In the bicentenary year of writer George Eliot, Professor Ruth Livesey, AHRC Leadership Fellow 2019-20 Provincialism: Literature & Cultural Politics, explores how Eliot was shaped by the education and experience she received while living in the Midlands, and how she believed ‘art had a responsibility to show a provincial life could be just as full of insight and moral courage as one on the great world stage.’
How do we judge success in life? Should we look to its legacy at the end, which is so often, as the case of the heroine Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), ‘incalculably diffusive’; or would a better understanding of what it is to be human come from looking at life in the middle and how we try to live a good life in the tangle of the ordinary and every day?
The writer, George Eliot – 200 this year – asks her readers that hard question again and again in her novels. In my current AHRC research fellowship I’ve been exploring – among other things – how her work was a huge influence on the painter Vincent van Gogh for that very reason. When Van Gogh sent the now iconic ‘Bedroom at Arles’ to his sister, he wrote that he was painting it to describe a working life in full colour like Eliot’s novel Felix Holt, the Radical (1866).
Van Gogh clung to a line he took from Eliot’s hero Felix: ‘I’ve seen behind the word failure’. Writers and artists alike wanted to illuminate the world of the everyday, middling sort of life, with radiant colour. There is a radical demand from both that art should represent that overlooked category of the ‘ordinary’ and show that it can be, to the person experiencing it, extraordinary and full of meaning.
Eliot’s first fiction, The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton (1857) was about a character she described as ‘superlatively middling, the quintessential extract of mediocrity’. One reviewer at the time sniffed that the problem with Eliot was not only that she wrote about shopkeepers and other ‘small people’ in the Midlands town she came from, but that ‘she knowingly forces disagreeable people on us, and insists that we shall be interested in their story by the skill with which it is told’. Art can make us interested in the everyday and change how we value the world around us.
Eliot’s own life story is far from mediocre. Born Mary Ann Evans, on a rented farm outside Nuneaton in the English Midlands in 1819, her intellectual drive and emotional intelligence pulled her into the great intellectual controversies of her day, translating heretical works of German critical thought and editing one of the leading periodicals of her day, before turning to fiction. Eliot left her hometown of Nuneaton for Coventry and then, eventually, London. But her novels are about the lives of those who don’t get to leave their provincial home town or never really make a mark on the world: a situation she herself feared, returning home from school to look after her widowed father until she was nearly 30.
I’m pretty sure that Eliot would have loathed a phrase that gets used a lot about provincial towns now – as places of the ‘left behind’- as if progress is an unproblematic one-way drive towards the metropolis. Eliot’s own extraordinary intellectual career was fed by the rich education and experience she had, for three decades, in the Midlands. I’ve had the great privilege of working with the George Eliot Fellowship in Nuneaton this year, along with the staff at Nuneaton Library, Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, local teachers, artists and theatre companies as we try to enrich understanding of her legacy 200 years on. Like many English towns, the town faces severe economic challenges. A rich and full life of artistic and intellectual expression is there in Nuneaton as elsewhere. The problem is, perhaps, that the civic institutions supporting that life are being squeezed and the kind of stories Eliot told – valuing and representing that life as art in public and on a grand scale – are few and far between.
Eliot wrote her fiction in a state of exile in London, after deciding to live unmarried with the writer George Henry Lewes and being shunned by her family in the Midlands. She knew that provincial life could be small-minded and resistant to change and that there was no going home for her. Yet looking to the political situation of her time she believed art had a responsibility to show a provincial life could be just as full of insight and moral courage as one on the great world stage.
As Britain began to edge – quite unexpectedly – towards something like a democracy in the 1860s, Eliot witnessed a growing hostility to provincialism as an English cultural problem. Provincial towns and cities were associated, by Matthew Arnold and other observers, with an English industrial spirit of bold energy and enterprise but also bumptious insularity and a weak understanding of global cultures.
The artist Gillian Wearing directed a brilliant, unexpected new film about Eliot for the bicentenary and suggested the power of Eliot’s novels was that they make readers feel ‘life from all sides’.
Eliot forces sympathy across cultural divides, teasing readers who might turn away from the petty ordinariness of her characters by suggesting that we are all just as parochial in our own worlds. Deeply sceptical of the effect of any political change, Eliot’s work insists we pause in the middle of things, start to feel the world through another’s experience, and make fresh threads of connection. The starting point for Eliot, as for her ardent admirer, Van Gogh, was that everyone should have the right to be represented as fully human rather than reduced to a mere type and dismissed off-hand.