[The following essay review appeared in Studies in the Novel, 36: 2 (2004): 251-69. I have restored the original opening two paragraphs and added illustrations.]
LEAH PRICE. The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: From Richardson to George Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 224 pp. $54.95.
NEIL MCCAW. George Eliot and Victorian Historiography: Imagining the National Past. London: Macmillan Press, and New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000. 203 pp. $65.00.
BARBARA TEPA LUPACK, ED. Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University
Popular Press, 1999. 321 pp. $59.95.
When I was invited to write an essay-review on Leah Price's The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel, Neil McCaw's George Eliot and Victorian Historiography, and Barbara Tepa Lupack's Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies, I foresaw an opportunity to write about my interests; to think about anthologies; to expand my studies to include George Eliot; and to enjoy myself by watching movies. I discovered that I had to confront these books in the context of a recent phase of post-modernism in order to deal critically with them.
Neil McCaw and several of the essayists in Lupack's anthology argue or assume that the project of theoretical criticism is to expose how art works as propaganda, and to reveal how what people are seduced into accepting as entertainment, works to maintain “the dominant order or status quo–the existing relations of domination and subordination” (McCaw 11; Lupack 192, 208, 257, 275, 299). Price too frames her exegesis in terms of reader responses, much of which turn out to be politicized forms of misreading which she seeks to counter and to expose. The argument of this essay-review is that in these three books this project is undermined by a lack of effective acknowledgement that the responses of many individuals are not predictable, by unexamined or unjustified personal biases, and by the indeterminacy and distortions of the evidence.
The writers of these three books disparage or overestimate the objects and makers that fall under their consideration on the basis of interpretations of reality the works are thought to breed in receivers. Price’s stance seems designed to expose what she considers to be Richardson's and Eliot's central motive for writing as well as that of the other writers Price is examining: venal, foolishly snobbish thoughts about how readers might respond to the work. Price's tone includes a subdued vein of ridicule, as well as ironic and counterfactual riddling at the expense of ordinary readers, writers and critics (Price 29-48, 67-89; see Byatt 99-103).1 Similarly, McCaw subjects the response he thinks George Eliot’s texts elicited from readers to ethical standards that the texts of the living authors he uses to judge her by could not withstand. He erupts into sarcasm at her “bigotry.” He calls her portrait of Adam Bede insufferably condescending, and says she urges the reader to respect Adam for enacting a self-sacrificing life, although when it came to herself, Eliot fled from and described such a life as “long years” of “inert suffering.” When he attempts to mitigate his condemnation by showing the reader that Eliot sympathizes with communal rituals, he observes that she words her sympathy in the language of an elite caste, and that “Even this is conducted at the level of xenophobic prejudice and misinformation” (24-26).
Lupack and six of the essayists in her anthology vindicate nineteenth-century authors, literary texts, the film industry, and its audiences. They embrace what they take to be audiences’ acquiescence in the film industry’s treatment of the human imagination as a commodity (e.g., 6-9): people who object to aspects of popular film adaptations to Jane Austen’s texts are “intransigent,” “a lot of purists” or "handfuls of ultra-orthodox Janeites.” No doubt seeing himself as counterpoised to such stuffy critics, Tom Hoberg writes a panegyric of the teen movie, Clueless (e.g., “The Multiplex Heroine” 121-25, 148). Of the four essayists who resist defending films, two protest these films’ “erasure” of “the intense ambivalence toward male domination” (which they find in Brontë’s Jane Eyre); a third condemns modern critics and film- makers who “ignore” a religious reading of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (which this critic argues is how “ordinary” nineteenth-century female readers understood the book); a fourth writes out of a distaste for “the American audience’s” desire for “the anodyne” as this desire is assumed to have led to companies’ producing films whose purport is unfaithful to George Eliot’s novels (Ellis and Kaplan, “Feminism in Bronte's Jane Eye and Its Film Versions” 193; Marchalonis “Little Women” 266, 268, but see Griffith “George Eliot” 307-308, and Estes and Lant).
These three books also deflate literary art as a commodity, fetish, or object which arises from personal, obsessive, or self-interested motives. Price’s The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel is strikingly disenchanted. Admiring reviews have said that Price’s book offers us a “delightfully scandalous” demonstration that people claim to have read long “boring” texts because they will be classed as members of a high status group if they can present evidence that they know the book’s content (Johnson 21). By finding out which passages from famous books were reprinted in later eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century anthologies, Price provides evidence that, rather than reading a given text through, specific individuals really probably read excerpts of it in an anthology (79-80). But skimming through a book does not, as she suggests, give a reader the experience of an abridgement. An abridgement is a substitute for another text.2 Nor does skipping through a book turn it into an anthology unless we are playing games with words.
Leah Price’s book is important because she reveals hypocrisies and self-deceptions in literary criticism. She has read eighteenth-, and mid-nineteenth century descriptions of reading experiences. She relies on us knowing that even in cases where this is possible, only rarely does anyone try to force readers to say aloud truthfully what thoughts have gone through their brains while reading; and then Price goes on to show how, nonetheless, it is difficult for readers to interact with texts in ways free from the intrusion of others (83-88). Her readers seem to describe their reactions in whatever is the socially acceptable way of the era and their milieu (79-80). This is a limitation of reader-response criticism, which is based on surveys of what readers are willing to say to others and what they are willing to write down about what they have felt when reading a book (83-90). Such studies should be regarded with the scepticism sociologists treat answers elicited from people about their sexual behavior (Rose 195-7; Sutherland 574-76). We learn how the individual wants to be seen and the values used to justify reading, not what went on in the privacy of silence (Suleiman and Crosman 205-24).
