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“The Higher Inward Life”

George Eliot’s Middlemarch


Georges Letissier


Collection Intercalaires Agrégations d'anglais

Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2020

Broché. 251 p. ISBN 978-2840163787. 13 €


Reviewed by Maria Tang

Université Rennes 2




George Eliot features regularly as an author on the syllabus of the prestigious Agrégation d’anglais examination in France, and Georges Letissier’s monograph on Middlemarch, written on the occasion of the 2019-2021 programme on which the novel appears, is published as part of the Intercalaires collection of the Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre that is aimed primarily, although by no means exclusively, at candidates preparing the competitive examination. The challenge of bringing George Eliot up to date for the twenty-first century has been taken up by numerous critics over the last several years (K. Chase, Middlemarch in the Twenty-first Century, 2006; K.M. Newton, Modernizing George Eliot, 2011, and George Eliot for the Twenty-First Century, 2018) and Letissier adds his voice to the chorus in a contribution which never loses sight of the pedagogical imperative to provide the student with the requisite tools of literary analysis and fill in the necessary critical background of over a hundred years of Eliot criticism, while also opening up the work to contemporary theoretical preoccupations. It is no small task, but Letissier does not set out to be exhaustive and offers instead a balanced combination of close-reading and wider-ranging analyses drawn from a selected range of critical sources. The monograph is informed throughout by the stated purpose of foregrounding Eliot’s “engagement with intellectual reflection” [12] in a novel that registers the friction between the aspired-to “higher inward life” and the “pilulous smallness” of the material world [14].

A swift recapitulation of the novel’s genesis and a synopsis of the critical reception of Middlemarch in the late 19th and 20th centuries, necessarily selective, in the first chapter, points the student towards such key critics as Henry James, W.J. Harvey, and David R. Carroll, with their conflicting appraisals of the novel’s artistic unity or lack thereof. The ensuing “brief foray into genetic criticism” [28] relies rather heavily on Jerome Beaty’s well-known study of Eliot’s revisions of chapter 81; however, the changes highlighted by Letissier, which concern those that Eliot made seemingly to soften the portrait of Rosamond, serve the author’s overriding concern to demonstrate Eliot’s commitment to “the higher inward life” even to the point of having the narcissistic Rosamond “rise to a higher dimension of being” [31].

Chapter 2 explores the novel’s generic plurality with a view to elucidating Eliot’s particular brand of realism. From its “humble” chronicle-like features that have only recently been highlighted, right up to the novel’s heralding of “the epistemological scepticism of post-modernism” [51], the “architectonics” [39] of Middlemarch’s multiple plotlines are sounded for their mythological subtexts, the archetypes of genre criticism, and the sensationalist tropes of melodrama. While the chapter mines some of the classics of Eliot criticism for its premises, such as Avrom Fleischman’s George Eliot’s Intellectual Life and David Lodge’s well-known article on “Middlemarch and the Idea of the Classic Realist Text” (a move which attests to Letissier’s pedagogical concern to equip the student with the key landmarks in the Eliotian critical canon), his analysis of the novel’s multiplexity is not limited to rehearsing the standard lines. A tantalising reflection on a number of “ghost narratives” which “haunt the novel” – the negated, stifled, and otherwise aborted narrative ramifications that have the reader “speculating” – is an occasion for a fruitful rapprochement of Eliot, Derrida, and their mutual influence, Feuerbach (whom Derrida quotes in his Spectres de Marx, Letissier reminds us), and the insightful observation that in Middlemarch the “speculative level is part and parcel of the multiplot” [40].

Alongside an analysis of the function of the chapter mottoes and a review of Eliot’s own ideas about ‘Form in Art’, this chapter also provides the Agrégation student with a timely reminder that such pregnant concepts as “realism” require careful definition before they are used. Differentiating between the many “different strands of realism… domestic realism…; social realism; moral realism; realism… relying on a method of induction” [47], Letissier offers the caveat that “there is no ‘realism’ in the absolute, that ‘realism’ is always context-based, informed by current cultural representations, epistemological filters, ideological screens and so on” [47]; and he reminds us that for Eliot the opposite of realism was not idealism but “falsism” [42]. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Science in Middlemarch as both theme and method, once again offering a useful synopsis of a seminal critical text, Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots, in a concise appraisal of the tension between “natural history” and “natural science” as opposing paradigms for the novel’s conception. Affirming the “consubstantial bond between the scientific and the literary imagination” which produces what he refers to alternately as the “scientific sublime” and as “Romantic materialism”, “the idea that mystery is lodged within the confines of the material universe” [53], Letissier concludes the chapter by noting that “Middlemarch’s world is… post-Darwinian” [55] insofar as the ruthlessly exploitative community is far from harmonious. Its multiple plots set in motion actions whose effects are incommensurate and not necessarily meliorative. Letissier’s remark that “the power of motion… is not the same thing as progress” [56] is a distinction that could prove useful for future teachers of English in France where “the Idea of Progress”, until recently a theme on the English cultural syllabus in lycées, still informs the curriculum.

