Elsie B. Michie, “Envious Reading: Margaret Oliphant on George Eliot” (pp. 87–111)

This essay maps out a model of influence that is not deterministic but instead addresses historical “conditions,” the proximity of authors’ lives to their work, the relationship among texts, and how we read (or fail to read) all those interactions. Using the work of Sianne Ngai and other theoreticians of envy, it presents envy as a productive emotion that drives authors to contemplate the circumstances that make their lives and writing both similar to and different from those of their rivals. It tracks the workings of envy through Margaret Oliphant’s relation to George Eliot, arguing that in the novel Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life (1883) Oliphant created a story centered on envy in order to work through her relation to her more powerful and famous precursor. Depicting two hostile women, who are gradually brought close by being forced to understand each other’s circumstances, Oliphant also used Hester to rework the Eliot novel she loved best, The Mill on the Floss (1860), such that it reflected the circumstances of her own life as much as Eliot’s. Oliphant’s envious reading of Eliot reconfigures the relation between authors, between texts, between lives and works, between readers and what they read. Replacing the linear, generational conception of influence as indebtedness with an image of circumstances that ebb and flow, envious reading opens up a space of creative flux and contingency that points to the present and future as much as to the past.

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