Price also shows that nineteenth-century readers used anthologies, abridgements, critical essays and reviews as substitutes for books (137-56) and how publishers and critics exploited this use (141-42). By casting doubt on twentieth-century critics’ claims that earlier authors took epigraphs and quoted passages from original works, and not from anthologies and critical works, she suggests that such critics turn probable shallowness into depth and difficulty. She insinuates this is done because it is in the interest of the profession to foster fictions of deep intertextuality. It was refreshing to read her analysis of a mid-twentieth century critical controversy over whether Samuel Richardson took the passages he inserts into his novels from the works where they first appeared or from Edward Bysshe’s Art of Poetry, which contains no less than two-thirds of the English quotations found in Clarissa, nineteen of which omit the same lines and repeat Bysshe’s errors (39-41, 99-104).
Unfortunately, Price scrutinizes only a few anthologies which were popular in their time, and have become familiar through modern scholarship; for example, those by Vicesimus Knox which were used in later eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century schools (Uphaus). She also confines her investigation to Richardson’s abridgements of his novels, a few eighteenth and nineteenth-century English abridgements of Clarissa, and Alexander Main’s anthologies of George Eliot’s works. Price relies heavily on the research of others and provides no detailed tables of contents or analyses of passages.3 A mistake Price makes several times in her book reveals the thinness of her research. The Mrs. Ward who wrote one of the few abridgements she discusses, the 1868 one-volume Clarissa Harlowe, a New and Abridged Edition, was not Mrs. Humphry or Mary Arnold Ward. In 1868 Mary Arnold was 17; she did not marry Humphry Ward until 1872. The woman who wrote this abridgement was Mrs. Harriet Ward. Therefore, Price’s disparaging explanation for the pace and arrangement of Mary Ward’s 1888 Elsmere and 1894 Marcella are irrelevant to Harriet Ward’s abridgement whose preface is all Price describes (51-52, 58-61, 151).4
Nonetheless, Price’s book is salutary–and corrosive. Where others have explained Richardson’s use of quotations, and the abridgements, summaries and collections of passages he and others compiled from his novels as an attempt to protect his books from misreadings, she explains his behavior by aligning his motives with motives he gave a fictional hypocritical pedantic clergyman whose ostentation reveals insecurity and pretentiousness (29-42). When she discusses Eliot’s queasy willingness to allow Main to produce anthologies of “wisdom literature” from her novels, Price aligns her and G. H. Lewes’s justifications with those of reviewers who accused “common readers” of reading quickly, shallowly and without much understanding of what they read–as opposed to their own full comprehension and slow meditations of texts (e.g., 21-23, 52-53). Richardson’s anxiety to have the moral sentiments of his texts attended to, and Eliot’s use of Main become ways of protecting themselves from, and aligning them with, the respectable norms and mores of their eras’ middling and elite classes.
Since, however, Price is also concerned to demonstrate that public discourse continually connects women readers to whatever in a given era is stigmatized as an inferior way of reading, I was surprised at her characterization of Ann Radcliffe’s insertion of poetry and epigraphs into her novels as “banal”, “inapposite,” “anachronistic,” “silly,” and actuated sheerly by Radcliffe’s desire to mark her books as “written for persons of taste” (90-99).5 Thus, Price denigrates Radcliffe by resorting to anti-feminist biases she elsewhere exposes. I was dismayed when she targeted George Eliot’s “heavy learning,” sententiousness, and use of epigraphs, as simply Eliot’s way of dissociating herself from a “frivolous genre” and of compensating for her disreputable status (105-37). Eliot barricaded herself against her society for many reasons and in many ways, but her writing of books which laid bare her internal trauma was her way of trying to come out from behind a carapace forced upon her as a woman living an unconventional life apart from her family.
Walter Scott is the only author Price is willing openly to concede was also actuated by aesthetic and literary motives when he regularly inserted learned passages and tropes, and poetry into his novels (62-66). Price uses Redgauntlet to expose Scott’s commercial motives and desire for respect too, but she does not subject him to the unqualified skeptical disparagement she reserves for his son-in-law, Lockhart (e.g., 53, 65, 152) and metes out to Eliot’s partner, Lewes (105, 120-23). An unacknowledged personal distaste for Radcliffe and Eliot and personal fondness for Scott’s novels (especially the folklore) seems to account for the unjustifiable difference in her treatment of these three writers.
Price also investigates how comments on the way people read are used as indicators of their class status, gender affiliation, moral uprightness, reading intelligence and taste. In the early to mid-eighteenth century women were disparaged as fast readers who preferred “story” (narration of events) to “moral sentiments” (ethical and psychological pronouncements). In the nineteenth-century, regardless of what a reader read for, fast readers were praised as efficient. Those who read novels slowly were unproductive, dawdling, idle, overly emotional females or effeminate males. At the close of the century males were praised for their pleasure in sheer narrative, and women readers and writers who rated a work’s moral vision over its other aspects were paid an ironical respect (146-52).
At times Price appears to believe that these factious and competitive characterizations of “collective minds” (the phrase is Ernst Gombrich’s) describe reading experiences or texts. She repeats late nineteenth and early twentieth-century assessments of George Eliot as a “self-important female sage” (153). Price seems to assume that her presentation of voiced anxieties about status by writers and acceptance of bowdlerization by powerless readers accurately records the inward experience of writers and readers when they read or helped produce pretentiously-packaged and stigmatized texts. She does concede that the way reviewers urged readers to read one way rather than another
takes for granted that any reader can recognize those moments when the text shifts from narrative to saying. This would suggest in turn that “non-analytical” readers identify sententious passages as systematically as do critics who adduce them as evidence, reviewers who excerpt them as specimens, and editors who collect them into anthologies: the only difference is that each group ignores what the other prizes (154).
She also enables us to observe the more powerful and higher status members of our society using stigmatized characterizations of reading and texts to control the outward behavior of readers when they read, and to alter or to refuse to make available to less powerful people subversive and transgressive texts.
