“What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?” — Emily Dickinson
I came to George Eliot late. As in, during the lifespan of this blog. I read Middlemarch (more like devoured it) in 2005, and wrote posts about it as I went. After hearing about her, and absorbing her via osmosis for decades, I experienced her first-hand and had one of those gratifying moments of delayed realization: “Oh. Okay. This is why she is considered one of the all-time greats.” It’s instantly apparent. Her domination, her sheer ballsiness – the way she draws back almost cinematically into a God’s eye point of view – perched on a cloud, looking down at humanity … Normally, statistically, this is considered a male “thing”, as in: Only men have the AUDACITY to stand far back and proclaim on the human condition. Women only concern themselves with their small domestic circle. This is reflected in the writing, the kinds of books celebrated by men, the kinds of books celebrated by women. This kind of bullshit is still present, in ways books are marketed, reviewed, etc. And women participate in this. George Eliot is a novelist, but she is also a philosopher.
I’ve said it before: I rarely “see” myself in literature. I see parts of myself, but then the rest isn’t “right”. There are exceptions (Harriet the Spy). The unnamed narrator in Mating (written by a man, unsurprisingly) is another. I don’t see myself in Dorothea Brooke so much as I get the sense – very uneasily – that I very much could have been Dorothea Brooke if I had been born in another time, and another era (and weren’t Irish Catholic in origin). Dorothea Brooke is a dark mirror. She represents my worst fears. That characterization is so acute, so specific, so on point, I was haunted by her AS I was reading it. I guess I don’t “see myself” so much as I see the plight of all women of a specific stripe – intellectually aspirational and voracious, yearning to be SEEN, trapped by convention, etc. – and this is George Eliot’s great and intimidating gift. Her characters are real AND they are representational. I don’t know how she does it. Comparisons are odious, they really are, but I’ll just throw this into the mix: Dickens was Eliot’s contemporary, and to compare the two is ridiculous mainly because they are very different kinds of writers. Dickens’ characters live, breathe, feel, proclaim – sometimes they are caricatures (exquisitely drawn), although they feel no less alive – but they aren’t particularly representational, except in broad pantomime. This isn’t true across the board, but for the sake of argument … Eliot is both down in the dirt with her characters, and circling the earth like an eavesdropping satellite … and so she sees things as representational, and as indicative of larger societal, social, and cultural upheavals. E.M. Forster is one of her heirs. Whereas John Irving is Dickens’ heir. Very different kinds of writers.
Dorothea Brooke is unique. Some quotes:
Most men thought her bewitching when she was on horseback. She loved the fresh air and the various aspects of the country, and when her eyes and cheeks glowed with mingled pleasure she looked very little like a devotee. Riding was an indulgence which she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it.
Look at what Eliot does there in the last phrase after the comma. She leads you towards it, she “bewitches” you with the images, she lulls you into a sense of complacency and pleasure, and then draws you up short. This type of paragraph structure is constant with Eliot: her work is overwhelming in its philosophical richness.
Here you can really see George Eliot’s “God’s-eye” point of view:
Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likelyl to seek martyrdom to make retractations, and then to incur martyrdom, after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.
We’re getting to the crux of it.
It had now entered Dorothea’s mind that Mr. Casaubon might wish to make her his wife, and the idea that he would do so touched her with a sort of reverential gratitude. How good of him — nay, it would be almost as if a winged messenger had suddenly stood beside her path and held out his hand towards her! For a long whilte she had been oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like a thick summer haze, over all her desire to make her life greatly effective. What could she do, what ought she to do? — she, hardly more than a budding woman, but yet with an active conscience and a great mental need, not to be satisfied by a girlish instruction comparable to the nibblings and judgments of a discursive mouse. With some endowment of stupidity and conceit, she might have thought that a Christian young lady of fortune should find her ideal of life in village charities, patronage of the humbler clergy, the perusal of “Female Scripture Characters,” unfolding the private experience of Sara, under the Old Dispensation, and Dorcas under the New, and the care of her soul over her embroidery in her own boudoir — with a background of prospective marriage to a man who, if less strict than herself, as being involved in affairs religiously inexplicable, might be prayed for and seasonably exhorted. From such contentment poor Dorothea was shut out. The intensity of her religious disposition, the coercion it exercised over her life, was but one aspect of a nature altogether ardent, theoretic, and intellectually consequent: and with such a nature, struggling in the bands of a narrow teaching, hemmed in by a social life which seemed nothing but a labyrinth of petty courses, a walled-in maze of small paths that led no whither, the outcome was sure to strike others as at once exaggeration and inconsistency. The thing which seemed to her best, she wanted to justify by the completest knowlege; and not to live in a pretended admission of rules which were never acted on. Into this soul-hunger as yet all her youthful passion was poured; the union which attracted her was one that would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.
