Victorian Research Seminar - Radiant Realism: George Eliot and the Colours of Dullness

Professor Ruth Livesey presents as part of our Victorian Research Seminar series.


This event has been postponed until further notice


The School of English welcomes Professor Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway, University of London), whose current research explores provincialism, the provincial novel, and ideas of Englishness.

This seminar will explore English novelist George Eliot –  one of the leading writers of the Victorian era.

“Eliot gives you not just an escape from the everyday, but a way of seeing the world in a new way; she takes you away but takes you back as well, and that's what great art does,” says Professor Livesey.

“She takes everyday life and turns it into art. She takes the lives of people living in unfashionable, ordinary places and shows the reader that it is worth looking at.”


This project directs fresh attention to a marker of place and of social identity that is always, by definition, out of fashion: provincialism. Provincialism denotes a place, style, and mode of existence that is away from, but still under the dominion of, a powerful metropolis. Over the course of the nineteenth century in England, for historical reasons this study will examine, the term gained a fresh host of depreciative associations. From indicating an accent or style associated with one of the other three nations of the Union or settler cultures, it became increasingly associated with an inward-looking, complacent, mediocre state of Englishness.

The project contrasts these negative associations of provincialism with the simultaneous rise of an enormously popular type of novel: fictions of English provincial life such as Gaskell's Cranford, Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels and George Eliot's Middlemarch. I aim to explore what this enduringly popular genre - provincial fiction - has to offer as a means of thinking about provincialism as a sense of place, a style, and a world-view. Building on important recent scholarship that emphasizes the global networked nature of Victorian provincial fiction, the project contends that the formal aspects of those works construct an idea of off-centre 'middleness'. This aesthetic of middleness in realist provincial fiction, I suggest, invents a homely, fictive grounding for the new social identity of the middle class, still under-represented in nineteenth-century culture and politics at the time.

Reconsidering provincial fiction and its intertwining with the idea of English provincialism is timely for several reasons. First, the genre played an important role in the emergence of the study of English literature as a discipline from the early twentieth century and the project will tell us more about the relation between ideas of Englishness and the critical history of Eng. Lit. at a time of fresh debates about canonicity, diversity, and class. The aesthetic value of provincial fiction, such as work by Eliot, was a flash point in debates between cosmopolitan critics, Bloomsbury modernists, and those inspired by F.R. Leavis. As significant work by post-colonial scholars has suggested, the discipline of English literature was one made at the margins, rather than the metropolitan centre of Imperial Britain. The project will emphasis the imperial dimension of 'Provincialism at Large' and the reception and circulation of provincial fiction outside the metropolis. Second, the simultaneous rise of provincial fiction and disparagement of provincialism in English cultural criticism during the nineteenth century represents neglected source for historicising present anti-metropolitan affect and critique, which is often accompanied by talk of vanishing or 'squeezed' middles.