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‘Middlemarch’ and George Eliot’s Scientific Aspirations

The subtitle of George Eliot’s 1872 masterpiece Middlemarch promises “a study of provincial life.” Set between 1829 and 1831, the novel depicts the residents of a fictional town in England’s Midlands region. But it also debates a new approach to science that emerged in that era.

At the time, the humanities and the sciences were codified into opposing forms of study, and scientific leaders were amplifying their call for specialization. Eliot believed specialization was limiting. A new essay, “Middlemarch and the Limits of Interdisciplinarity,” which appears in the edited collection Victorian Culture and the Origins of Disciplines, reads Eliot’s most significant work in light of her interest in science and the concept of interdisciplinary study.

Middlemarch represents “a useful voice to add to the modern debate about specialization and interdisciplinarity,” according to the essay’s author, Professor Renata Kobetts Miller (The City College of New York).  

Although scholars have long posited that interdisciplinarity began developing in the late 19th century, Miller argues that Eliot’s novel is proof that the seeds of such thought began sprouting much earlier. She writes, “The world that Eliot created in Middlemarch served as her own laboratory in which she could model various forms of interdisciplinarity.”  

The character Tertius Lydgate becomes central to that modeling. A physician with “interdisciplinary ambitions,” his interests go beyond study and incorporate actual practice in a broad sense. As Miller explains, his “research crosses the threshold of the laboratory, aims for real-world applications, and engages with the complexity of the human experience.”

Serving as a foil to Lydgate, the character Edward Casaubon represents what Eliot saw as the limits of specialization. “The temporal setting of Middlemarch allows Eliot to place her characters at a critical moment in the development of science as a discipline, and to engage in thoughtful consideration of both the drawbacks and benefits of specialization and interdisciplinarity,” writes Miller.   

Ultimately, the growing practice of scientific specialization wins out. Through Lydgate and even the vicar-scientist character Mr. Farebrother, “Eliot seems to acknowledge reluctantly that despite her belief in theory for a balanced, multi-perspectived world view, in practice discovery requires at least some degree of specialization.”

Miller’s contribution highlights an understudied intersection between Victorian literature and “the rise of disciplines,” especially as the latter influenced literary genres and narrative forms. She concludes that that interplay, “warrant[s] more attention.”

Miller previously authored a book about the actress in Victorian literature.

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Middlemarch and the Limits of Interdisciplinarity
Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2019

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Renata Kobetts Miller (Professor, Deputy Dean of the Division of Humanities and the Arts, English) | Profile 1

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The City College of New York