Chapters 3 and 4 perform the delicate balancing act of both providing a summary of the novel’s multiple interweaving plot lines while imparting astute interpretive insights gleaned from numerous microtextual close readings. In this way the author models the systole and diastole movement (to borrow an Eliotian image) between micro-analysis and the broader thematic considerations which the Agrégation student must also master. “Stealth” is the unifying motif of chapter 3’s synopses of the first half of the novel (books 1 to 4), alluding to Eliot’s oblique, lateral, or indirect modes of characterisation and plot development. Instead of giving us the book titles and unpacking their polysemous meanings as critics often do, Letissier places each book under the aegis of a key word or concept foregrounded in each (middleness, liminality, optics and vision, interlacement) and organises the synopsis around it. This allows him to acknowledge the standard critical interpretations of each book’s key moments while also teasing out the finer details among the more familiar narrative threads to offer insightful angles on such well-known tropes as the pier-glass, the image of entwinement, or the labyrinth (which, it is shown, Eliot employs as a ‘contronym’).

Chapter 4, “Towards moral sympathy”, turns away from the mechanisms of plot established in the first part of the novel, to probe the intensifying engagement with moral issues in the latter half. Letissier once again pulls off the feat of focusing the proliferating events of books 5 to 8 through a number of conceptual prisms that provide the student with convenient handles on the text, such as the dual motifs of the echo (the choric and anonymous voice of rumour) and of dialogic introspection that characterise the aptly named “collective soundscape” [90] of book 5; or the materiality of objects that are almost invested with a narrative life of their own, as epitomised in the auction scene in book 6, which blurs the boundary between the human and the material and affords a critical nod, albeit somewhat fleetingly, in the direction of the 21st-century “material turn” in literary criticism. The framing of the Finale as a “parergon” – an inscription complementary to the main work – occasions a nice “French touch” with the evocation of Jacques Derrida’s essay “The Parergon” and the idea that what this Finale exemplifies is less a tying up of loose ends than a “call[ing] into question [of] the work’s autonomy, its harmonious self-sufficiency” [104]. This Derridean detour illustrates the specific and insightful contributions to be made to the English literary critical canon by scholars working in European or non-Anglo-Saxon critical and philosophical traditions.

Chapter 5 turns to a closer examination of narrative structure with a neat summary of the successive critical perspectives on the ideological implications of Eliot’s realism. The overview extends from the scholarship of critics such as Barbara Hardy, whose bid to rehabilitate Eliot’s reputation in the mid-20th century underscored the overarching unity of the novel, through Colin MacCabe’s view of the novel as a politically conservative “classic realist text”, to the deconstructionism of J. Hillis Miller and its emphasis on the rifts and points of rupture that undermine the representation of a harmonious, organic whole. Between these critical poles, Letissier situates his own work in the current of more recent criticism that “has endeavoured to strike a balance between self-deconstructive aspects and the persistence of a rhetorically consistent novel” [109]. The chapter’s exploration of the structural function of character is heavily indebted to the chapters ‘Character and form’ and ‘Possibilities’ of Barbara Hardy’s seminal 1959 monograph on Eliot, to which Letissier brings a new freshness, however, in suggesting that the non-actualised narrative possibilities that “ghost” the novel without ever coming to fruition, bear “the mark of Darwinism” [116], an observation that is surely informed by our contemporary environmental concern with the trope of extinction, albeit only narrative. Discussion of the structural function of the quintessentially Eliotian tropes and metaphors of labyrinth, web, and water, and of the prevalence of the visual motif of perception, rehearses the familiar tension between how such symbolism at once bestows an internal cohesiveness on the text while also enacting the fractures and limitations of the totalising impulse. The student will find all the key quotations regarding Eliot’s use of imagery gathered up here, alongside a timely corrective to postmodernist readings that Letissier rightly states may have been too prompt to claim Eliot for their own deconstructionist agenda insofar as they overlook the novelist’s close familiarity with 19th-century visual culture, itself a sufficient justification for her reticence to endorse “the possibility of arriving at a common vision” [127].

