This essay aims to deepen our understanding of the intellectual and affective characteristics of novel reading by examining the tendency of George Eliot's heroines to drift free of the constraints of their own plots. It focuses on Eliot's historical novel Romola (1862-63) and in particular on the stylistic and narrative features that make the eponymous heroine of that book seem a visitant in her own story. Noting that the novel insistently figures Romola's abstraction as erotically charged, I argue that this character is Eliot's means of reflecting on the situation of the novel reader, a being contradictorily characterized in Eliot's day and ours as both dilettantish and overinvested, both distracted from and passionately identified with the fiction she absorbs. Although conducted in a different theoretical vocabulary, today's critical discourse on reading resonates with nineteenth-century arguments over whether the novel reader was (erotically) entranced or (intellectually) edified. My claim is that the reader of Eliot is always both, and that implicit in Eliot's method of narrating character is the idea that novel reading offers access to a form of insight through submission. The essay thus engages with the recent affirmations of detachment as a critical value in the work of scholars like Amanda Anderson and David Wayne Thomas; but where these critics have stressed the Victorian ideal of detachment as a goal to be worked at, Eliot's vision of the novel reader as at once detached and erotically passive suggests a more unsettling route to critical insight precisely through the abandonment of will.
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David Kurnick; Abstraction and the Subject of Novel Reading: Drifting through Romola. Novel 1 November 2009; 42 (3): 490–496. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-046
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