Davies Inaugural Public Lecture - ‘“Experiments in Life”: George Eliot
and the Wisdom of Fiction'
Stevie Davies, Director of Creative Writing at Swansea University, gave her inaugural professorial
lecture, ‘“Experiments in Life”: George Eliot and the Wisdom of Fiction'
as part of the Research Institute for the Arts and Humanities’ current public lecture
series on 3 February 2011 at the Wallace Lecture Theatre, Swansea University.
If you missed this lecture, you can view the podcast below.
When George Eliot spoke of her novels as ‘experiments in life’,
she alluded to a constellation of concerns: a passionately humanist ethic of sympathy and
fellowship, a commitment to the practice of realism and a spirit of scientific empiricism.
In her epic novel of provincial life, Middlemarch (1871-2), Eliot created a fictional world,
whose characters coexist on a complex web of interconnection. This metaphoric web, both
the binding metaphor of her aesthetic and her ethical creed, links Eliot’s people
not only with one another but, through the mediatorial narrator, with readers and the lived
realities of their world – and with her fellow writers.
Omniscient narrative, of course, is today as out of fashion as Mr Casaubon’s
perergon and his second excursus on Crete. But, grounded as Eliot’s art is in empathic
awareness, she has everything to teach modern writers about characterisation in realist
fiction. Middlemarch is an experiment in perspectivism, framing the discrepant singularities
of its individuals within an overarching vision of human value, the ‘manifold wakings
of men to labour and endurance’. Of all our writers, Eliot is the one who stands or
falls by her ability to place herself in others’ shoes and assume others’ burdens.
In Middlemarch, one of the foremost intellectuals of her day made her thoughts
live and move and have their being in Dorothea Brooke, Bulstrode, Lydgate, Casaubon, the
Garths, the Featherstones and the Vincys. To test them experimentally, she placed them under
the dark skies of a godless universe and called forth from their experience of travail a
set of empathic values, rescued from the doomed imperatives of Christian dogma. Middlemarch
presents itself as a version of secular Wisdom literature.
What wisdom has George Eliot to offer to writers in the twenty-first century?
As she observed in Adam Bede, ‘no story is the same to us after a lapse of time; or
rather, we who read it are no longer the same interpreters’. In her lecture, Professor
Davies will offer a writerly reading of Middlemarch, considering the writer’s debt
to the self-acknowledged ‘chameleon’ who distributed her self-knowledge and
observation through a host of characters.