Price’s book is iconoclastic. In our era among literary scholars depth, difficulty and intertextuality are in; so, too, is slow reading and the idea that a work of art is a seamless web, not made up of separate parts taken pragmatically from different places. Price suggests that texts to which learned intertextuality can be attributed are automatically valued over texts which lack the sort of inserted materials that give rise to attributions of complicated depths. She worries lest studies of intertextuality allow critics to ratify an emerging new unexamined “consensus” of what is worth studying (103).
McCaw deconstructs George Eliot’s novels through the sort of intertexuality study Price examines sceptically. McCaw aligns passages from Eliot’s novels which seem closely similar in purport with passages from nineteenth-century non-fictional histories and philosophical texts. He explains nuances in her work through what is explicit in the aligned text. He admits his choice of authors has little documentary basis outside his perception of the novels (68), but he does not admit that his chosen passages are fundamentally unlike Eliot's.
George Eliot wrote novels, not philosophical tracts or history. Love stories and character types derived from her psychic traumas structure her fictions (Johnstone 1-23; Bodenheimer 84-118, 161-231). McCaw writes a book on George Eliot’s historical and regional novels considered as mirrors of cultural prejudices which does not examine her era’s historical and regional novels. In the first three pages of his book he asserts that such fictions are inevitably subjective propaganda used either by “colonized people” “to assert their own identity and the existence of their history” or by members of an establishment to erase, contain, and reformulate the past (1-3). After that historical and regional fiction vanish from sight.6 McCaw does not even discuss Romola because it is (he says) not relevant, and is an inauthentic failure (9-10; but see Robinson 29-42). He draws most of his remarks from Daniel Deronda (Eliot’s one novel not set in the past) because Daniel Deronda enables him to reveal Eliot’s using Jewish culture to defend nationalism (50-67, 100-17). McCaw accuses Eliot of engendering complacency in her readers since her works are “Providential metanarratives;” however, when she assigns “moral and spiritual meaning to human experience” and gives her books gratifying closure, she is just as likely following the conventions of novel-writing whose patterns humanly consoled and pleased her, and which her publisher felt sold books. McCaw rejects this explanation of her plot-contrivances as, “taken at face value,” it goes against her “stated intention … to strive for sincerity and to avoid undue artistic manipulation” (85, 92-96).
McCaw turns to exegeses of Macaulay, Macaulay’s “Whig” followers, and Carlyle to show that what Eliot mistook for the objectivity of historical and ethnographic realism is an amalgam of nationalistic, patriarchic, anti-feminist, and anti-semitic ideas and images (17, 23, 89-98, 105-8, 121-32). He relies heavily on Hayden White’s fashionably skeptical historiography against which Kuminski has built a compelling case. McCaw does praise Eliot’s “Nietzschean pessimism” and regards her “obsessive” research as proof that, like Carlyle, she perceived how difficult it is to capture chaotic simultaneous reality in narratives shaped in terms of succession (11, 103, 114-20, 145). However, his idea that her texts manifest “a Bakhtinian polyphony” allows him also to arraign Eliot for “Whiggish conservatism” (33-37). Through descriptions and analyses of Macaulay and Carlyle’s texts he argues that Eliot’s novels reinforce prejudices of all sorts, including a belief in an invented false English past. He treats Eliot’s philosophical stances as “one-sided,” self-serving, and conservative in tendency (5-6). He refuses to enter into Eliot’s conscious thinking sympathetically–except when what she says can be stretched to fit arguments that show her departure from today’s political agendas (e.g., 121-5). He concludes that “poignantly,” she legitimizes her era’s prevailing oppressive hierarchies of domination and subordination (10-11, 126).
McCaw’s intertextual study obscures Eliot’s texts. George Eliot had complicated, even conflicting aims. The political ideas which she sought “to make … thoroughly incarnate” include concepts derived from positivism, determinism, Darwinism, and Fuerbachian idealism. Although she found story-telling demanding, it was the basis of her appeal and she worried lest her philosophical and personal aims turn her novels into “diagramatic allegories.” She attempted to modify “the schemed picturesqueness of historical fiction” (a phrase referring to Scott) and “the abstract treatment which belongs to grave history from a doctrinal point of view” by drawing her story from the “processes of outward and inward life” as these evolved in her characters’s minds, and her own. She invited readers to read her texts as representations of “successive phases of my mental life (Byatt and Warren 248-49; Haight, Selected Letters 258; Pinney 267-99, 437-47; Adam Bede 177-85).
McCaw is not the first writer to focus on disparities between Eliot’s announced purposes and her fiction (Gubar and Gilbert 443-535; Bamber). He is accurate about Eliot’s blindness in Daniel Deronda.7 More than one nineteenth-century reviewer argued her novels are dishonest masquerades (Voegler; Carroll 37, 221-50, 241-6). Henry James ridiculed Daniel Deronda (James). McCaw, though seems antagonistic on principle.
A close reading of Eliot’s novels in the context of her autobiographical writing and non-fiction suggested to me that for the most part George Eliot’s politics is voiced in a language of painful personal experience. Her last book, The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, includes rare instances of outright political language. There she dismisses an ideal of “common humanity” as hopelessly elitist “cosmopolitanism” or “universal alienism.” She argues that individuals cannot identify with one another as simply as people: nationalism is not a social construction; anyone who thinks differently is a blind idealist. Her assumption is that the only way to achieve toleration for any group of people is to give them power over themselves and other groups of people or equal power with other groups in a specific area (Theophrastus Such 146-49, 165). In Eliot’s stories her intelligent and sensitive heroes and heroines are thwarted and punished, and are made to submit to the desires of dense and passionate characters who far from earning any right to ask for submission, have maimed and will probably continue to maim these heroes and heroines because she despaired of finding any other way for them to achieve a peaceful integration into an ordered world. In her fiction, she articulates this idea in words which show she came to it through giving in to painful imperceptive pressure, and she urges the reader to see this kind of pressure as rooted in irremediable weakness which moral strength should yield to:
The stronger will always rule, say some, with an air of confidence which is like a lawyer’s flourish, forbidding exceptions or additions. But what is strength? Is it blind wilfulness that sees no terrors, no many-linked consequences, no bruises and wounds of those whose cords it tightens? Is it the narrowness of brain that conceives no needs differing from its own, and looks to no results beyond the bargains of to-day; that tugs with emphasis for every small purpose, and thinks it weakness to exercise the sublime power of resolved renunciation? There is a sort of subjection which is the peculiar heritage of largeness and love; and strength is often only another name for willing bondage to irremediable weakness (Felix Holt 78).