I won’t speak on how this resonates with me because it’s too embarrassing to admit. Besides, why do I need to admit anything, when George Eliot has already done it so perfectly? This is the heart of Dorothea’s great mistake, and it’s a mistake “women like her” make, and it’s specific to “women like her” and “women like her” are rarely served fully in literature because nobody else has the perspective to actually GET “women like her”. Except Eliot. Who WAS a “woman like her”. I speak from the inside on this one, you’ll just have to trust me.
I love when Eliot stops everything – the narrative, the plot, the description – to sum things up, to provide a universal. Here’s just one example from Middlemarch:
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts — not to hurt others.
And let’s not forget humor.
Plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science.
Watch her character development here. It takes such confidence not just to write like this, but to to THINK like this, to believe you have insight into how human beings ARE. Character development like this is way WAY out of style now (and maybe that’s for the best, because God save us from people who AREN’T as insightful as George Eliot proclaiming they understand everything):
Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attined that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required. Her shrewdness had a streak of satiric bitterness continually renewed and never carried utterly out of sight, except by a strong current of gratitude towards those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so. Advancing womanhood had tempered her plainness, which was of a good human sort, such as the mothers of our race have very commonly worn in all latitudes under a more or less becoming headgear. Rembrandt would have painted her with pleasure, and would have made her broad features look out of the canvas with intelligent honesty. For honesty, truth-telling fairness, was Mary’s reigning virtue: she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof, and when she was in a good mood she had humor enough in her to laugh at herself.
One last thing: Middlemarch includes one of the most perceptive – and harrowing – descriptions of what it feels like to be in debt up to your ears I have ever read. It’s excruciating. Nothing was beneath her notice. Religion, economics, technology, psychology … all of it was in her grasp, none of it was irrelevant, everything was connected to everything else.
Please enjoy, unfurling below, all of the quotes I have gathered from writers about George Eliot, from Byatt, to LM Montgomery, to Zadie Smith, to Christopher Hitchens:
A.S. Byatt, “George Eliot: A Celebration”:
So I came to George Eliot late, in the days when I was teaching the modern English novel in evening classes and trying to find out how to write a good novel myself. Meeting any great writer is like being made aware of freedoms and capabilities one had no idea were possible. Reading Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda I learned several primitive yet crucial lessons about writing novels – and these lessons were also moral lessons about life. It is possible, I learned, to invent a world peopled by a large number of inter-related people, almost all of whose processes of thought, developments of consciousness, biological anxieties, sense of their past and future can most scrupulously be made available to readers, can work with and against each other, can lead to failure, or partial failure, or triumphant growth.
A.S. Byatt, “George Eliot: A Celebration”:
One of the technical things I had discovered during the early teaching of Middlemarch was George Eliot’s authorial intervention, which were then very unfashionable, thought to be pompous Victorian moralizing and nasty lumps in the flow of “the story.” I worked out that on the contrary, the authorial “voice” added all sorts of freedom a good writer could do with. Sometimes it could work with firm irony to undercut the sympathetic “inner” portrayal of a character. Consider this early description of Dorothea:
Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own role of conduct there; she was enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.
There is so much in there, in the style. The magisterial authority of a Greek Chorus, or God, who knows Dorothea’s fate before her drama has really begun. Sympathy, in the author, towards the character’s ambitions, and a certain wry sense that, unfocused as they are, they are doomed. And then, in that last sentence, which is biting social comedy, the choice of the crucial adjective – “merely canine affection” – to disparage the kind of “love” thought adequate by most planners of marriages, not only in the nineteenth century.
L.M. Montgomery on Adam Bede:
It is a great novel in spite of its inartistic ending. I could have pardoned the marriage of Adam and Dinah, however, if it had not been brought about in such a hurried and artificial manner. Mrs. Poyser is a delightful creature in a book. Out of it she might not be so agreeable. The character of Hetty Sorrel is wonderfully analyzed. Dinah is just a little bit too good for ‘human nature’s daily food.’ Yet there are such people — and the rest of us are not fit to untie their shoe-laces. Nevertheless, Dinah does not enlist our sympathy or interest. We don’t care a hoot whether she ever gets a husband or not. But our hearts go out to poor, pretty, vain, sinning, suffering Hetty. After all, it is the sinners we love and pity — perhaps because they are nearer to ourselves and we recognize so many of our hidden weaknesses in them.
