A review of the George Eliot Archive, a resource providing access to all of Eliot's writing, directed by Beverley Park Rilett
George Eliot Archive
Beverley Park Rilett, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Roger Whitson, Washington State University
Beverley Park Rilett
The George Eliot Archive is an extensive resource for anyone studying the author best known as George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), one of the most highly acclaimed novelists in Western literature. It provides a barrier-free platform for scholars and general readers alike to learn about Eliot’s life and to find, read, and download any of her works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation. The archive also includes reviews of Eliot’s work by her contemporaries, early biographical studies by those who knew her, and all known portraits of the author created during her lifetime. We’ve identified, scanned, and cleaned hundreds of public domain publications and made them searchable and freely downloadable. This summer we added interactive features including a detailed 60,000-word chronology with entries for more than 3,000 dates. We’re nearly ready to unveil a visualization of George Eliot’s social network in the form of a relationship web that provides summaries and portraits for 150 of Eliot’s closest friends, family members, and colleagues. Interactive maps of Eliot’s travels abroad are also in progress. We will continue to improve and expand the archive year after year. Our project, which operates under an International Creative Commons 4.0 license, is being well utilized and appreciated for its commitment to public humanities—the free sharing of scholarship and resources as a democratic ideal.
The project editor, Beverley Park Rilett, research assistant professor in English and faculty fellow in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been researching and publishing about Eliot for the past decade. In addition to editing the George Eliot Archive and the George Eliot Review Online, Rilett is completing a revisionist biography of George Eliot.
Our subject advisors are experts in the field. John Burton has been Chair of the George Eliot Fellowship since 1980. Constance Fulmer and Kathleen McCormack both have written and edited several important monographs on George Eliot. Margaret Harris is best known as editor of George Eliot’s journals and John Rignall is the editor of The Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot. These renowned scholars and many others who are not on our official list of consulting editors have been extraordinarily supportive and helpful contributors to the project since its inception.
Our site is hosted on an institutional account with Reclaim Hosting. The platform we use is Omeka. Our team is primarily made up of undergraduate and graduate research assistants from the English department, so we needed something simple we all could use. One team member is a computer science major who is able to adapt publicly available plug-ins and who is responsible for recording our technical processes on GitHub. Because of our affiliation with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH), we benefit from the expertise of faculty and librarians who have built and maintained more than 60 digital humanities projects.
The George Eliot Archive would have continued to be a dream if not for the dedication of a team of undergraduate and graduate research assistants who bring ideas to fruition. Most of the 12 students who worked on the project were funded by successive Undergraduate Creative Activity and Research Experience (UCARE) grants, sponsored by the Pepsi Corporation and the UNL. Please see their bios here.
Given that the Victorian period is, as Andrew Stauffer says, an “exceptionally rich target […] for digitization” it is remarkable that no one has produced a digital archive devoted to the works of Mary Ann Evans, also known as George Eliot, until now (2). The George Eliot Archive provides a vast array of materials for anyone looking to read the work of this pivotal figure in Victorian literature: all of her novels, short stories, poetry, translations, and essays, as well as 19th-century reviews of her works, early biographies, and portraits. Additionally, the archive features writing appearing online for the first time. I was delighted, for instance, to see Thomas Deegan’s 1981 edition of Eliot’s translation of Benedict Spinoza’s Ethics featured prominently on the site.
Several interactive features of the site include a chronology of Eliot’s life, maps outlining her trip to Italy in the 1860s, and links to sister site The George Eliot Review Online, with 50 available issues going back to 1970. It’s a remarkable amount of content, matched by promises for future additions to the site. Director Beverley Park Rilett notes that future updates include more maps associated with Eliot’s life, a “relationship map” that charts out her most important connections from family members to business associates and other writers, and a section detailing the history of Eliot criticism.
The actor Gabriel Woolf gives an amazing speech in the first issue of The George Eliot Review on the opening of an Eliot exhibit in 1969 that can be seen as commenting on the magnificent effort by The George Eliot Archive to document so many facets of the author’s life. Woolf’s speech notes the odiousness with which Eliot saw the obsession over Dickens’s property after his death, in which, as she says, “every insignificant memorandum” is offered up for people to gossip over. Yet, Woolf also recounts Eliot’s trip to Pompeii and the deep reverence she felt for “the sight of utensils and half washed linen” — details reminding her of the life of the dead and of our strange sympathy with the past (5).
It’s that same sympathy for the details of Eliot’s life that animates The George Eliot Archive and also motivates the two hopes I have for future additions to the site. For instance, it would be nice to see included Eliot’s notes, marginalia, and manuscripts, in addition to different editions of Eliot’s work. Such material could give us more information about Eliot’s writing process and book history. The site is implemented in Omeka, and it makes sense that a project team consisting of undergraduate and graduate students would want a simple platform. The composition of the team also sends a powerful message about the use of archives in teaching Victorian literature. Yet as the site adds new functionalities, switching to TEI (Textual Encoding Initiative) markup might prove more robust for complex searches of Eliot’s work. Unlike the Dublin Core metadata scheme used in Omeka, which is focused on description at the level of a single artifact, TEI allows for the creation of paragraph, sentence, and word-level tags that can be used to describe the structural components of texts. Kate Singer has shown how teaching TEI to undergraduates helps them develop not only traditional literary studies skills like close reading and the identification of textual variations but also coding and information-management. Overall, though, The George Eliot Archive offers a beautifully-designed and illuminating resource for 19th-century scholars and teachers seeking more minute particulars to connect them to Eliot’s rich work and history.
Alfano, Veronica and Andrew Stauffer, editors. Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies. Palgrave, 2015.
Singer, Kate. “Digital Close Reading: TEI for Teaching Poetic Vocabularies.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, no. 3, 2013, https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/digital-close-reading-tei-for-teaching-poetic-vocabularies/, accessed 23 January 2020.
Woolf, Gabriel. “Opening of the 1969 Exhibition.” The George Eliot Review, 1, 1970: 4-6.