Eliot’s stories are shaped to show that characters who subject themselves to others by overriding vitally-felt obligations to themselves or others also get something of pragmatic value in return. The rewards include gratification because the group professes admiration and respect for the individual, a highly compromised or grudging and grateful love, and safety (Middlemarch 586-87, 664-66; “The Antigone and Its Moral,” Byatt and Warren 365-66).
It is the great merit of Eliot’s imaginative work that she poses questions of serious and large import with which we are today only beginning to deal frankly. It may be its great defect that she repeatedly opts for dramatic resolutions which cruelly deprive her exemplary characters of some natural fulfillment or worthy goal on the grounds that it is right for them to violate their instincts. However, when she does this she provides an earnest agonized record of what was lost: Daniel Deronda’s mother unrepentantly puts before her son how her father egoistically used the patriarchical norms for a mother and daughter to pervert humane obligations between individuals and to repress her talents and nature as an individual (e.g., Daniel Deronda 535-48;Wilt).
It is true that Eliot’s stories occasionally end shockingly with an immolation of what is estimable, humane, and productive of genuinely beneficial decency, sometimes on behalf of an egoistic illusory tribal nationalism (The Spanish Gypsy). The Mill on the Floss ends on Maggie’s semi-suicidal act on behalf of a brother who has throughout the novel been as repugnant, narrow-minded, and vindictive as she has been pleasing, open-minded, and forgiving.8 More frequently, though, her endings are consolatory. At long last her characters find themselves in, or create a situation where one of them or the situation itself permits a dramatic resolution which defies the materialism, genetic tribalism, and the sheer cruelty and stupidity of unjust social arrangements rooted in human nature. The close of Silas Marner gives us a young girl who refuses to leave the old man who has brought her up and invested everything he valued in himself in her, not on the grounds that she would feel uncomfortable in upper class society (as the BBC/A&E/WGBH 1995 film adaptation of Silas Marner would have it), but on the grounds that her biological father has forfeited his rights over her.
In one of Eliot’s letters she writes:
I cannot tell you how much melancholy it causes me that people are, for the most part, so incapable of comprehending the state of mind which cares for that which is essentially human in all forms of belief, and desires to exhibit it under all forms of loving truthfulness … the only affect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but in the broad fact of being human (Haight, George Eliot Letters 3:111, 5 July 1859).
Eliot infuses her pictures of earlier eras with nostalgia; painstaking research mitigates the idealization. The goal seems to induce a belief in a time and place when individual acts had significance. Her choice of historical fiction seems rooted in her religious sensiblity (Anger).9
Eliot’s novels powerfully focus on characters who have lived apart, for whom isolation produces severe mental distress and destructive behavior. Her later novels are prophetic because she lived and wrote as a displaced alienated woman who lovingly narrated her experience and that of others with absolute earnest literal truthfulness "as if I were in a witness- box . . . on oath” (Adam Bede 177). Her complicity is expiatory propitiation. To close ourselves off from her torment is to close ourselves off from that of other women writers whose work hers resembles (and who have been castigated similarly). George Eliot’s past is not another country.10
Barbara Tepa Lupack’s collection of essays, Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, exhibits the obverse side of the partisanship that characterizes McCaw’s book. It belongs to a genre of film studies whose target audience is made up of two disparate groups: people who study film professionally and people who enjoy going to the movies. It contains extensive bibliographies and filmographies, and its essayists offer perceptive academic-style analyses. The style is jargon-free and pleasant to read, and the exegeses offer an experience of the films. Essayists retell their novel’s plot and describe its characters as they cannot expect their readers will have read the novel. Just as nineteenth-century novels place illustrations of the text next to the verbal text in the story the picture is intended to visualize, the makers of this book placed memorable single-frame shots from the film in question into the text of Nineteenth-Century Women at the Movies at appropriate moments in the critics’ story-telling and exegeses.11
Lupack’s introductory essay addresses both target audiences, and influenced the stance of most of the essayists (e.g. Sokol 96, 102, 103n.6, but see Ellis and Kaplan 205-6). Lupack argues that film adaptations of nineteenth-century novels “draw large audiences of white middle-class women” who are also “aging educated” people tired of “disincarnated lightweight” cinema. Thus, such film adaptations are “complex fare” which focus on “the decorum of civilized behavior” against which “sex becomes significant again because it is ‘seen against a society where social decorum rules’”. These films have “well-developed characters,” “strong and surprisingly modern women,” and “solid and timeless plots” (6-9). Lupack words her analysis in honorific but impressionistic language drawn from literary criticism; her thesis unjustifiably raises the status of these films.
