Book Review

George Eliot and Her Critics

“One of the few English novels written for grown-up people”: This oft-quoted remark about Middlemarch by Virginia Woolf is all too easy to take personally by deciding that, yes, I am a grown-up person and admirable, since I have read and reread George Eliot’s masterpiece. But how “few” are those few novels? It’s easy enough to point out, as F. R. Leavis did in The Great Tradition, that Jane Austen was writing for those grown-ups a good deal in advance of Eliot. After a recent teaching experience with The Pickwick Papers, to which my students (I surmised) couldn’t quite “relate,” I’m tempted to say that there is a novel only grown-ups can appreciate. Or what about Tom Jones? The comic novel may be a sterner test of psychic maturity. At age nineteen I was introduced to Middlemarch in a course of nineteenth-century English novels and, though not terribly grown-up, I was suitably impressed, indeed moved, by the book; subsequent readings have confirmed and extended my admiration. All well and good, but does such an openhearted approach to the novel have anything in common with the flood of recently (within the last two decades) published essays on every aspect of Eliot, some of those essays written in formidable prose indeed? The following thoughts are scratchings at some products of the Eliot industry.

At one point in an openhearted and sensitive account of her “life” in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead questions her own project of exploring how the novel has meant different things to her over the course of her life.[1] She notes that after Middlemarch was published, more than one young woman wrote to Eliot informing her how much of themselves they saw in Dorothea Brooke. Mead comments, “Such an approach to fiction— where do I see myself in here?—is not how a scholar reads,” and she admits we need literary criticism and scholarship to suggest “alternative lenses through which a book might be read.” Her own lens is an extremely personal one, which only someone with her discretion and capacity for self-criticism could have brought off. The book is, among other things, a travelogue of her visits to various places connected with Eliot. At Nuneaton, Eliot’s childhood home, Mead finds the family house converted to something called the George Eliot Hotel, complete with slot machines, pool table, and satellite sports channel. On a more intimate level, she describes Eliot’s experience with her mate G. M. Lewes’s three sons, then considers how such “stepmothering” by Eliot anticipates Mead’s own marriage to a man with children. Finding that “Our own lives can teach us how to read a book,” she compares her life to Eliot’s and sees the novelist’s “experience of unexpected family woven deep into the texture of the novel” as part of its “tensile strength” although not a part of its “obvious pattern.” As a young reader of eighteen, she was extremely moved by Dorothea; now, in middle age, she finds Casaubon in all his “failures and fears” a more sympathetic figure than she did before, noting that once when Eliot was asked about the “original” for Casaubon, she “silently tapped her own breast.”

Woolf’s 1919 essay on Eliot in which she tossed off the phrase about grown-up people, was preceded with a qualification—“for all its imperfection”—attached to the novel. (What those imperfections are Woolf never tells us.) Mead finds, rightly I think, a touch of “youthful arrogance” and suspects that it had to do with Woolf, having begun her own career as a novelist (her second one, Night and Day, was about to appear), doing a bit of clearing away instances of influential anxiety. Mead shrewdly points out that the broad valedictory that ends Woolf’s essay—“We must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose”—was a way of positioning herself as “the clever child, watching quietly from the neighboring room, ready to supersede her distinguished but failed elder.” There are other places in Woolf’s essay where one can detect a little chipping away at “the magnificent book”; for example, she makes the dubious claim that Eliot’s hold on dialogue is “slack” and that, equally dubious, she has little “verbal felicity.” Further, Woolf declares that Eliot was no satirist: “The movement of her mind was too slow and cumbersome to lend itself to comedy.” To which one might reply (after noting the fine comic treatment of Mr. Brooke in Middlemarch) that however quick and uncumbersome was Woolf’s mind, not much comedy or satire shows up in her novels; in fact there is maybe more comedy and satire in Middlemarch than in the whole of Woolf’s fiction, especially if you think Orlando isn’t very funny. Mead comments on Eliot’s occasional “ferocity” and not merely in the brilliant, destructive reviews of the Evangelical preacher Dr. Cumming, or the poet Edward Young, author of Night Thoughts, these written before she had published any fiction.

