From 'the great Handel chorus' to 'wild passion and fancy': Listening to Handel and Purcell in The Mill on the Floss

da Sousa Correa, Delia (2020). From 'the great Handel chorus' to 'wild passion and fancy': Listening to Handel and Purcell in The Mill on the Floss. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century(29), article no. 1934.



This article centres on George Eliot’s allusions to music by two long-dead composers, George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell. References to Handel are frequent in her writing and reverence for his oratorios was ubiquitous in the Victorian period. However, Handel’s music turns out to be of far wider resonance for Eliot than is represented by the chorus-loving Caleb Garth in Middlemarch. In The Mill on the Floss, first Handel’s and then Purcell’s music takes possession of Eliot’s heroine. What was this music’s role in Eliot’s assimilation of tragedy and myth within the realist novel? What could she expect her contemporary readership to make of allusions to composers whose music was already old at that time, and how can they continue to illuminate the experience of readers today? To help explore that last question, the article discusses specific musical repertoire where this can be identified with a reasonable degree of likelihood. It marks a new departure in combining analysis of musical allusion with an investigation of how listening and reading experiences might interact for readers now as well as in the Victorian era. While we can never listen to the identical sounds that Eliot heard or hear this music with nineteenth-century ears, embedded sound-links enable readers to reflect on what difference it makes to their experience of Eliot’s fiction to hear performances of some of the repertoire that she, and her original readership, had in mind. This innovation is intended to inspire reflection on potentially important relationships between the experiences of reading and listening.

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