Over the last seven months I watched about three-quarters of them, together with film adapations of nineteenth-century novels by men and twentieth-century “middlebrow” novels by men and women. I compared screenplays within decades and by the same writer, and films made by the same and different companies within the same decade. I paid close attention to how these films related to one another as films, and to which actors and actresses were chosen to play which character types. I discovered that across the twentieth century the same “cardinal functions” (hinge-points or crucial events), “character functions” (characters looked at from the point of view of how they “catalyze” hinge-points), and “enunciations” (the way shots are angled and framed), recur in all film adaptations of nineteeth through twentieth century high status and middlebrow novels whose texts focus on subjective experience. Also, the same actors and actresses enact the same character functions.12 In all these films the film-makers exploit technologies which draw viewers to transfer the frustations, sorrows, desires and anger of their own lives to what they see on the “magic-lantern” screen (Gallager 266; Tyler, The Hollywood Hallucination 3-23, 230-46; and Magic and Myth of the Movies).
The plot-designs of these films consist of re-arrangements of hinge-points of the originating novel’s story altered and arranged to allow the action to move forward quickly in time from obstacle to obstacle and to display the emotional cores of their characters’ lives after each intense frustration occurs. A careful count and comparison of films adapted from high status originating novels reveals that in a typical year 36 per cent of the films’ scenes had no corresponding scene in the novel; and while 87 per cent of the films were told from an omniscient point of view, only 37 percent of the novels were (Asheim 11-76; Bluestone 1-31). I noticed that typically the film’s story had an altered or wholly new conclusion which is often an abruptly introduced picturesque scene. It fulfills a desire which structures the film’s story, is thwarted all film long, and permits the film to end in an emotionally affirmative and expansive way.
Pre-1970s film adaptations are more emotionally overwrought (unqualifiedly painful) and subversive than their post-1970s film successors. We are to weep with joy when the desperately proud and agonized Rochester (George C. Scott) tenderly clutches Jane Eyre (Susannah York) as they sit on a bench in autumn (NBC TV’s 1972 Jane Eyre) and when Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) embraces Jo March (Wynona Ryder) as she holds tight to her umbrella (Columbia’s 1995 Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong, screenplay Robin Swicord); but feel exalted when Heathcliff (Laurence Oliver) and Catherine Earnshaw Linton (Merle Oberon) finally walk off together, preferring death and the barren Pennistone Cragg to life (MGM’s 1939 Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler, screenplay Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and when Paula Ridgeway/Lady Ranier (Greer Garson in a doppelgänger role) and Smithy/Sir Charles Ranier (Ronald Colman) stand under a flowering apple (?) tree (MGM’s 1942 Random Harvest). The film Random Harvest is structured to make the viewer dwell on the hero’s depression, loss of memory, and apparent death as coped with by a heroine whose resolute, silent, and unqualified self-abnegation is never openly acknowledged.
Post-1990 film adaptations of middlebrow and high status novels were (to echo F. R. Leavis) “on the whole for life” and social integration. They also focus on physically active heroines. The final “enunciation” scene of the BBC/WGBH 1995 Persuasion ends with an upbeat variant on the endings of 1940s and 1950s films: Hoberg justifies the picture of Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) and Captain Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) walking down the street as a circus passes by describing the tone of Austen’s novel (Hobert, “Her First and Last,” 158). However, the film adaptation of Persuasion does not end there; it ends on a sweeping seascape picture where the heroine stands by the hero aboard a ship, looking in conception and mood forward to the final scene of the BBC/WGBH 1999 Wives and Daughters where Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) strolls swiftly by the side of Roger Hamley (Anthony Howell) while the camera frames a magnificent sweep of a “North African” desert and sky which Gaskell’s Molly Gibson never came near, much less by the side of her Roger Hamley. The ceremonious wedding scene, almost never omitted in these film adaptations, is much more luxurious in the later ones and not placed medially (as in the wedding of Catherine Earnshaw [Merle Oberson] to Edgar Linton [Leslie Howard] in the 1939 Wuthering Heights), but emphatically at the end, e.g., the “lavish and proper” (Hoberg, “Her First and Last,” 150) wedding scene which closes Miramax’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility.
A male “character function” recurs repeatedly in these films. In the originating novel he may be a major or marginal character; if he is not in the originating novel, he is added and in the film’s story functions significantly as a “victim-hero” or “helper” figure. He is a sexually unaggressive (brotherly), dignified, vulnerable man whose sensibility, intelligence, and integrity helps the heroine (McFarlane 24-26).13 Jeremy Irons has been mocked as “tall, thin and, tortured” because he enacts the role so transparently (e.g., as Charles Ryder matched with a secondary “victim-hero,” Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte, in Granada TV’s 1982 Brideshead Revisited). Ronald Colman made a career out of this character function from MGM’s 1924 Romola (as an invented character not in Eliot’s novel) to the hero in Twentieth-Century Fox’s 1936 Under Two Flags and in MGM’s 1941 Random Harvest. Recent replacements for him include Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Mirage-Columbia’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility and Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer in Columbia’s 1994 Little Women. A less sympathetic use of male type as also stern emerges in the casting of Rickman as Eamon De Valera in Warner Brother’s 1996 Michael Collins. The repressed sexual content of the type comes to consciousness in Dirk Bogard’s performance as Gustav von Aschenbach in Alfa Film’s 1971 Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, directed by Lucino Visconti).
From the mid-1920s on, and even in films since 1995 where, through a sophisticated use of computers, cameras make the screen move almost continually through swiftly-altering shot angles, film adaptations of classic and middlebrow novels include several minute segments which combine long, graceful, and dream-inducing shots of luxuriously beautiful settings or landscapes with softly emotional music. Whether in “costume” or not, placed in anachronistic or carefully researched and built or “on location” landscapes, in-depth shots of rooms furnished with familiar and comfortable apparatus from domestic life frame climactic moments of the story.