The question of Eliot’s satiric humor is taken up by one of the contributors to the latest large volume of essays about her.[2] Jeff Nunokawa, a professor of English at Princeton, whose essay bears the odd title “Essays: Essay v. Novel (Eliot, Aloof),” finds Eliot’s critical essays and reviews “nearly unbearable to write about.” The trouble seems to be that they are lacking in the “sympathy” Eliot would put so much stock in as a writer of novels. Nunokawa asserts that anyone who cares for the narrative voice in those novels “cannot help but feel at least a little betrayed and surely more than a little put off by the legalistic sterility that has taken its place.” Legalistic sterility is hardly the term I would apply to the delightful and prescient “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” or the energy with which Eliot prosecutes and persecutes the Reverend Cumming and the poet Young. If there is “ferocity” in these essays, it is made attractive through the energy and passion she brings to the satiric performance.

Ferocity is certainly not the word for Eliot’s attitude toward her characters in Middlemarch. But two examples of how she deals with minor personages leave no doubt of how sharp her wit can be. Of Mr. Ned Plymdale, a suitor for Rosamund Vincy’s hand who is no match for Lydgate, Eliot admits that though a good match, Plymdale is not “one of the leading minds,” but that, having brought a fashion magazine for him and Rosy to pore over he is satisfied “that he had the very best thing in art and literature as a medium to ‘paying addresses’—the very thing to please a nice girl.” Eliot proceeds quietly to do him in:

He had also reasons, deep rather than ostensible, for being satisfied with his own appearance. To superficial observers his chin had too vanishing an aspect, looking as if it were being gradually reabsorbed. And it did indeed cause him some difficulty about the fit of his satin stocks, for which chins were at that time useful.

Of the horrible brood of Featherstones from the Chalky Flats who congregate to watch over and encourage the death of their hoped-for benefactor, Peter, Eliot notes that “the troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots.” Of “Young Cranch” (he is not accorded a first name) who sits in the kitchen and annoys Mary Garth by staring at her, we learn that he “was not exactly the balancing point between the wit and the idiot—verging slightly towards the latter type, and squinting so as to leave everything in doubt about his sentiments except that they were not of a forcible character.” It is not all that far from passages like these to ones in Evelyn Waugh’s novels that mete out well-deserved demerits to his fools.[3]

One of the few essays on Middlemarch that pays attention to Eliot’s forcible wit is by Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, who finds always characteristic in the book “an extra margin for amusement in the narrative language, a kind of chronic risibility to the text.”[4] She provides a number of examples, some of which I had missed, of how the Nobody Narrator, as she calls it, provides an “extra edge,” a “margin of wider perspective that implicates what is not explicit and is even largely unsuspected by the characters.” No other novel by Eliot contains so much of this “edge,” and surely its greatness is implicated with such humorous literary power. Ermarth says that the “strategy” of Middlemarch is to engage readers in a process that “turns toward, then away from, every formulation,” and she calls it a perpetual “on the other hand.” Interestingly she suggests also that such a set of mind may have something to do with Eliot’s command of so many languages (French, Italian, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) making her a student of “linguistic relativity” and contributing to her narrative strategy of “on the other hand.”

Ermarth’s way of talking about the narration in Middlemarch seems to me much more attractive and useful than those writers in the Companion who are deep into “narratology.” For example, one essayist on Eliot’s “narrative refusals” puts forth a taxonomy of the “unnarratable,” consisting of four kinds: the Subnarratable, the Supranarratable, the Antinarratable, and the Paranarratable. Already my head was spinning and wondering how this helps to read the book. Another of the essays says about the opening of Adam Bede, “In this passage the blend of dissonance and consonance arises from a conjunction of two textual strategies that narrative theorists usually believe to be incompatible—(a) metafiction, with a hint of metalepsis, the transgression of ontological boundaries; and (b) the establishment of aesthetic illusion (Wolf) by means of the reader’s immersion (Ryan) in the fictional world.” The attempt to follow such jargon is not helped by the parenthetical acknowledging of how Wolf and Ryan contributed to this declaration. Of course English professors must have something to write about, and with George Eliot, about whom so much has been written, you have to work extra hard to make your mark on the Discourse. In the process a reader may suffer, at least this one did.

