Emer Nolan at The Dublin Review of Books:
November 22nd, 2019 is the bicentenary of the birth of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-80). Eliot was the last in an extraordinary sequence of women novelists in nineteenth century England that included Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell. Her novel Middlemarch (1871-72) is generally considered to be the culminating achievement of the Victorian realist tradition. In transposing the ethical capital of Christianity to the secular world, she retained a fervent belief in the redemption offered by the expansion of human knowledge and a co-ordinate growth in sympathetic feeling. Most of her heroines yearn for education and a sense of social purpose as well as for love and marriage. How do such ambitions look in the globalised, information-saturated present, where many young women have far greater opportunities for specialised education? Can we still imagine that the novel could contribute to the redemption of the world? Sally Rooney’s allusions to Eliot, as well as to Austen, in her two best-selling campus-based novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), offer an unexpected Irish millennial salute to this humanist line of ameliorative fiction by English women.