Sunday, October 31, 2010

Select Novels of George Eliot

The novels of George Eliot are easily divisible into two groups or categories. The first group includes her early novels—Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, in which the setting and the story are provided by her girlhood memories. The second group includes her later novels—Romola, Felix Holt, Daniel Doranda—in which having exhausted her memories of the past she turns to fresh fields and pastures new, and Middlemarch in which she returns once again to her beloved Midlands. A familiarity with these works is essential for a proper appreciation of her art and genius.

1. Scenes of Clerical Life
Scenes of Clerical Life is not a novel, properly so called, but a collection of three stories. It gives us, as its title suggests, vivid sketches of three different aspects of the life and character of clergymen.
George Eliot had always cherished a “vague dream” that sometime or other she might write a novel. At the age of thirty-six she had got no further than an “introductory chapter” descriptive of life in a Staffordshire village and the neighbouring farmhouses. She happened, however, to have this fragment with her in Germany, and read it to Lewes one evening at Berlin. He shared her doubts as to the dramatic power; but the ability shown in her other articles led him to think the experiment of novel-writing worth trying. One day, in a dreamy mood, she fancied herself writing a story to be called ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton.’ Lewes suggested that it might open a series of sketches drawn from her observations of the clergy. The story convinced him that she could write good dialogue. It was still to be seen whether she had a command of pathos. This was settled by a chapter describing the last illness of Mrs. Barton. They both “cried over it” and Lewes kissed her, saying, “I think your pathos is better than your fun.” Thus encouraged, she finished the story on the 5th of November, and next day Lewes sent the MS with a note to John Blackwood. Lewes stated that the story, intended for the first of a series, had been written by a friend whose powers he had doubted. The doubts had been changed by the reading into ‘very high admiration’. “Such humour, pathos, vivid presentation, and nice observation,” he thought, “had not been exhibited in this style since the Vicar of WakefieldLewes also added that the story showed the rarest of all faculties—’dramatic ventriloquism.’ The first part of the story accordingly appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in January, 1857; and Blackwood sent fifty guineas and some very cordial praises in return. ‘Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story’ and ‘Janet’s Repentance’ appeared in the Magazine in the following months; and these appeared together as Scenes of Clerical Life in the beginning of 1858. The name “George Eliot” under which these and all her later works appeared, was assumed, it appears, because Lewes’ name was ‘George’, and ‘Eliot’ was “a good, mouth-filling, easily pronounced word.”
The Scenes of Clerical Life at once attracted considerable critical attention, and was praised highly for its humour, pathos and vivid and life­like descriptions. Certain touches in the book convinced George Eliot’s old neighbours that the author came from their district. The Scenes, as she admitted soon afterwards, contained ‘portraits’, a mistake which should not occur again, and was due to the fact that her ‘hand was not well in.’ The plots, too, were more or less reproductions of remembered incidents. Milly Barton, we are told, is the wife of a Mr. Gwyther, curate of Cheverels Colon. He died when George Eliot was sixteen, and was a friend of Mrs. Robert Evans, who appears in the story as Mrs. Hacket. A persecution of a clergyman, like that upon which Janet’s Repentance turns, really took place though she filled in details from imagination. Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story was a more interesting application of the same method. Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel represent Sir Roger and Lady Newdigate. The Newdigates had taken charge of a girl called Sally Shilton, daughter of a collier, who had given promise of musical talent. They had her trained as a singer; and when ill-health forced her to give up the attempt, they continued their protection. She married one Mr. Ebdell, vicar of Cheverels-Coton (the ‘Shepperton’ of the story), in 1801, and died twenty-two years later. Sir Roger’s heir, Charles Parker, died suddenly, when Sally was a little over twenty, in 1795. George Eliot, who must have learned the facts from family tradition, converted Sally Shilton into Caterina Sarti, by way of explaining her musical talent as a case of ’heredity’, and then invented the love affair with Captain Wybrow, who takes the place of Charles Parker. These childish recollections have been transformed by the novelist with great skill into the most charming of stories.
2. Adam Bede
George Eliot finished Janet’s Repentance on the 9th October, 1857, and began Adam Bede on the 22nd October. She completed the first volume by the following March: wrote the second during her tour in Germany which followed and after returning to England, at the beginning of September, completed the third volume on the 16th November. It was published in the beginning of 1858. When recording these dates in her journal she gives also an interesting account of the genesis of the book. It was suggested by an anecdote which she had heard from an aunt, the Methodist preacher, Mrs. Samuel Evans:
“We were sitting together one afternoon during her visit to me at Griff probably in 1839 or 1840, when it occurred to her to tell me how she visited a condemned criminal—a very ignorant girl, who had murdered her child and refused to confess; how she had stayed with her praying through the night, and how the poor creature at last broke out into tears, and confessed her crime. My aunt afterwards went with her in the cart to the place of execution…..I then conceived the idea of “blending this and some other recollections of my aunt in one story with some points in my father’s early life character…….
