Gillian Beer

Gillian Beer is a lecturer in English and a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge. A study of George Eliot in relation to Victorian feminist writing is due out later this year.



23 November 1989

When a reviewer describes a sentence as ‘baffling’ one expects to see it quoted accurately. In Arguing with the past I wrote: ‘Engaging with the difference of the past in our present makes us aware of the trajectory of our arrival and of the insouciance of the past – their neglectfulness of our prized positions and our assumptions.’ Rosemary Ashton (LRB, 23 November) changes ‘the past’...
SIR: I sympathise with Lucio Ruotolo’s response (Letters, 4 June) to a lukewarm review, though I do not accept his explanation of it. I read his book, and thoroughly. His letter shows again the tendency to ignore ‘dangerous junctures’ which mutes his discussion of anarchism. What would Virginia Woolf’s interrupting eye have made of his smooth passage from her society ‘without leaders or any...

What about the aeroplanes?

Gillian Beer, 23 April 1987

‘If one spirit animates the whole, what about the aeroplanes?’ queries a character in Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts. Both Alex Zwerdling in Virginia Woolf and the Real World and Lucio Ruotolo in The Interrupted Moment engage with the implications of this question – though neither has much to say about aeroplanes. Zwerdling concentrates on Woolf’s ‘intense interest in the life of society and its effect on the individual’; Ruotolo emphasises ‘the rhythm of broken sequence’. Zwerdling and Ruotolo recognise the urgency with which Woolf responds to the current moment in her final work. Ruotolo discovers a hoped-for continuity: what is interrupted is resumed, though changed in form by interruption. Zwerdling emphasises the diaspora of the self and of English society that is chillingly written into the book’s gossip: ‘Negation regularly has the last word.’ Ruotolo, in his book’s only surprising move, proceeds from his analysis of Between the Acts to claim Woolf for anarchism, though the anarchism for which he claims her proves to be generalised (‘All great art is anarchy’ – Gertrude Stein) and muted, a matter of ‘the liberating space of unguarded moments’.’



7 February 1985

Gillian Beer writes: My point was not that there should be no selection, but that the principles of selection should be made clear. It is not possible in Clarkey to distinguish between gaps in the source-material and the editor’s choice, or to know the grounds of that choice.

A Stick on Fire

Gillian Beer, 7 February 1985

In her first public writing after her elopement with George Henry Lewes in 1854, George Eliot compared the position of women in England and in France: ‘in France alone the mind of woman has passed like an electric current through the language, making crisp and definite what is elsewhere heavy and blurred.’ And, writing under cover of anonymity for the Westminster Review, she declared that one reason for the achievement of women in France is ‘laxity of opinion and practice with regard to the marriage-tie … Gallantry and intrigue are sorry enough things in themselves, but they certainly serve better to arouse the dormant faculties of women than embroidery and domestic drudgery.’ She was then reviewing Victor Cousin’s Madame de Sablé, and Cousin had been briefly the lover of a woman whom Marian Evans (or George Eliot) already knew, and was to know better: Mary Clarke Mohl, whose style of writing and life might epitomise Marian Evans’s trenchant early views of women’s powers. Mary writes in her journal in 1826, when she was turning back from Cousin to her lover, Fauriel:

Englamouring the humdrum

Rosemary Ashton, 23 November 1989

Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the past, a collection of essays published in recent years (with one, on Richardson and Milton, dating from as long ago as 1968), is richly written, contains...

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Homage to Mrs Brater

Rosemary Ashton, 7 August 1986

Was it sisterly or unsisterly of George Eliot to celebrate in Middlemarch Dorothea’s contribution to human progress by means of ‘unhistoric acts’ carried out under limiting...

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Taking Darwin in

Michael Mason, 16 February 1984

This is at once an impressive, even thrilling book, and quite a bad one. Its virtues and vices are connected. The author has a precisely-grounded exhilaration about The Origin of Species; perhaps...

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