There have been very few departures from this filmic code reinforcement of dominant pro-capitalist and conservative ideologies.14 Towards the close of the 1997 BBC/WBGH The Mill on the Floss (directed by Graham Theakson, screenplay Hugh Stoddart), Maggie Tulliver (Emily Watson), her mother (Cheryl Campbell), and a servant stand in a frozen triangle of anguish in a corridor just outside the threshold of a domestic space; this seems to me a quotation from Woody Allen’s 1978 Interiors (Rollins-Joffe Productions), whose ultimate source is probably Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 Cries and Whispers (written and directed by Bergman, and produced by Svenska Filminstitutet and Cinematograph AB). This sudden, several second pause conveys an emotional configuration which urges the viewer to recognize in this picture of the Tullivers at the end of the film’s story an icon of family life as perpetual imprisonment, not security. Likewise, the close of the 2001 BBC The Way We Live Now (directed by David Yates, screenplay Andrew Davies) closes with a central, grim-faced Marie Melmotte (Shirley Henderson) slowly drawing a large door across the screen to close herself off from her society, contrasted with the gaiety of Hetta Carbury (Pamola Baeza) running breathlessly hand-and-hand with a victim-hero, Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy) to catch the train which will enable them to escape to an anonymous world.
The film adaptations of the nineteenth-century novels discussed in Lupack’s anthology are costume variants of film adaptations of middlebrow and high status twentieth-century novels. They all belong to the film subgenre the industry derisively calls “women’s emotion pictures.” Even though Lupack lists a large number of film adaptations of middlebrow twentieth-century fiction by women in her introduction, essays on adaptations of these later books are excluded. The result fends off another derisive label: “soap operas.” The unjust stigma attached to highly emotional films focusing on subjective experience has resulted in the replacement of such early and mid-twentieth-century films whose stars dressed in modern clothes with films that can obtain respectability through an attachment to a high status nineteenth-century novel (Tims 21, 40-42, 90-91, 180).15
The replacement films do differ in a significant way. Although as stars actors are interchangeable in films based on nineteenth and twentieth-century novels, and as stars actresses are interchangeable in films “based on twentieth-century novels, no actress is permitted to blur the icon she enacted in a film based on a high status nineteenth-century novel by starring in another. Laurence Olivier was Darcy and Heathcliff; Ciarhan Hinds has been Rochester and Wentworth; Timothy Dalton, Rochester and Heathcliff. Greer Garson can be both Mrs. Miniver and Paul Ridgeway/Lady Ranier, but she cannot be both Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Earnshaw. Once Jennifer Ehle enacts Elizabeth Bennet, she cannot recur as Anne Elliot; very recently actresses have begun to recur in lesser roles (Samantha Morton is Harriet in the 1995 BBC Emma and Jane Eyre in the 1997 BBC A&E Jane Eyre), but they are not interchangeable in the princess role in film adaptations of high status nineteenth-century novels.16
Basic filmic commercial practices and codes do not emerge in Nineteenth Century Women At the Movies because its methodology grows out of the literary training of most of the writers and partisan stances on behalf of implied receivers and makers (Orr; Ray 44-49). In all the essays but one a line-up of films are discussed because they usually have the same title, and some of the story and characters’ names found in an eponymous novel.17 Seven of the essayists simply discuss their film adaptations by trying to gauge whether what they take to be the “average” viewer’s experience of the adapted film is a cinematic equivalent of this viewer’s and the critic’s interpretation of the novel. Early twentieth are compared late twentieth-century films; films made for a Public Television audience and funded by oil companies (who thus show themselves as civic-minded) are compared to film companies’ films made to attract a mass paying audience (e.g., Hoberg, “The Multiplex Heroine” 114-21; Marchalionis, Little Women 259-68).18
At their best these discourses of comparative fidelities contain persuasive cultural exegeses. Barbara Lupack’s “Uncle Tom and American Popular Culture” is a sobering account of demeaning, trivializing, coarse and contradictory racist and popular entertainments based on the story and characters of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (216-28, 233- 39). Victoria Szabo’s “Love on the Algerian Sands: Reviving Cigarette in Under Two Flags” opens with the assertion that “Under Two Flags (1936) is a film in dialogue with its predecessors;” she offers an analysis of the changes in filmic female stereotypes by analyzing the dialogue, events, and visual imagery surrounding Cigarette (as enacted by Claudette Colbert) in the 1936 re-make of Under Two Flags (283-96); although Szabo frames her remarks as comparisons of this film with previous films and Louise de la Ramé’s 1865 novel, her criteria are rooted in her perceptive post-colonial perspective.