“The character of Dinah grew out of my recollections of my aunt, but, Dinah is not at all like my aunt, who was a very small, black eyed woman, and (as I was told, for I never heard her preach) very vehement in her style of preaching……The character of Adam and one or two incidents connected with him were suggested by my father’s early life; but Adam is not my father any more than Dinah is my aunt. Indeed there is not a single portrait in Adam Bede, only the suggestions of experience wrought up into new combinations. When I began to write it, the only elements I had determined on, besides the character of Dinah, were the character of Adam, his relation to Athur Donnithorne, and their mutual relation to Hetty—i.e. the girl who commits child-murder—the scene in the prison being, of course, the climax towards which I worked. Everything else grew out of the characters and their mutual relations.”
Adam Bede at once placed the author in the first rank of English novelists. It is neither Dinah Morris nor Adam Bede who has contributed to the popularity of the book. Says Leslie Stephen, “Adam Bede for most of us means pre-eminently
Mrs. Poyser. Her dairy is really the centre of the whole microcosm. We are first introduced to it as the background which makes the ‘kitten-like’ beauty of Hetty Sorrel, irresistible to young Captain Donnithorne. But Mrs. Poyser is the presiding genius. She represents the very spirit of the place; and her influence is the secret of the harmony of the little world of squire and parson and parish clerk and schoolmaster and blacksmith and carpenter and shepherd and carter. Each of these types is admirably sketched in turn, but the pivot of the whole is the farm in which Mrs. Poyser displays her conversational powers. The little rustic world is painted in colours heightened by affection. There is, it may be, a little more of Goldsmith’s beautifying touch than of Crabbe’s uncompromising realism. But, it is marvellously life-like, and Mrs. Poyser’s delightful shrewdness seems to guarantee the fidelity of the portraits. She has no humbug about her, and one naturally takes it for granted that they must be as she sees them. It is, indeed, needless to insist upon her excellence: for Mrs. Poyser became at once one of the immortals.” In her later novels one sometimes regrets that Mrs. Poyser did not come to the fore to temper the graver moods. Mrs. Poyser may take rank with Sam Weller as one of the irresistible humorists.
The world of Adam Bede clearly is the world of the novelist’s first years harmonised by loving memories and informed, no doubt, with more beauty than it actually possessed. Her philosophy, indeed, reminds her that the range of ideas of her characters was singularly narrow and hopelessly obsolete. She has no sympathy with the romanticism which leads to reactionary fancies. She is perfectly well aware of the darker sides of the past, though she does not insist upon them. She has herself breathed a larger atmosphere. Only her affectionate recognition of the merits of the old world makes one feel how much conservatism really underlay her acceptance.
3. The Mill on the Floss
Mill on the Floss, 1860, is primarily the story of Maggie Tulliver, who is a close self-portrait. Her childhood is passed in the village of St. Ogg’s, a Mildand Town in every respect. She loves her brother Tom and is never more happy than in his company. She grows up into a fine young lady and falls in love with Philip Wakem, the son of the lawyer whom her father considers responsible for his financial ruin. Soon he is displaced in her affections by Stephen Guest, the lover of her cousin Lucy, and regarded as the richest youngman in St. Ogg’s. One fine evening they go out for boating on the river Floss. Maggie remains lost in thought and does not resist as Stephen Guest continues sailing on and on. When she comes to her senses, it is too late for them to return home. However, as an act of supreme self-sacrifice, she renounces Stephen Guest, though it is clear that neither he can marry Lucy, nor she can marry Philip Wakem. Her reputation has been compromised, and none will ever believe in her innocence. Denounced by Tom for having disgraced the family, she lives a lonely life in St. Ogg’s. But the river Floss soon comes to her rescue. There is a devastating flood, she makes heroic attempt to rescue her brother, but ultimately both brother and sister are drowned in the flooded river. Maggie finds release in death, from her spiritual troubles.
In this novel the rustic chorus is formed by a group of aunts and uncles who comment on character and action and provide humour. Commenting on the novel Robert Speaight writes, The Mill on the Floss is readable, not only for the unanswering truth of Maggie but for the more suitable texture of the writing. But the book is above all else a masterpiece of memory. It is the experience of her own childhood, re-lived by a woman approaching the maturity of her powers, which makes it sometimes glow like an October sunset and sometimes tremble like a daffodil in an April breeze. Maggie is always in the middle of the scene, because she is so near to George Eliot herself—to what George Eliot was or to what she would like to have been. But the other characters, Stephen always excepted, take life from her vitality and are generally seen as they affect her. It is a single childhood which is here on record; and The Mill on the Floss must take rank with the greatest books ever written about children.”
