Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Melodramatic Transformation: George Eliot and the Refashioning of Mansfield Park

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Melodramatic Transformation: George Eliot and the Refashioning of Mansfield Park

Article excerpt

I

THE NIGHT BEFORE SHE EMBARKED on writing the central narrative of one of her earliest short stories, George Eliot recorded in her journal that she had just finished reading Austen's Mansfield Park (Noble 137). Since Christmas Day of 1856, Eliot had been working on "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story," the second of her experiments in fiction-writing after the success in Blackwood's Magazine of her first short story, "Amos Barton." Eliot had begun "Amos Barton" in September of that year, under the magisterial eye of her lover (and eminent literary critic), George Henry Lewes. Lewes had shepherded Eliot's first story to John Blackwood, editor of Blackwood's Magazine, in November 1856, offering the story under the guise of its being written by a male "clerical friend" who wished to remain anonymous (Karl 240). Now, in early February of 1857, Eliot had just completed the first chapter of "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story," a chapter that sets out the seemingly arid life of an elderly clergyman.

It is thus a curious and hardly noted fact of literary history that Eliot's second attempt at fiction, "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story," was written as Eliot received nightly visitations from Jane Austen's voice, for from January 1857 on, Eliot and Lewes, a confirmed Janeite, read aloud together all the novels of Jane Austen (with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, which Eliot had read previously) (Haight 225). (1) They were reading Mansfield Park just as Eliot began the long central narrative of her story that relates the sad and melodramatic history of Caterina Sarti. This reading program was almost certainly proposed by Lewes, who considered Austen a matchless author, and who wished Eliot to know Austen's work better. However, Lewes's enthusiasm for Austen was not (seemingly) matched by Eliot herself, who had written in 1853 of Austen's limitations thus:

[She] shows[s] us too much of the littlenesses and trivialities of life, and limit [s] [herself] so scrupulously of the sayings and doings of dull, ignorant, and disagreeable people that their very truthfulness makes us yawn. They fall short of fulfilling the objects ... of Fiction in its highest aspect, ... to "take man from the low passions and miserable troubles of life into a higher region, ... to excite a generous sorrow at vicissitudes not his own, to raise the passions into sympathy with heroic troubles, and to admit the soul into that serener atmosphere from which it rarely returns to ordinary existence without some memory ... which ought to enlarge the domain of thought, and exalt the motives of action." (Eliot, "The Progress of Fiction," 358-59; qtd. in Southam 145-46) (2)

We have no direct evidence about whether Eliot substantially changed her mind about Austen during her joint reading marathon of Austen's novels with Lewes in early 1857. But the indirect evidence of the story she wrote under the influence of Mansfield Park, "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story," is compelling. For "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story" recasts the narrative of Mansfield Park in ways that reveal Eliot's project of correcting Austen's deficiencies by "rais[ing] the passions into sympathy with heroic troubles." To do so, Eliot must retell Mansfield Park in what she clearly felt was a more emotionally realistic way. Ironically, Eliot's attempt to remedy what she sees as Austen's deficient realism leads her directly into the conventions of melodrama, and led her to create a story almost unreadable today because of its extravagant affective appeals; Mansfield Park, the source material for the story, while attacked by many twentieth-century critics for its alignment with too-prudish values and emotional restraint, is generally judged a masterpiece of social realism. I will suggest that the aesthetic and emotional values at stake in Eliot's attempt to better Austen's "realism" make "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story" a vital milestone in the history of the nineteenth-century realist novel.

II

Melodrama as a genre had its first substantial flowering in the mid-seventeenth century in the form of narratives which constituted a cultural response to capitalism's growing split between production and personal, domestic life. …

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