My objection is not that these essays are about ideology (all politicized thematic criticism is), but rather that they are framed to establish the aesthetic value of the films in terms which obscure insight into significant elements of filmic codes. These pre-censored codes are used because they attract audiences. The percentage of people who read high status or middlebrow books is very small in comparison to the percentage of people who come to see a film; films must appeal through filmic delights, which include stars whose cinema personalities awaken conditioned psychic mechanisms (Bluestone 4-6, 13-34; Stam 62-68, 71-76).19 In a crucial hinge-point (match-making) scene in RKO’s 1933 Little Women Edna Mae Oliver plays Aunt March as a curmudgeonly but well-meaning aunt-mother helper functioning as a seeming trickster who brings about the happy marriage of an exemplary couple; renamed Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Oliver enacts the same function in the parallel scene of MGM’s 1940 Pride and Prejudice.20 Fifty-five years later Gweneth Paltrow as Emma and Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley enact a catalyzing erotic archery scene closely similar to Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson’s parallel scene. Hoberg reproduces the single- frame shot (119 and facing photograph), but since his topic is the relationship between Austen’s novel and the 1996 Miramax film, he cannot discuss what the icon scene itself encodes, why it remains the same, and why the particular choice of stars.21
Since the controlling criteria are not filmic, the volume has no way to differentiate fine films as films (e.g., Paramount’s 1992 Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; BBC/A&E’s 1997 Jane Eyre) from what today seem unpersuasive ones: in the 1941 Pride and Prejudice Olivier and Garson enact their roles thinly, as if they did not believe nor expect their contemporary audience to believe their characters ever had any equivalents in the real world. Why a thoughtful adaptation of Eliot’s Middlemarch is dull remains puzzling: for a post-1990 film, the camera work of BBC/WGBH 1994 Middlemarch is insufficiently mesmerizing. The 1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility (with a distinguished screenplay by Emma Thompson) and the 1995 BBC Persuasion are masterly films, but not because they “came from” or dramatize the “values” of Jane Austen. Screenplays and shooting scripts, the real and important verbal pre-texts for these films, are ignored.22
The essays least distorted about filmic art were those where after an initial commentary on the novel, the writer dismissed it. Martin Tropp’s essay on the film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein since Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein, and Lin Haire-Sargeant’s on five of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights since MGM’s 1939 Wuthering Heights, take into account the reality that most of the films they discuss are re-makes or adaptations of previous films, concepts, or character types; they then discuss their films as filmic art. Martin Tropp provides dazzling analyses of James Whale’s work for Universal in the 1920s and 1930. However, his conclusion that a particular film of Frankenstein appealed to its era’s audiences as pictures of “death and disfigurement close up” and metaphorically visualized contemporary rampages of lynching (“what can happen when mobs of men are led to slaughter the innocent”) remains a subjective statement without filmic documentation (284-6) he could have found were he to have considered a film adaptation close in time and technique to the Frankenstein film; for example, Twentieth-Century Fox’s 1943 film adaptation of a contemporary American novel, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, a story of a brutal lynching (Bluestone 170-96). Tropp underestimates Tristar’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (71-75) because he has not aligned it with its subgenre: it is realistic and domestic because it is a woman’s emotion picture, and its emotional core as a gothic is a ghastly nightmare vision of science as it can be experienced in the modern medicine of hospital operations. I hope that Lin Haire-Sargeant’s commentary on Bunuel’s ruthlessly cut down and original film Abismos de Pasion (1954, Producciones Etpeyac) calls attention to a film which has been forgotten because it’s in Spanish and its literal details depart so obviously from Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (173-77, 185-90).
In the books reviewed here all the writers present as the responses of implied groups of receivers their own analyses of texts and films. In two of them literary scholars judge literary art and book-making as so much social and political behavior which their rhetoric encourages the reader to regard with irony or disrespect. In a third film is treated in ways which obscure the way the medium is put together as well as its central commercialized and popular features. A few of the critics in Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies decry certain films, but the object of the book is to raise the status of cinema. These three books make visible post-modern criticism’s discomfort with its position as a discourse seriously concerned with art and progressive politics in a society where both are marginalized and debased by “the culture industry.”23
GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY
1 E.g., Price describing families for whom reading aloud is a source of distressing embarrassment. For a similar approach, see John Wiltshire, on a “wonderfully ridiculous” biography 13-16.
2 I am grateful to David Brewer of Ohio State University for allowing me to read his unpublished essay based on research into abridgements of novels published from 1950 to 1970 by Readers’ Digest, “Better Living Through Condensation.” Brewer’s research and Andrew Wright’s (421-53), show that in most instances abridgements are different texts. A shortened, refocused and simplified (without much detail) text replaces the original. See Price on the third-person narratives which were the earliest abridgements of Richardson’s novels 18- 27.
3 Compare, e.g., Benedict and Fraisse.
4 The British Library online catalogue lists the abridgement as by Mrs. Ward;
you have to hit the link of the entry to discover this the Mrs. Ward was “WARD, Harriet Mrs.” who
wrote her abridgement for Routledge’s Railway Library; it was published in London by George
Routledge and Sons in 1868. Ward’s book is very different from E. S. Dallas’s (published 1868)
and twentieth-century abridgements: Ward’s book is 460 pages, with a four page preface (17
cm); Dallas’s book, reviewed by Anthony Trollope for St. Paul’s Magazine, is three
volumes (21 cm); see Anthony Trollope’s “Clarissa” 63-72; and Eileen Curran,
5 Radcliffe inserts epigraphs before chapters dramatizing incest in The
Italian or the Confessional of the Black Penitents from Horace Walpole’s (far from
prestigious and respectable) Incestuous Mother.
6 McCaw (8) means to refute Sanders 168-96.
7 McCaw takes Edward Said’s view.
8 But see’s Eliot’s defensive preface to The Spanish Gypsy,
“Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General.” First printed in John Cross’s Life, it
prefaces older editions of the poem; see Eliot, Poems, introd. Browne 13-18. The heroine’s
father is an openly vengeful variant on Magggie Tulliver’s brother. See also Haight 249.
9 John Updike has some cogent thoughts (based on his reading of Graham
Greene) in “Fairy Tales and Paradigms” 216-22.
10 See Trouille 194-98.
11 The same attempt to turn reading a critic into the equivalent of reading the
story with illustrative pictures drawn from movie still occurs in The English Novel and the
Movies, Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, ed. The technique is found in a number of
Ungar publications on films.
12 I draw my terminology from McFarlane and Dancyger. In Lupack’s study
McFarlane’s book is cited in justification of comparative study; but McFarlane devotes single
long chapters to single films chosen on the basis of their film attributes and film genres.
13 The best analysis of the character archetypes in movies is still Propp. The
problem is his analysis is directed at male-centered adventure stories and patriarchal fairy tales.
14 French film critics argue such shots reinforce pro-capitalist conservative
values; see Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” and Jean-Louis
Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Aproaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema,”
Braudy and Cohen 752-77.
15 Basinger's A Woman's View is an important study of the
subgenres of films with a woman-centered point of view that flourished in the first half of the
twentieth century and influenced this essay.
