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In January 1872 the novelist George Eliot dined with Henry Maine – then Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University. Maine had recently returned from a seven-year stint in Calcutta, as Legal Member of the Governor-General’s Council in India and the Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University.
He had just published his lectures, Village- Communities in the East and West (1871); Eliot was writing Middlemarch (1871-2). At first sight the two would appear to have little in common apart from a casual acquaintance: Maine, the legal historian, academic, and colonial administrator; Eliot the novelist of English life. In this lecture I seek to expose the way that, in fact, George Eliot’s ideas of quintessentially English villages were irradiated by ideas and practices that Maine had described in his Village Communities.
The link with Maine is symptomatic of a more thorough engagement in George Eliot’s works with the far-reaching political and social debates of her day. Not only is Eliot’s map of England less inwardly ‘English’ than is sometimes presumed. Her depictions of English life – English landscapes and English towns and villages – are also seeped in ideas about community and affiliation, many of which she derived from continental and colonial sources. Eliot’s works reflect the extraordinary demographic changes that shaped the nineteenth-century British world – the movements of unprecedented numbers of people from country to city to colony. Hence her enduring emphasis on settlement, community-making, and different forms of affiliation.
Writing against the backdrop of the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s and 70s, the critic and novelist Raymond Williams reversed this emphasis. In Country and the City (1973) he wrote a counter-history of English literature as a history of evictions. English literature for Williams recorded the forced displacement of generations of ordinary people from the places they once inhabited. To describe this elegiac tendency in English literature, Williams used his term, ‘structure of feeling’. In Country and the City, a structure of feeling invariably refers to a severing, or loss, of an established relationship to place. The term has since been appropriated widely to describe the cultures of everyday life in past and present societies. Yet it often appears to preserve a predisposition to loss, as though culture itself is produced in a process of displacement.
Williams’s work has been highly influential in remapping English literature for the late 20th century. This remapping continues even more radically in the context of 21st century globalisation. In this lecture I explore the continuing significance of literature in our understanding of relationships to places and environments, to forms of affiliation, and modes and methods of displacement. While our world is very different from that of Eliot and Maine, nevertheless their reflections on location, community and culture provide a useful entry point for considering the work of literature today.
Josephine McDonagh is Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature and, since 2010, Head of the Department of English. She is author of a number of monographs on topics in late 18th and 19th -century literature and culture: De Quincey’s Disciplines (1994), George Eliot (1997), and Child Murder and British Culture (2003). Her co-edited essay collections include Political Gender (1994), Encounters: Transactions between Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century (2002), and Charles Dickens and the French Revolution (2009); and she is editor of the World’s Classics edition of Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall (2008). She has published essays on topics ranging from infanticide to bibliomania, and on authors from Anna Barbauld to Thomas Hardy. Her current work is on the cultures of migration and nineteenth-century English literature, and she is the Director of the Leverhulme-funded international research network, ‘Commodities and Culture in the Colonial World’.
Professor McDonagh has degrees from the Universities of Wales and Southampton. She came to King’s from the University of Oxford, where she was Professor of Victorian Literature, and fellow of Linacre College, Oxford. She has also held positions as University College, Cork (1988-1989), University of Exeter (1989-1995), and Birkbeck College London (1995-2003).
The vote of thanks will be given by Isobel Armstrong, Emeritus Professor of English at Birkbeck, University of London and Fellow of the British Academy. She is a critic of nineteenth-century poetry, literature and women's writing. Her books include Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Politics and Poetics (1993), Nineteenth-Century Women Poets (1996), The Radical Aesthetic (2000), and Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880 (2008). She is also a published poet.
Image: Ford Madox Brown Last of England Birmingham Museums
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