L.M. Montgomery on Romola:
Read Romola again. Oh, truly, there were giants in those days in literature. My books seem so trivial and petty compared to those masterpieces.
L.M. Montgomery on Adam Bede:
Adam Bede is a cup of mingled pain and pleasure … It is a powerful book with an inartistic ending. Her delineation of character is a thing before which a poor scribbler might well throw down her pen in despair.
Joyce Carol Oates:
My role models were childless: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature, entry on Emily Dickinson:
The standard works she knew best and drew on most commonly for allusions and references in her poetry and vivid letters were the classic myths, the Bible, and Shakespeare. Among the English Romantics, she valued John Keats especially; among her Englishc ontemporaries she was particularly attracted by the Brontes, the Brownings, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and George Eliot.
Who should the poet serve? Society or the Muse? This was a brand new question and not a happy one. If the woman poet could avoid it, the male poet and the prose writers of either sex could not. Of the great writers, Emily Brontë chose well. Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot continually equivocate and the equivocation helps to explain the uneven power of their work.
from “Letter to Lord Byron”
By W.H. Auden
You’ve had your packet from time critics, though:
They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head
Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.
A ‘vulgar genius’ so George Eliot said,
Which doesn’t matter as George Eliot’s dead
Christopher Hitchens, “The Dark Side of Dickens”:
If offered the onetime chance to travel back into the world of the nineteenth-century English novel, I once heard myself saying, I would brush past Messrs. Dickens and Thackeray for the opportunity to hold speech with George Eliot. I would of course be wanting to press Mary Ann Evans on her theological capacities and her labor in translating the liberal German philosophers, as well as on her near-Shakespearean gift for divining the well-springs of human motivation. When compared to that vista of the soul and the intellect, why trouble even with the creator of Rebecca Sharp, let alone with the man who left us the mawkish figures of Smike and Oliver and Little Nell, to say nothing of the grisly inheritance that is the modern version of Christmas? Putting it even more high-mindedly, ought one not to prefer an author like Eliot, who really did give her whole enormous mind to religious and social and colonial questions, over a vain actor-manager type who used pathetic victims as tear-jerking raw material, and who actually detested the real subjects of High Victorian power and hypocrisy when they were luckless enough to dwell overseas?
Charles Dickens, note to George Eliot about Scenes of Clerical Life:
If [the sketches] originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.
Joan Acocella, “After the Laughs”:
But [Dorothy Parker’s] unique contribution was her portrait, in the stories, of female dependence. This was a central concern of nineteenth-century women writers – Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes – and also some of the men, notably Thackeray.
Zadie Smith, The Guardian, 2008:
In her intellectual and personal life, Eliot demanded continuous and varied food – and she conceived of many things. One of these things was Fred Vincy, a commonplace young man who would seem more suited to a penny-farthing romance. But it’s worth looking again at the facts, which means, in the world of Middlemarch, the emotional facts. Fred is in love with a good girl; a girl who does not love him because he is not worthy; Fred agrees with her. Maybe the point is this: of all the people striving in Middlemarch, only Fred is striving for a thing worth striving for. Dorothea mistakes Casaubon terribly, as Lydgate mistakes Rosamund, but Fred thinks Mary is worth having, that she is probably a good in the world, or at least, good for him (“She is the best girl I know!”) – and he’s right. Of all of them Fred has neither chosen a chimerical good, nor radically mistaken his own nature. He’s not as dim as he seems. He doesn’t idealise his good as Dorothea does when she imagines Casaubon a second Milton, and he doesn’t settle on a good a priori, like Lydgate, who has long believed that a doting, mindless girl is just what a man of science needs. What Fred surmises of the good he stumbles upon almost by accident, and only as a consequence of being fully in life and around life, by being open to its vagaries simply because he is in possession of no theory to impose upon it. In many ways bumbling Fred is Eliot’s ideal Spinozian subject.
When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work – as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise – not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world.
Virginia Woolf on Middlemarch:
“The magnificent book, which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English books written for grown-up people”.
George Eliot, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”:
“Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues.”
One of George Eliot’s most perceptive contemporary “fans” is A.S. Byatt. You can tell the influence Eliot has had on Byatt’s work. (I wish I could track the quote down, but in a review of one of Byatt’s novels, the critic said that Eliot “writes as though James Joyce never existed.” lol It’s so true though.) I’ll point you towards this wonderful piece by Byatt in the Guardian about Middlemarch.