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George Eliot and the story of provincial life

Brexit. Trump. The gilet jaunes. In a world that seems increasingly fragmented between the largely liberal culture of the city and the more conservative values of our small towns and provinces, it's perhaps worth remembering that we've been here before - and one of our greatest novelists has got plenty to say about how to bridge the gulf between the two.

George Eliot
Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Laurence, circa 1860. Credit: Commons Wikimedia/Samuel Lawrence

George Eliot – the pen name of Mary Anne Evans - was an English novelist, poet and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. Although she was largely writing for the educated urban elite, her work focused on provincial life in the English Midlands.

“She is one of the great European novelists,” says Ruth Livesey, Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature and Thought in the Department of English, Royal Holloway, University of London and a new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Leadership Fellow.

Professor Livesey will be using her time as a Leadership Fellow to explore the writing of Eliot and others and how the idea of provincialism is reflected in their work. The research will tell a story of how provincial life became tied up with an idea of Englishness and English literature that travelled round the globe as a result of colonialist education.

“Eliot gives you not just an escape from the everyday, but a way of seeing the world in a new way; she takes you away but takes you back as well, and that's what great art does,” says Professor Livesey.

“She takes everyday life and turns it into art. She takes the lives of people living in unfashionable, ordinary places and shows the reader that it is worth looking at.”

George Eliot was writing in an era when the world was changing fast. Technology was advancing at a ferocious pace and long held assumptions about the way in which society was bonded together were being eroded as the country became more and more secular.

As now, many people felt uneasy, adrift and alienated from their fellow Britons.

“Eliot used fiction as way of showing the reader the world from another person's point of view,” says Professor Livesey.

She forced readers to confront their prejudices and expectations”

says Professor Livesey

For example, the first half of Middlemarch is concerned with its beautiful young heroine as she marries the wrong man and begins to realise her mistake; while she thinks he will take her into his exciting intellectual world, in reality he is selfish and remote.

“But then the perspective shifts and the narrator shifts to looking at events from his point of view,” says Professor Livesey. “And this is very clever because it takes our assumption that we should be interested in the young and the beautiful and flips it on its head.

Of course, this has a particular relevance for the world we live in now. “One of the straplines for the project is 'investigating provincialism',” says Professor Livesey. “This is a word you rarely heard until very recently. The last time ‘provincialism’ was used to dismiss some forms of art and thinking was back in the 1960s: it’s the title Kenneth Clark gave to a lecture series back then and it hovers around as a critical term in his famous BBC series Civilisation to describe a state of mind.

“But then all of sudden, around the time of the Brexit vote, suddenly it was everywhere. It's suddenly so current – this idea of the metropolitan and non metropolitan divide, of cultural hierarchies.”

George Eliot's home
A drawing of where George Eliot grew up.

Eliot has a lot to say about this schism because she grew up in a household on the edge of Nuneaton, far away from the sophistication of London. And while her father was a self-made businessman on the up, he had very little education. All her early work was set in this milieu: quiet, semi-rural, 'uncultured'.

“As a young woman she left this world and said that she'd rather commit suicide than go back,” says Professor Livesey. “But although she did leave her fame was based on her very loving portrayals of that geographically specific, limited world.”

While some people have described her writing as nostalgic, this was by no means the whole story. “She forced readers to confront their prejudices and expectations,” says Professor Livesey. “She forced them to question their own perceived objectivity and asked the question: how can we understand other people's views unless we really understand them and their lives?”

But despite her continuing relevance and importance Eliot is still not celebrated in the same way as her contemporary, Charles Dickens - something Professor Livesey would like to change.

“For me one of the drivers behind my research was being aware of how much happened around the bicentenary of Charles Dickens in 2012,” she says. “There were celebrations across the media and that was wonderful.

“But I knew that when the Eliot bicentenary came in 2019 the situation would be very different and I was interested in why: what is it about Dickens work that has such a strong pull?

“If you say 'Dickensian' people know what you mean. But you can't use 'Eliot' in the same way; and we should be able to! It should be a way of describing sympathy and empathy.

“Plus, just as Dickens' work is all about London, Eliot's is all about her home. And just as something of Dickens' London remains in modern London, bits of Warwickshire still have some continuity with what Eliot wrote about in the nineteenth century. And yet the media coverage will not be there this year in the same way.”

In that way cultural power is still unevenly distributed and the stories that Eliot wanted to tell are still not being told. How can you make brilliant art about the dull and everyday and still make people totally absorbed?

“Where are the great novels about life in places like Peterborough, Ipswich, Derby? There are brilliant new voices out there, but how much harder is it to breakthrough as a writer of places that aren’t big cities, exotic, or extreme?,” says Professor Livesey.

“Their absence is a real cultural problem - and a real political problem as well.”

Associated image: Elliot Brown on Flickr.

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