- The Thrill of the Trill:Political and Aesthetic Discourse in George Eliot's Armgart
The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time; the shipwright who drives his bolts well home in sound wood; the builder who lays good bricks in well-tempered mortar; the housewife who takes care of her furniture in the parlour, and guards against all waste in her kitchen; and the singer who rightly disciplines, and never overstrains her voice, are all political economists in the true and final sense: adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong.(Ruskin 181)
Opening their analysis of George Eliot's dramatic poem Armgart (1870), Susan J. Leonardi and Rebecca A. Pope lament that "most of the commentary [that we] have reads it in the context of the novels" (74). Yet criticism of the poem from feminist to biographical has in recent years increased immensely, and the conversation around it has developed in several different directions.1 Not merely an introspective warm-up to Daniel Deronda (1876) or a "therapeutic exercise"2 for the author while composing Middlemarch (1871-72), it deserves attention in its own right primarily for its political ambiguities. Armgart demonstrates Eliot's aversion to popular tastes and those who attempt to capitalize on gratifying them, especially in a political theatre. But it also affirms a woman's ability to participate in public venues and stir audiences with her natural talent and passion. Accepting that the poem is comprised of an irresolvable equivocality, I attempt to interpret that tension. The poem can be read as a caveat against the democratization of English political and cultural institutions, a response to the general atmosphere of reform and the diffusion of popular aesthetics in the late 1860s. Shifting the critical discussion of the poem away from a focus on gender alone, I read it in the context of the popular theatre and ultimately the Reform Act of 1867. Eliot's high seriousness and her arguments against popular movements, political and artistic, are explicit and well documented.3 But Armgart lends itself to an allegorical reading of political discourse, governance, and cultural populism in a way that helps specify the exact locus of its ambiguity. [End Page 116]
Armgart is the story of a successful opera singer who rejects wedlock because it would relegate her to domestic life, quash her voice, and crush her dreams. A proposal from Graf Dornberg comes with assurances that he will respect her art, but Armgart rightly understands that he follows conventional Victorian assumptions regarding a woman's domestic place and that his interest in her is strongly related to a perverse need to capture and tame a public female figure. When the verse drama opens, Armgart is returning from playing Orpheus in Gluck's opera; during her performance, she had impassioned the crowd by augmenting her performance with what her musical mentor Leo considers a cheap thrill, a trill. For this he berates her, accusing her of pandering to the audience's unlearned tastes while indulging her ego and flaunting her ambition. Armgart does not deny the charge, implicitly linking her improvisations with her imperious, rebellious nature. That nature, in turn, is linked explicitly to her refusal of Graf. At this point, it is easy to read Armgart's rebelliousness as authorially endorsed. But then she loses her singing voice. The precise reason why she loses her ability to perform is unclear, but the trill or the kind of discourse that the trill represents seems to bring on her debilitating illness. Losing her public voice can be read as punishment for exercising her ego. The verse drama ends on a redemptive note when Armgart realizes that teaching others how to sing, how to find their voice, one at a time, will appease the anguish of having to resign the stage. Her "voice"4 has been destroyed, but not totally and not by marriage. She will replace public performance by teaching in private homes, but she has not given up her vocation in order to marry.5
Readings of the poem tend to divide themselves up between those that emphasize Eliot's championing of an...