The Companion is less to be consulted for its essays on Eliot’s narratives than as a compendium of her views on various cultural subjects: short essays on topics such as the law, finance, politics, liberalism, gender and sexuality (a useful survey by Laura Green), secularism and evolution. Rather than attempt to survey these pieces, I will single out two first rate essays on work of Eliot’s hitherto unknown to me: her final book of prose essays, Impressions of Theophrastus Such; and her productions as a poet—The Spanish Gypsy, The Legend of Jubal, and some shorter works. In writing about Theophrastus Such, James Buzard describes it as a “collection of ruminative essays, mainly about the foibles of various character types, presented as the work of a crotchety fellow with a peculiar name.” He notes that of all her work, it is the one most admirers of her have either left unread or having read it (or part of it) agree with the sentiment expressed by a female friend of Theophrastus’ who wrote but one book but caused Theophrastus to wish that “she had refrained from producing even that single volume.” With titles such as “How We Encourage Research,” “Debasing the Moral Currency,” and “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!,”[5] it is a book to defeat even the hardiest admirers of Eliot. Mr. Buzard identifies accurately what it’s like to read Theophrastus:

The narrator who foregrounds himself so markedly in the opening essays tends to flicker in and out of view as we proceed through the collection as a whole. We are apt to forget his mediating presence at times, to think we are reading the voice of Eliot herself (which indeed we may be) so thoroughly does this initially discrete first-person narrator appear to vanish into his words describing the talk, the texts, the thoughts and the behavior of others, past, present, and in dystopic imagination, future.

Buzard’s prose takes on a density and indirection comparable to the text he’s writing about. There are moments in Theophrastus (I have read only a few of the essays), one such occuring in “The Too Ready Writer,” where the satiric point is pretty clear, as in the following about one of those too-ready figures: “Perhaps it is unfortunate for him that he early gained a hearing or at least a place in print, and was thus encouraged in acquiring a fixed habit of writing, to the exclusion of any other breadwinning pursuit.” (A too-ready reviewer like myself took this to heart.) Eventually the text defeats even sympathetic Mr. Buzard, who ends by calling it “a scattershot performance, occasionally incisive but dragged down by a labored prose style that seems almost a self-parody of her usual elegant complexity.” Thus one sees, in his words, how such a book full of dyspepsia and misanthropy was bound to have “passed before its public and passed away again.”

“Poetry: The Unappreciated Eliot” is the title of Herbert F. Tucker’s valiant attempt to make a case for a writer whose poems have completely fallen from sight. Tucker suggests that this situation came about not from the fact that readers authentically found her poems distasteful; rather the neglect of them has partly to do with how specialists in her fiction (as are most of the contributors to this volume) debar themselves from having opinions about poetry. He sees this neglect as part of a larger subject, what he calls “the decline of evaluative reading.” Polemically, he puts the case with respect to Eliot’s fiction:

When did eminent criticism last trouble itself centrally with how good Eliot’s writing was, good at what, and with what arc of rise or fall? If it seems beside the point to put such questions to “Janet’s Repentance,” or Romola, much less The Mill on the Floss, then so much the worse for the quality of our engagement with those works. Take the excellence of Adam Bede for granted long enough, and your grasp of that excellence as a vital property of the book, locally actualized page by page, will slacken.

Tucker does enough close reading of particular lines and sequences from Eliot’s poems (“pulse-taking,” he calls it) to demonstrate the at-the-least respectable quality of their diction and rhythms. He invokes the various modes in which she performed (heroic couplet, pastoral idyll, narrative, closet drama, Browningesque monologue, Shakespearean sonnet sequence), to establish the sheer versatility of her performance and the way she avoided repeating herself. And he also reminds us of reviews by her contemporaries—Henry James, William Dean Howells, John Morley—who paid her the compliment of taking her verse efforts seriously. (James’s charming and lengthy review of The Legend of Jubal is worth looking up.) Tucker concludes that her poetry was an “illustrative” rather than an “exploratory” medium, refusing to attempt any “pioneer’s major stake in any one mode of poetic art.” He ends his exemplary essay by awarding her a place in the line of modern writers who have written with distinction in both novels and poems: Goethe, Scott, Hugo, Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Updike, with Emily Brontë the other possible female candidate. (He calls Brontë “a scintillating flash in the pan.”)

