Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

George Eliot, Early and Late

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

George Eliot, Early and Late

Article excerpt

This review essay assesses two recently published studies that examine the public image of George Eliot early and late in her career: Fionnuala Dillane's /Before George Eliot: Marian Evans and the Periodical Press and Kathleen McCormack's George Eliot in Society: Travels Abroad and Sundays at the Priory. These books are linked thematically by their interest in Eliot's attempt to shape her public image. Dillane argues that, early in her career, Marian Evans was limited in the control she had in this area, as journalistic constraints, coupled with a reticence for being interviewed, made it difficult for her to influence public opinion. McCormack demonstrates how, in the last decade of her life, Evans was able to use her travels and the salons that she and George Henry Lewes held at their home to become known to a wide circle of literary figures and intellectuals. McCormack's study is especially important because it changes impressions of her created by earlier scholarship, especially Gordon Haight's biography, and demonstrates that, far from being a social outcast, in her last years Evans was immersed in society and used her social connections to shape her public image.

Fionnuala Dillane, Before George Eliot: Marian Evans and the Periodical Press (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 270 pp., $95.00 cloth.

Kathleen McCormack, George Eliot in Society: Travels Abroad and Sundays at the Priory (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2013), 178 pp., $55.95 cloth.

These two important contributions deal with opposite ends of George Eliot's career. Before George Eliot examines the rather neglected period when Marian Evans was making her way as an editor and then briefly as a freelance journalist in London before she became a novelist. By contrast, George Eliot in Society looks at the Leweses Sunday afternoon salons at the Priory and their travel to foreign spas in the last decade of her career when she was already firmly established as George Eliot, the writer of Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Romola, and Felix Holt, the Radical.

Fionnaula Dillane's Before George Eliot examines Marian Evans' relationship with the periodical press and the personae she constructed, including the '"character of editress' (Evans' own ironic description); the ambiguously gendered reviewer; the casuist and companion of her clerical scenes who is at once obvious and opaque"; and finally the "pompous city bachelor Theophrastus Such" (6). Dillane argues that in the early work the often fractured, evasive, and inconsistent voices that emerge are much influenced by and are a product of the need to conform to the medium, and to entertain and maintain the interest of audiences constructed as markets by the corporate periodical and publishing industries.

A closely-argued first chapter discusses authority and audience-making in the format and layout of The Westminster Review in the early 1850s and examines the influence of Marian Evans as the elusive and ambiguously placed "editress," mostly invisible and working in the shadow of the notional editor John Chapman. Although Dillane recognizes the impossibility of understanding fully the extent of Evans' work at The Westminster--her journal from this time is missing and the records from The Westminster have not been preserved--she draws on evidence from letters and the pages of individual installments to argue that Evans was to all intents and purposes the real editor of the Review. A detailed discussion of her correspondence with contributors helps clarify the extent of her role and shows her awareness of the need to balance the expression of individual opinions with the corporate demands of the periodical voice itself, determined largely by the patrons, subscribers, and the market. Though she ultimately has little control over content, Evans is seen intervening incisively in the articles of contributors while remaining conscious of the limitations of the editorial role, and it was she who made sure that contributors got paid for their work. …

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