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A The Apprenticeship of George Eliot: Characterization as Case Study in "Janet's Repentance' J. W. Bennett Jf* I'm a fungal genetidst. My major qualification for being asked to contribute to this volume is that I once taught an experimental colloquium entitled "Biology and Literature." That, and a lot of reading. The last time I wrote anything resembling literary critidsm was a term paper for an undergraduate English class. The training I've received in the intervening twenty-five years has rendered me even less fit for the task than I was then. Nevertheless, I suggest that my text, in and of itself, represents an interdisdplinary synapse. I use the word text self-consdously, clumsih/, like an idiom in a foreign language. I'm aware that outside of the world of sdence there are critics who bring the study of literature into the realm of high technology and who speak tongues called New Critidsm, Post Modernism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, hermeneutics, existential phenomenology, and so forth. We sdentists live back in a simpler time. Most of us still believe (naively) that language is for thought and communication, and that if we use language carefully we will succeed in minimizing distortion of an objective reality. We believe in an objective reality. I have written this essay the way I would normally write a sdentific review article. The direct quotations and the attention to plot are my way of staying dose to the "primary data," which I then organize into a simple hypothesis: George Eliot would have made a good physidan. An excellent * My thanks to Kenneth Collins, Donald Gallent, James Kilroy, Thomas Noble, and Guy Weinberg for reading the manuscript, and to Anthony DiLeo for much needed encouragement. Literature and Medicine 9 (1990) 50-68 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press J. W. Bennett 51 observer, she direds her gift of language toward accurate description of human nature, induding some of the diseases to which it is prone. "Janet's Repentance" is the third of three novellas in Scenes of Clerical Life, her first work of fiction. It tells the story of Edgar Tryan, a charismatic Evangelical clergyman, and his impact on the town of Milby, a traditional Anglican community around the year 1830. The opposition to him is led by Robert Dempster, one of the town's lawyers. Janet is Mrs. Dempster, a battered wife who finds solace only in alcohol until the Rev. Tryan leads her to sobriety. Upon publication in 1857 Scenes of Clerical Life received immediate, though modest, popular and critical acclaim. Its ludd portraits of "real" people (many of George EIiof s works, espedally her earlier ones, draw heavily on people and places she herself had known) brought notoriety to those portrayed and generated speculation about the identity of the new author with the unique voice. The voice remains unique to this day, and far more than with most novelists, some biographical context is important . Born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire in 1819, George Eliot was raised in a severely religious family. Her father, Robert Evans, a man of exceptional integrity, industry, and intelligence, doted on his gifted but homely daughter. At boarding school in Nuneaton, Mary Ann came under the influence of Maria Lewis, a teacher and a disdple of the Rev. John Edmond Jones, a local Evangelical dergyman, the model for Mr. Tryan in "Janet's Repentance." At the age of thirteen, Mary Ann underwent a conversion—"the conviction that one was utterly sinful and could be saved from hell only by accepting the atonement of Christ."1 At age sixteen she returned home to nurse her sick mother, after whose death she became her father's housekeeper, managing house and dairy, engaging in local charities, reading widely in theology, and studying German, French, Italian , Greek, and Latin. After Robert Evans retired they moved to Folsehill outside of Coventry . During these years, under the influence of progressive, unorthodox friends, she underwent an un-conversion, away from traditional Christianity . In 1844 she was offered the opportunity to translate David Friedrich Strauss's Leben Jesu. She worked at this for two years, all the while nursing her ailing father. When it appeared in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 50-68
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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