Chapter 6’s use of the theme of family and inheritance as a device for exploring the mechanics of the “multi-storied” plots of Middlemarch shows how the text works to “jam” the ordinary workings of the “family romance” as well as to question the historical legal underpinnings of primogeniture that have ensured the circulation of wealth and property in Britain since Roman times. This chapter is exemplary of Letissier’s wonderfully pedagogical approach. Along the way the student who may be unfamiliar with Victorian literary culture is given valuable contextual information on the prevalence of the figures of the double and of the orphan in Victorian literature, or of the melodramatic clichés based on chance and contrived coincidence that uncover unsuspected familial connections, all of which Eliot adapts to her own original ends. Discussion of the sensationalist “narrative enclaves” [136] embedded within the realist framework stresses how sensationalism has not only a dramatic role in the novel but occasions a more metaphysical reflection on the “fumbling and frustrated endeavours to chart human destiny in a world exposed to the erratic whims of chance and contingency” [137] as well as the ethical “consequentialist dimension” [140] which construes deeds as offspring that “live and act apart from our own will”, in the words of Charles Bray.

The overview of Middlemarch’s dramatis personae in chapter 7 is almost exhaustive in scope and abundantly illustrated, taking in not only the main and minor characters, but even wondering whether such nonhuman entities as pets and houses may not also qualify for inclusion as “synecdochic extensions” of their owners [152]. Eliot’s already well-documented analogical and contrastive methods of characterisation occupy a central place in the demonstration, alongside the mental “dioramas” through which the intense inner life of the characters’ minds is elicited. The emphasis throughout is on the dynamic quality of character depiction in the Eliotian text, but Letissier also conveys a sense of the writer’s voracious incorporation of other, more static or mechanistic, Dickensian modes of character portrayal which act almost as a foil to the novelist’s own sense of character as “a process and an unfolding”. The prism of character also affords an opportunity to draw up a taxonomy of the novel’s social clusters of clergymen and physicians, as well as those figures of the artist which initiate an “intersemiotic debate” [178] in the novel, a pretext for Eliot to indulge a number of metatextual reflections on the very process of characterisation itself. Letissier detects a proto-Modernist quality in her rendering of character [180], with its emphasis on the fluctuating and indeterminate contours of the self as exemplified by Will Ladislaw’s wavering, or Rosamond’s penchant for theatrical “somatic performances” that will entail nothing less than “[t]he disappearance of a foundational self” so that, as he cogently and intriguingly puts it, “ontology dissolves into dramaturgy” [182].

The chapter on gender, “Goose and gander”, highlights the “Bakhtinian double-voicedness” [186] of Eliot’s treatment of the vexatious “woman question” in its temporal, social, and biological dimensions. Investigating the “temporal ellipsis” between the time of the novel’s writing, the 1860s, which witnessed the increasing demands of the suffragists for women’s rights, and the benighted condition of women’s educational standards in the 1830s, the time of the narrated events, Letissier shows how the novel sheds light on the [lack of] progress made in the condition of women in the intervening years. In a subsection flagged as overtly “intersectional” [194], however anachronistic that term might appear by Victorian standards, social class is investigated through “a female lens” following the example of Herodotus who also “thought it well to take a woman’s lot for his starting-point” [Middlemarch : 89]. The social invisibility or marginality of women from the lower and middle classes, who can only observe from the side-lines the doings of the male characters, is taken as a paradigm for the issue of social exclusion in general, be it of the labouring Dagleys or the aspiring middle-classes, embodied by Rosamond, hankering after social elevation and nurturing fantasies of empowerment. Plentiful micro-analyses probing the porous interface between conventionally feminine and masculine traits in characters such as Ladislaw and Farebrother, as well as other means whereby Eliot explodes essentialist ideas about such notions as “women’s influence”, underpin the central assertion about the primacy of “indefiniteness” as the mark of the feminine in Middlemarch. Letissier offers an unabashedly “gynocentric” reading of the novel that, in common with the writings of Hélène Cixous, reposes upon Eliot’s rejection of the “principle of non-contradiction”, seen as a premise of patriarchal discourse [206].

