- George Eliot and the Discourses of Medievalism
Judith Johnston examines George Eliot's professed realism in the light of resemblances in her plots and characters to their medieval counterparts. Eliot's library and note books reveal marked passages, marginal notes and comments, which Johnston employs extensively to suggest effects of medieval texts and Victorian interpretations of medieval literature and life. She sees Eliot's use of medievalism as not 'merely illustrative' but 'more complex and revelatory' (p. 3), related to contemporary interests and the belief that changes in Victorian society resembled those of the movement from medieval to modern society. In a general chapter, 'Formations, Definitions, and Critical Responses' (pp. 15–49), and six chapters on characters, Johnston illustrates her findings chiefly from Eliot's last novels, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Throughout the book, Johnston comments on implications of names of places and characters and on recurring words such as 'ardent', applied to characters in both novels.
Eliot clearly defines the backgrounds of her novels, and it is interesting to see how Johnston relates medieval forms to comments on such matters as the introduction of the Reform Bill of 1832 and debates on women's freedoms. She discovers 'shaping discourses' (p. 26), and compares the novels to medieval works, finding, for instance that the depiction of clergymen in Middlemarch resembles that of The Canterbury Tales (pp. 33–4), and that both works depict 'a progress, [End Page 145] or journey' (p. 35). Although the background of Daniel Deronda is realistic, its form is romance, and its characters 'rarities', which Johnston compares to those of Arthurian legend and Havelok the Dane.
Accounts of characters offer more detailed comparisons. Eliot was interested in legends of the saints, revealed particularly in her study of Anna Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art and acquaintance with its author. In 'Dorothea Brooke and Medieval Hagiography' (pp. 53–76) references to Teresa, Barbara, Clara, Dorothea and the Virgin Mary link Dorothea to holy women, especially Theresa. However, Johnston describes Middlemarch as an account of its characters' failures and St Teresa as remarkably successful. The need to speak of paradoxes and to assert contrasts rather than resemblances to the lives of saints strains some threads of this chapter.
'Will Ladislaw and Medieval Allegory' (pp. 77–99) begins by investigating the name 'Will', chiefly associating it with William Langland and Piers Plowman and allegorical names in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Johnston also sees Ladislaw as a figure in medieval courtly romance, an imperfect hero in his quest for truth. The medieval references may be emphasised or undercut by hints such as a reminder of 'The Miller's Tale' (p. 80) and the somewhat comic idea of Casaubon as a dragon (p. 88–9), perhaps crunching bones (p. 93). Johnston also explores the ideas of disguise, practised by both Will and Dorothea.
Other critics have noted allusions to John Lydgate and his shortcomings in the name 'Tertius Lydgate', and the name grows sadly fitting as the doctor's marriage and career fall short of his high-minded ambitions; like Dorothea and Will, he is described as 'ardent'. In 'Tertius Lydgate and Medieval Exemplum' (pp. 101–20) Johnston extends medieval comparisons to show Lydgate as an exemplum, and as a bel inconnu, suited to Rosamond Vincy, whose ambitions seem rather to be pretensions. Eliot's selection of an epigraph from 'The Wife of Bath's Prologue' (p. 119) offers devastating comment.
'Daniel Deronda's Chivalric Quest' (pp. 121–42) places that character in the tradition of courtly romance. Daniel too is a bel inconnu; points of similarity with romance include the changes in his life and search for his identity; the account of his childhood resembles hagiography (p. 129). Dream-like scenes such as Mirah's rescue are nevertheless fixed in reality by specific details of time and place, in descriptions resembling the Pre-Raphaelite art Eliot admired. Johnston considers Daniel's passivity and activity and his involvement with secular and spiritual chivalry. [End Page 146]