George Eliot: ‘Structures of Feeling’ and the Changing Map of English Literature

The Inaugural Lecture by Professor Jo McDonagh: 24th October 2012

I sat in a sold-out Edmund J. Safra Lecture Theatre that waited in anticipation for Professor Jo McDonagh’s Inaugural Lecture, one of the events leading up to the end of this year’s Arts and Humanities Festival. Jo had entitled her talk George Eliot: ‘Structures of Feeling’ and the Changing Map of English Literature, and it proved to be an exciting new literary slant on the programme’s theme of ‘Metamorphosis’, exploring how literature could engage with, track and change the structures of society.

In her wide-ranging lecture, Jo mapped a shifting nineteenth century English society, where developing industry and empire meant both social and physical parameters were becoming increasingly unclear. As specified in the title, Jo considered within this the Marxist critic Raymond Williams’ phrase ‘structure of feeling’ – a controversial idea that systemises an individual’s feeling within and for their culture. Such feelings in George Eliot’s novels like Middlemarch and Adam Bede were strongly conservative English values which cemented English society, but Jo’s reading expanded to also include how other media dealt with a changing world: the contemporary image The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown (1855)  (pictured) was examined, along with the perhaps unlikely parallel text of Joseph Maine’s scholarly lectures on colonial villages, both to pick out particular threads in Eliot’s own web of cultural connections and influences. Jo expertly showed that Eliot’s representations of English life could both reinforce and test English values and societal structures: her canon part of the ‘civilising mission’ of literature around the world, but the novels also actually evolving changing, often ambivalent attitudes to these values and people’s place within English society, at home and abroad.

 This was an illuminating lecture that considered many cultural themes than run through the nineteenth century, from property to colonial rule. But one of my particular highlights was an interesting wider point made on literature, one which evokes the Festival’s theme of transformations and conversions. In an enlightening image and one of the most striking of the lecture, Jo described literature as a ‘crucible of ideas’, a place to test ideologies out ‘to see what it feels like to live in them’. This vision of what literature can do means that literature can inform and participate in wider social change as a process of digesting, thinking through and producing new ideas of how to live, a never-ending process changing with time. It seems we can gain much by looking through the literary prism at such a refraction of ideas – a possibility that all literature holds, then and today too.

Ways of Seeing both ‘Aura and Information’

As John Berger: art and property now is nearing the end of its time at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House East Wing, I gladly took up one of the last opportunities to visit a unique exhibition that holds a variety of material around the renowned writer, critic and artist. Developed by King’s Cultural Institute in partnership with the British Library, it was born from Berger deciding to donate his archive to the British Library in 2009. His rationale behind this is an important thread in the exhibition and creates space amongst the sixty years’ worth of papers to open up Berger’s own views on the value and place of his archives and lifework.

John Berger by Jean MohrAs you descend down a narrow staircase to some lower level of Somerset House there is indeed something of the sequestered archive of the long corridor and the five rooms that make up the exhibition. Each take on a different period and/or theme of John Berger’s life, with connecting portraits of the man by Jean Mohr. The rooms display his art, broadcasting work and correspondences together with his words printed on the walls to bind them into coherent narratives – on anything from Berger in the 1940s to his reaction to winning the Booker prize. The artefacts engage with each other to represent something of Berger’s life, but the focus is also on his ideology, with one room blacked out entirely to play his voice recordings (Room 4 – evoking Berger’s 1999 collaboration with director Simon McBurney and Artangel, an eerie replication of their sound installation in an unused Underground Station).

One particular room caught my attention as it seemed to me the nub of what makes this such a fascinating exhibition. I first came across Berger as many have through his book Ways of Seeing, a small volume that accompanied the TV series of the same name in the 1970s. In it, he demanded a change in the viewer’s understanding of art, and Room 2 of John Berger: art and property now also pulls the visitor into a similar theoretical debate. The room displays clips of the programme with production notes and various letters, but also alongside them his essay ‘Art and Property Now’, that claims that art is a peculiar mix of sacred ‘aura’ and market value – its ‘information’. Interestingly, the exhibition formulates these into a direct meditation on the value of Berger’s archive and on the exhibition itself; they can both be seen as similar to art as objects of cultural power and value, and so the visitor is asked directly (and slightly disconcertingly): ‘what blend of aura and information made you decide to come and see it?’

The participation of the visitor then becomes an important component of the exhibition, emphasised in an array of interactive opportunities – the public programme of free events, for instance, or life-drawing along with a Berger tape in Room 3. This chimes with Berger’s own ideas on the importance of audience collaboration, but also with a comment he made upon donating the archive to the British Library, noting he felt that uncovering what others thought was the most interesting part of his archive. It is the blend of display and debate that makes this exhibition so worthwhile a visit, as it builds and re-builds its own structure and focus: part Berger, part his friends, but also partly entirely personal to whoever visits – his work still centring on and challenging what we see.

John Berger: art and property now
Exhibition running from 6th September -10th November 2012

Future festival themes

butterflyThroughout this year’s Festival, the ‘Metamorphoses’ theme proved a stimulating one; at once broad enough to showcase the range of the School’s research and singular enough to encourage creative engagement. As the Arts & Humanities Research Institute starts to plan for next year, staff and students are invited to suggest new themes that will help the Festival to reflect the School’s work as best as possible by emailing suggestions to by 22nd November.

2012 Festival round-up


Over 3,000 people came to King’s this month to get involved in the 2012 Arts & Humanities Festival. Academics, high-profile authors, musicians and artists came together to discuss, exhibit and bring to life the School’s research at 50 events over two weeks. The Festival explored the theme of ‘Metamorphoses, transformations & conversions’ through art exhibitions, performances and discussions to showcase the breadth and diversity of research in the arts and humanities.

Highlights included author Will Self in conversation with Patrick Wright discussing England’s transformative presence on his work, a talk by former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo and a premiere of a new work by Silvina Milstein, Professor of Music which was performed by Lontano; King’s contemporary music ensemble in residence. The history of the Strand was brought to life through performances, songs, poetry and visual displays by the Strandlines Cabinet of Artists.

John BergerAn exhibition by artist, art critic and novelist John Berger received a four star review in the Independent and proved so enticing Berger himself was caught viewing his work at the Inigo Rooms (open until 10 November). Discussion panels explored topics as diverse as the role of religion in US politics, visual representations of political activism in the Arab Spring and philosophical and neuroscientific viewpoints on free will and decision making.

The ‘Collective Spirit’ yacht, the brainchild of Gregg Whelan (King’s Creative Fellow) and Gary Winters of Lone Twin, was unmissable in the Strand Quad for the duration of the Festival. The 30 foot sailing boat which was painstakingly crafted using donated pieces of wood arrived at King’s College after its maiden voyage as part of the Cultural Olympiad.  Lone Twin describe the yacht as a “seaworthy archive of stories and memories” and Festival Director Max Saunders remarked on its ability to “transform the Quad and initiate conversations during the Festival”.

Boat project daylight

The Festival has run in its present form since 2009 and has proved a vital platform for communicating the value and impact of the School’s research to members of the public, alumni, creative partners, staff, students and members of other academic institutions. Head of School Professor Jan Palmowski described the Festival as “an important forum through which our research could inform public debate, on topics including the US elections, how we experience change and displacement, and how English and British identities might be constituted and addressed.”