The monograph culminates with a magisterial section on the “sonority” of this “heteroglossic novel” by demonstrating through meticulous explications de texte the intricate interweaving of the voices of the omnipresent, but not omnipotent, narrator, the anonymous vox populi ­or “town’s talk”, and the intimate “inward colloquy” of individual characters. The narrative voice is presented as less of a hectoring presence than criticism may have led us to believe and is positioned rather as a witness that is wary of the pitfalls of language and often reluctant to commit to a monologic statement of how things are. The Eliotian narrator is dialogic, double-voiced, entertaining a certain complicity with the smug Victorian voice of “common sense” while also declaring his/her nonconformism and being self-reflexively “engrossed in the process of literary creation” [221]. The varied nuances of the collective voice of Middlemarch are reviewed, from the regional to the professional, from the hyperbolic to the epigrammatic, right down to the voices of the nonhuman – the echoes of the hammer, the roar of the furnace – that make up Caleb Garth’s personal “aural memory” [225]. Gossip, meanwhile, and the “terrifying… utterly unpredictable” [227] pressures of “intermental thought”, a concept borrowed from critic Alan Palmer, form the necessary noisy background against which the inner lives of the characters stand out. Letissier performs several masterly analyses of these in which he lays out the workings of free indirect style and charts the shifting tones and registers of the narrator’s protean voice in what proves to be an exemplary model of explication de texte for students of the Agrégation who are training for this kind of exercise in close reading.

Pondering in the conclusion upon the contemporary fortunes of Middlemarch, Letissier observes quite rightly that Eliot’s fiction has given rise to far fewer spin-offs and filmic adaptations than Austen, Dickens, or the Brontës, but the proffered explanation – that this profuse and teeming novel offers “no gaps and holes in it… that might be prolonged, completed, or updated” [238] in prequels, coquels or sequels – sits uneasily with previous statements regarding the unresolved narrative strands and “titillating… ellips[e]s” [40], for example, surrounding Ladislaw’s parents, that the monograph has teased out of the novel’s densely woven weft and warp. Appraising recent creative interest in Eliot’s fiction by writers such as Kathy O’Shaughnessy, Rebecca Mead, or Patricia Duncker [Sophie and the Sybil], Letissier, a specialist of neo-Victorian fiction, considers that only the work of the latter can be properly regarded as participating in the “creatively challenging field of the neo-Victorian” [239], the former falling more under the category of memoir, hagiography, or homage. The parallel that is drawn between the novel’s ‘Finale’ and the closing episode of the American HBO series Six Feet Under is spot-on, and so, given Letissier’s interest in contemporary serialisations, it is rather surprising that no mention was made of the popular (at least among recent Agrégation students!) gender-bending web series adaptation of Middlemarch, whose success suggests that Eliot has effectively leap-frogged the neo-Victorian trend to invest the far edgier scene of the online vlog!

Letissier’s prose is a delight to read. He revels in the rich and vibrant diversity of expression offered by the English language, of which his command and feel are such that I can only assume that he is merely masquerading as a non-native speaker! He has a gift for the memorable formula and pithy expression, deploying alliteration and assonance – Middlemarch is “a noisy novel in which sounds abound and rumour is rife” [209] – and colourful metaphor that it is a joy to roll around the mouth. Take, for example, the wonderful description of Mr Brooke’s “deregulated name-dropping laced with maverick intertextual parroting” [238]. Letissier’s homage to Eliot’s “mind of a polymath” [47] honours the “higher inward life” not only by charting the novelist’s engagement with intellectual reflection but also by escorting the reader herself along an erudite journey of rediscovery of such flowers of rhetoric as polyptoton, prosopopoeia, or hapax legomenon, which lard Eliot’s prose and to which Letissier draws our renewed attention.

The copy is not devoid of a number of typos that could have been eliminated by closer reading in the proof stage: several spelling errors on the names of characters, critics, or concepts – for example, Sara Dunkirk instead of Sarah [20], Gilliam Beer instead of Gillian [57], Mr and Mrs Mamsey instead of Mawmsey [223], Alan Plamer instead of Palmer [227], hapax logomena instead of legomena [215] – mar the finely chiselled prose, and there are a couple of unfortunate confusions between Dorothea and Rosamond: “Dorothea Lydgate” is mentioned at one point [113] as well as Mr Farebrother’s failure to bestow his “[subtle observation] on her [Dorothea]” instead of Rosamond [218]; and the plural of Mr [Messrs] is eschewed in favour of an unaccountable Mrs when referring to the several physicians, causing one to wonder initially who “Mrs Gambit, Toller, Minchin, or Sprague” are [87]. These, however, in no way detract from the fine combination of theoretically and contextually informed analysis with incisive micro-textual explications de texte at which the French excel. The monograph brings the 21st-century student of Middlemarch up to date on the critical canon, while cracking the door ajar, albeit somewhat fleetingly, onto contemporary avenues of inquiry offered by ecocritical and new materialist approaches. If its strength resides in the panoply of close readings which exemplify the skills required of the work’s primary intended reader, the Agrégation candidate, there is plenty of nourishment to sustain the more seasoned scholar in their rediscovery of this quintessentially Victorian novelist.


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