The works of English author George Eliot are getting the digital treatment, thanks to three University of Nebraska–Lincoln undergraduates.
Megan Ekstrom, Rachel Gordon and Riley Jhi are creating a website to house the complete works of the novelist, poet, journalist and translator. The students are working on the project this summer through the university’s Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience program, which provides a stipend for students to work with faculty mentors in research or creative activities for 20 hours per week. Their adviser and the site’s editor is Beverley Rilett, lecturer and research assistant professor in English.
Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, one of Victorian England’s most-acclaimed, highest-paid and bestselling writers. She is best known for her novels — including “Middlemarch,” “Adam Bede,” “The Mill on the Floss,” “Silas Marner” and “Daniel Deronda” — which remain staples of Victorian literature classes.
Rilett, who has studied Eliot for more than a decade and is working on a revisionist biography of the author, described “Middlemarch” as her “desert island favorite” — the book she’d choose if she could have only one.
“Eliot’s fiction still resonates because she writes about complicated, psychologically realistic relationships in ways that make readers feel she understands all their secret motivations and power struggles,” she said. “She was a humanitarian who endorsed expanded rights for women and issues of social justice, and her characters grapple with the kinds of moral issues we all experience, which is why she has long been compared with William Shakespeare, the other great writer from Warwickshire, England.”
The George Eliot Archive, which is being modeled after the Walt Whitman Archive at Nebraska, will feature thousands of pages of primary source material — including the writer’s novels, poems, dramatic works, essays, reviews and articles — as searchable, downloadable PDFs. Eventually it will include articles, reviews and obituary notices written by Eliot’s contemporaries; her correspondence; and photographs of the author, her friends and family, and places associated with her life. The website will be available for free to anyone with internet access.
“This is a fascinating project, but it’s also something that’s going to be really useful for academics in the future.”
— Rachel Gordon, senior English and political science major
The archive is a collaboration with the U.K.-based George Eliot Fellowship and the University of Warwick. The website is expected to launch in December, before the 2019 bicentennial of Eliot’s birth.
“I anticipate this project will continue to grow and develop for many years, but we have high expectations for what we want to include in the basic website,” Rilett said.
The new Eliot archive is an extension of the George Eliot Review Online, a website that holds every issue of the George Eliot Review and George Eliot Fellowship Review, dating back to 1975. Those journals were previously only available in print and by subscription. UCARE students, including Gordon, worked with Rilett on that project last summer and during the 2017-18 academic year. The website, launched last December, has already received thousands of visitors.
Gordon, a senior English and political science major from Shellsburg, Iowa, said it was rewarding to see the review website go live and receive traffic.
An assistant editor of the George Eliot Archive, Gordon is now preparing documents for upload. She is also researching Eliot’s relationships with American authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Annie Adams Fields and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.
“This is a fascinating project, but it’s also something that’s going to be really useful for academics in the future,” she said.
Jhi, a senior art and computer science major from Kearney, is building the website and creating an interactive visual representation of Eliot’s relationships with friends, business associates and family members.
She said the project has allowed her to combine her two areas of study in ways she hasn’t been able to before.
Ekstrom, a senior English major from Omaha, is also an assistant editor who is helping prepare and upload documents. She is researching Eliot’s possibly romantic relationships with at least three women.
All three undergraduate research assistants had taken a class with Rilett before being asked to apply for the UCARE grant.
In addition to their work on the website, the students are co-writing papers with Rilett that they will present at the annual European Studies Conference at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in October.
Ekstrom said she hadn’t heard of the UCARE program until she joined the team, but that she is now interested in doing research in the future.
“This has been extremely helpful in showing me that I really do enjoy research, and it’s something that I can get into and actually get something out of,” she said. “I think this is something I do want to pursue at some level in the future, and I could not have been able to say that before UCARE.”