caused”. Deaths by fire, crushing under carriage wheels and in machinery, are nothing compared to the “cases of actual disembowelling from the gashes inflicted by broken steel springs and hoops”.

And another review, this time of George Eliot’s Middlemarch , highly praised as “not a mere intellectual toy, to be smiled over in the drawing-room or coupled with a cigar at the club” but rather a “work of art” to be read and re-read.