An interesting subject not considered by any of the essayists in the Companion, or by any critic of George Eliot I know of, is the dim reception given her work by notable English writers from the last century. Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography (1883) includes a chapter on some of his English fictional contemporaries, especially Thackeray, Dickens, and Eliot. Thackeray and Dickens being deceased, Eliot was in Trollope’s opinion “the first of the English novelists.” But he expressed some reservations about the difficulty of her later style (“analytic” rather than “creative”): “She lacks ease,” he concluded, perhaps thinking by contrast of his own easy commerce with readers. This lack of ease and related lacks were found to be grounds for a harsh verdict by writers less inclined to sympathy than Trollope, who referred to Eliot as “this gifted woman . . . among my dearest and most intimate friends.” Four years after the Autobiography was published, the young William Butler Yeats, full of immoderation, wrote a letter listing seven qualities, or lack of them, that made Eliot anathema to him. Among his pronouncements were: “She understands only the conscious nature of man” (knowing nothing of the “dim unconscious nature”); “Her beloved analysis is a scrofula of literature”; “She has morals but not religion. If she had more religion she would have less morals”; “She is too reasonable. I hate reasonable people, the activity of their brains sucks up all the blood out of their hearts.” He tells his correspondent that he has read only four books of hers and doesn’t mean to read a fifth. In 1911, Ford Madox Ford in his outspoken book The Critical Attitude admitted that she was once “an authoress almost omnipotent in her power,” but such was no longer the case. She had become, Ford claimed, “a writer unreadable in herself . . . Her character drawing appears to be singularly wooden: her books without any form, her style entirely pedestrian and her solemnity intolerable.” It was that solemnity that made her unreadable to the modern (modernist?) reader of the new century. The young T. S. Eliot, who read some of her fiction when he was giving lectures to working people in London, thought her first story, “Amos Barton,” was a fine piece of work from which she steadily declined afterwards (did he ever get to Middlemarch?).[6] George Orwell, a fierce reader of novels, admitted to not having read her at all, somehow put off from the task by something unspecified.

There may be more espousers of an anti-Eliot aesthetic, but these four examples should be enough to suggest that recognizing her greatness was not something that some fairly “great” writers were susceptible to. With them in mind, I proceeded to take an inventory of my own reading of Eliot’s fiction. What have I enjoyed, what do I plan to enjoy again in rereading? The list that resulted was a short one: after Middlemarch, most certainly Silas Marner; the first section, “Boy and Girl,” of The Mill on the Floss; the first half of Daniel Deronda (what Leavis called Gwendolyn Harleth); and, with Eliot perhaps especially in mind, “Amos Barton,” where it all began. Contrast this relatively short list with the absolute rereadability of all Jane Austen, most of Dickens, and for this reader, substantial amounts of Trollope. Nothing to conclude from this (aside perhaps from my limitations) except to realize how little the scholarly and critical investigation performed in a book such as the Companion have to do with the pleasures of her texts.
[1] MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH, by Rebecca Mead. Crown Publishers. $25.00.

[2] A COMPANION TO GEORGE ELIOT, ed. by Amanda Anderson and Harry E. Shaw. Wiley-Blackwell. $195.00.

[3] Here is Reggie St. Cloud, a stuffed shirt from A Handful of Dust: “He was prematurely, unnaturally stout, and he carried his burden of flesh as though he were not yet used to it; as though it had been buckled on to him that morning for the first time and he were still experimenting for its better adjustment; there was an instability in his gait, and in his eyes a furtive look as though he were at any moment liable to ambush and realized that he was unfairly handicapped for flight.”

[4] “Negotiating Middlemarch,” in Middlemarch in the 21st Century, ed. by Karen Chase (Oxford, 2006). The poet David Yezzi has recently noted in The New Criterion that on a cross-country car trip he and his wife read Middlemarch aloud and laughed constantly.

[5] This last title confused me until I found it was a synonym for outbreaks against the Jews.

[6] In After Strange Gods, Eliot admired his predecessor’s “moral insight and passion” but finds them “unfortunately combined with the dreary rationalism of the epoch of which she is one of the most colossal monuments.” He respects her “for being a serious moralist” but deplores her “individualistic morals.”