Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Saints' Everlasting Rest: The Martyrdom of Maggie Tulliver

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Saints' Everlasting Rest: The Martyrdom of Maggie Tulliver

Article excerpt

Saints and martyrs had never interested Maggie so much as sages and poets. She knew little of saints and martyrs, and had gathered, as a general result of her teaching, that they were a temporary provision against the spread of Catholicism and had all died at Smithfield.

--George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss 286)

Most contemporary scholarship on Victorian literature is very much aware of the sophisticated understandings--and innovative uses--of genre to be found in these texts, yet the importance of hagiography as a rhetorical resource for nineteenth-century writers remains largely unexplored. While it is therefore unsurprising that hagiography should not be included in the section devoted to genre in the Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture (1999), it is nevertheless remarkable that it receives no mention in accounts of Victorian "life writing" and "sage writing" appearing in the same volume. Such genres, after all, are undoubtedly related to the hagiographic tradition--broadly speaking, writing that represents the lives of exceptional figures in order to inspire a similar striving after "the highest and the best" (Eliot, The Mill on the Floss 471). Although the rhetorical possibilities offered by hagiography as a genre have been masterfully examined by Charles LaPorte in the context of Victorian poetry, no similar attempt has been made to theorize the relevance of such textual models to the major Victorian prose genres--a peculiar oversight, considering the more obvious generic resemblances between hagiographic writing and nineteenth-century prose narratives.

It is particularly surprising that generic relations between hagiography and the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman have not attracted more critical attention, for suggestive parallels exist between these two text-types: both focus on the formation of individuals, whose lives are often conceived of in terms of a journey; there is in both kinds of writing an emphasis on the interiority of their subjects, and turning points, or moments of revelation, are usually readily identifiable. Structural similarities aside, the larger rhetorical functions of the two genres are remarkably congruent: hagiographic narratives and novels of development both employ textually-mediated manifestations of personality in order to affirm a particular system of values, and to provide suitable models for emulation. Widely recognized as the definitive Bildungsroman, Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1821) gestures to the intimate relationship between the two genres by means of its very constitution: by embedding the "Confessions of a Fair Saint" within the novel, (1) Goethe quite explicitly invites us to explore the generic affiliations between hagiography and the Bildungsroman. This essay attempts to respond to this invitation by considering George Eliot's engagement with the notion of hagiography in The Mill on the Floss (1860).

To be sure, Eliot's interest in the concept of sainthood and hagiography has not gone entirely unnoticed, and several noteworthy studies have registered and elaborated on the comparison between Dorothea Brooke and St. Theresa in Middlemarch (1871-72). Robert Damm and Hilary Fraser usefully suggest the potential value of studying the function of hagiographic discourse in Eliot's writing, but Damm leaves the crucial link between sainthood and writing unexplored, while Fraser confines her study to the way in which hagiographic references to a particular saint (St. Theresa) contribute to the characterization of Dorothea. Building on such studies as Damm's and Fraser's in order to revise the limited role that R. J. Schork assigns to hagiography in Eliot's writing, (2) my own essay examines Eliot's sustained meditation in The Mill on the Floss on the question of what it might mean to construct a "saintly" life in nineteenth-century England, and proposes that her peculiar Bildungsroman can profitably be read as an exercise in modern hagiography--an attempt to adapt this longstanding tradition of Christian writing for modern, secular ends. …

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