Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to take a class that reminds you how much you love your major. Don’t get me wrong: on a general baseline level, I’ve liked — and sometimes loved — my English courses at Hopkins thus far. Still, to have my first class back on campus be one that re-engaged me with so many of the reasons why I do what I do here felt like such a lucky thing, especially after having been away for so long. I’ve felt more trepidation than excitement in the days leading up to this week, mostly spurred by overthinking my capability (or potential lack thereof) to adapt to the Hopkins workflow again. How could I possibly just stroll back into an upper-level English class and analytically riff for several hours each week while also plowing away at a 777 page book with a fine-tooth comb? In a stress spiral that is very on-brand for me, I woke up this morning with quietly mediocre expectations of myself and, in turn, of my class. Which is ridiculous to think about after today’s lecture. Each Monday for the next 12 weeks, from 1:30-3:50, I’ll be sitting in Gilman 186 deconstructing the many facets of George Eliot’s final two works, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, with about 11 other students in a classically small Hopkins humanities course. It’s only syllabus week, but our introductory lecture was enough to show me exactly how much I’ve missed the quality of professor & class content here, & how happy I am to be back.
I know that this basically looks like Just Another English Class, one in which you read novels set in the Victorian era about unrequited love and the class system. But, as my professor so eloquently explained today, the work of George Eliot is in a class of its own. She was a massively intelligent young woman who was largely self-taught, outside of a provincial education through secondary school. Her passion for being well read in everything from Darwinism to sociology and psychology had a profound influence on the format of her fictional works. Middlemarch in itself makes an argument for the novel as “the technology best-suited to capture our lives,” as my professor put it, in a manner that manages to supersede other ways of thinking about the world (like anthropology, sociology, etc). She used her version of a novel to create a natural history of provincial life that has stood the test of time through the many challenges it poses to readers, not only intellectually but also morally, and even memory-wise: in her work, significance is cumulative, so something she writes on page 774 could refer all the way back (and only) to something a character joked about on page 129.
George Eliot managed to perfect the art of the novel by the end of Middlemarch, but then chose to disrupt much of what she had used in her previous works to write Daniel Deronda. It is not a perfect book like Middlemarch, but it is still a great book in how challenging it was to craft & how markedly different it was from the structures she became comfortable with and known for. We’ll be reading Deronda second, which feels apt.
Despite my professor’s quick disclaimer that he is an especially tough essay grader and the spectres of “suggested” secondary reading looming in the near future on my syllabus, “George Eliot” was an unexpectedly invigorating 2 hours of my 3rd-to-last first day. It put me back in touch with what I love so much about my major and, more specifically, being that major at Hopkins. I’m in a small class with plenty of space to test out my ideas about this body of work in all its multifaceted glory, under the guidance of an engaging professor whose passion for the content balances out its intellectual heftiness. It’s about the power of the novel as an art form and a way to reconcile myriad human problems into something palpable and ageless. It’s about the importance of studying English lit as a discipline, and the gift of being able to do so at all. And somehow, it’s only day one.