16 In Proppian terms, Harriet Smith is a false princess. The felt need for a
different face gives young unknown actresses a break: in the 2002 BBC Daniel
Deronda (director Tom Hooper, screenplay Andrew Davies), newcomer Roloma Garai is
17 Marilyn Roberts’s “Adapting Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Catherine
Morland as Gothic heroine” (129-39) is on one film. She praises the BBC/A&E 1995 film
adaptation of Northanger Abbey for its “Lacanian and Freudian” understanding of Gothic
romance, suggests it is an adaptation of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho as
well as Austen’s novel and failed commercially because it sexualizes Austen’s novel grotesquely.
In fact, the film’s character functions and visualizations draw upon transgressive and depressive
imagery from other gothic films, and the film failed because its departures from the conventions
of women’s emotion pictures frustrated its target audience’s expectations.
18 See Axelrod 201-7. Alexrod writes that political implications are “written out
of the scripts” of films attached to high-status novels. But see LeMahieu who finds these films
enact progressive and enlightened perspectives 243-54. An important book here which looks
carefully into the central roles the producer plays is Jarvik's Masterpiece Theatre and the
Politics of Equality.
19 Bluestone cites a study whose statistics demonstrate that “more copies of
Wuthering Heights” were sold in 1939 than in all the previous 92 years of [the book’s] existence.”
20 See Roland Barthes, “The Face of Garbo” 536-38, and Robert C. Allen,
“The Role of the Star in Film History” 547-61, in Braudy and Cohen for analysis of more famous
character functions or types.
21 E.g., in the 2002 Warner Bros. Possession, Paltrow played
Maud Bailey and Northam played Randolph Henry Ashe, while Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennet
1995 BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice) played Christabel LaMotte. The setting remains a long shot
of a graceful labyrinthian picturesque garden where we see glimpses of happy social life (a party)
in the distance.
22 For a persuasive argument on behalf of making screenplays a central text to
study in understanding filmic subgenres and techniques see John Gassner, “The Screenplay as
Literature,” Twenty Best Film Plays, edd. John Gassner and Dudley Nichols (New
York: Crown Publishers, 1943). vii-xl.
23 I use the phrase as defined by Theodor Adorno in The Culture
5 Radcliffe inserts epigraphs before chapters dramatizing incest in The Italian or the Confessional of the Black Penitents from Horace Walpole’s (far from prestigious and respectable) Incestuous Mother.
6 McCaw (8) means to refute Sanders 168-96.
7 McCaw takes Edward Said’s view.
8 But see’s Eliot’s defensive preface to The Spanish Gypsy, “Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General.” First printed in John Cross’s Life, it prefaces older editions of the poem; see Eliot, Poems, introd. Browne 13-18. The heroine’s father is an openly vengeful variant on Magggie Tulliver’s brother. See also Haight 249.
9 John Updike has some cogent thoughts (based on his reading of Graham Greene) in “Fairy Tales and Paradigms” 216-22.
10 See Trouille 194-98.
11 The same attempt to turn reading a critic into the equivalent of reading the story with illustrative pictures drawn from movie still occurs in The English Novel and the Movies, Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, ed. The technique is found in a number of Ungar publications on films.
12 I draw my terminology from McFarlane and Dancyger. In Lupack’s study McFarlane’s book is cited in justification of comparative study; but McFarlane devotes single long chapters to single films chosen on the basis of their film attributes and film genres.
13 The best analysis of the character archetypes in movies is still Propp. The problem is his analysis is directed at male-centered adventure stories and patriarchal fairy tales.
14 French film critics argue such shots reinforce pro-capitalist conservative values; see Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” and Jean-Louis Baudry, “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Aproaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema,” Braudy and Cohen 752-77.
15 Basinger's A Woman's View is an important study of the subgenres of films with a woman-centered point of view that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century and influenced this essay.
16 In Proppian terms, Harriet Smith is a false princess. The felt need for a different face gives young unknown actresses a break: in the 2002 BBC Daniel Deronda (director Tom Hooper, screenplay Andrew Davies), newcomer Roloma Garai is Gwendolen Harleth.
17 Marilyn Roberts’s “Adapting Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Catherine Morland as Gothic heroine” (129-39) is on one film. She praises the BBC/A&E 1995 film adaptation of Northanger Abbey for its “Lacanian and Freudian” understanding of Gothic romance, suggests it is an adaptation of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho as well as Austen’s novel and failed commercially because it sexualizes Austen’s novel grotesquely. In fact, the film’s character functions and visualizations draw upon transgressive and depressive imagery from other gothic films, and the film failed because its departures from the conventions of women’s emotion pictures frustrated its target audience’s expectations.
18 See Axelrod 201-7. Alexrod writes that political implications are “written out of the scripts” of films attached to high-status novels. But see LeMahieu who finds these films enact progressive and enlightened perspectives 243-54. An important book here which looks carefully into the central roles the producer plays is Jarvik's Masterpiece Theatre and the Politics of Equality.
19 Bluestone cites a study whose statistics demonstrate that “more copies of Wuthering Heights” were sold in 1939 than in all the previous 92 years of [the book’s] existence.”
20 See Roland Barthes, “The Face of Garbo” 536-38, and Robert C. Allen, “The Role of the Star in Film History” 547-61, in Braudy and Cohen for analysis of more famous character functions or types.
21 E.g., in the 2002 Warner Bros. Possession, Paltrow played Maud Bailey and Northam played Randolph Henry Ashe, while Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennet 1995 BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice) played Christabel LaMotte. The setting remains a long shot of a graceful labyrinthian picturesque garden where we see glimpses of happy social life (a party) in the distance.
22 For a persuasive argument on behalf of making screenplays a central text to study in understanding filmic subgenres and techniques see John Gassner, “The Screenplay as Literature,” Twenty Best Film Plays, edd. John Gassner and Dudley Nichols (New York: Crown Publishers, 1943). vii-xl.
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