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.
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