4. Silas Marner
The novel was published in March, 1861. George Eliot wrote to Blackwood, the publishers, “that it was a story of old-fashioned village life, which has unfolded itself from the merest millet-seed of thought.” This was the sudden memory of having once seen, in early childhood, a linen weaver with a bag on his back. She first conceived the story as a narrative poem, for it contained, as we shall see, a quality of pure fable; but then she saw that this would banish the contrasting play of humour and she grew inclined to a more realistic treatment. The book was finished on the 10th of March, 1861, and 3,300 copies were immediately subscribed. Silas Marner is not the most important, but it is perhaps the most perfect of George Eliot’s novels. It is flawed by no failure of characterisation and no excess of moralism. Where Adam Bede had in parts the still beauty of an eclogue and where Maggie Tulliver expressed with great tenderness and truth the unsatisfied longings of her creator, Silas Marner represents a significant advance in objectivity. Even the familiar landscape is viewed with greater realism.
It is the story of a good, honest weaver of Reveloe who is falsely accused of theft, is heart-broken as a consequence, and migrates to another town at some distance. There he abjures human company, turns a sinner, and his sole pleasure is looking at, and counting, his hoard of money. But he is redeemed and restored to human society by his love and affection for a child, Effie, whom he finds, and whom he brings up as his own daughter. Thus ‘moral recovery’ of a frustrated soul is the theme of the novel.
The main charm of this small novel arises from certain scenes in The Rainbow, the inn, where the rustics assemble to comment on character and the life around them. Says Leslie Stephen, “A modern realist would, I suppose, complain that she has omitted, or touched too slightly for his taste, a great many repulsive and brutal elements in the rustic world. The portraits, indeed, are so vivid as to convince us for their fidelity; but she has selected the less ugly, and taken the point of view from which we see mainly what was wholesome and kindly in the little village community. Silas Marner is a masterpiece in that way, and scarcely equalled in English literature, unless by
Mr. Hardy’s rustics in
Far From the Madding Crowd and other early works.” A.C. Ward’s comment is both interesting and illuminating, “Silas Marner extends to no great length, and, in construction and treatment, shows a perfect sense of proportion on the part of the writer. Indeed, competent judges have pronounced it, in form, George Eliot’s most finished work, while none of her larger novels surpasses it in delicacy of pathos. Nothing could be more powerfully drawn than the blank despondency of the unhappy weaver, and nothing more beautifully imagined than the change wrought by the golden-haired child who takes the place of the gold by his hearth and in his heart. The tenderness of fancy which pervades this simple tale, and brightness of humour which relieves the constrained simplicity of its course, certainly assures to Silas Marner a place of its own among George Eliot’s works.”
5. Romola
In Romola, 1863, George Eliot left her Warwickshire memories behind. The setting is provided by Florence, Italy, and the time is the Renaissance. The strenuous preparations which the novelist made for the task is indicated by her remark that, “I began it a young womanI finished it an old one.”
The novel narrates the love-story of Tito and Romola against the background of political and religious upheaval which rocked Italy in the Fifteenth century. The colossal figure of Savonarola is introduced and the historical events of the day have their own impact on the love-story. The novel has come in for a good deal of criticism. For example, Hugh Walker is critical of it and writes, “There are fine, even grand materials in all the later novels, and not least in Romola. The character of Tito Melema alone would lend greatness to this book, while the picture of old Bardo in his library is admirable. Yet Romola does not convince us of the historical genius of the writer. Something of the vividness and ready mastery of Scott is wanting. George Eliot has not quite succeeded in entering into Italian life, and both the talk of her Florentines and the character of Romola herself have been regarded as untrue. And so, while the book is stately and grand, the movement is stiff. The familiar touches of nature in the English novels are worth more than all the learning with which the Italian book is loaded. It does not, indeed, violate history to any great extent but it contains no historical character fit to take place beside the historical characters of Shakespeare or Scott.”
6. Felix Holt
Felix Holt was begun in March, 1865, and it was completed in little more than a year. In this novel we come back from Florence of the Renaissance to the English midlands during the Reform Bill agitation, and for that we may be thankful. But George Eliot is no longer drawing upon the old memories of Griff. She turns to account an election riot which, we are told, she had seen in her school days at Nuneaton; but she is thinking mainly of the Coventry time. Mrs. Poyser and her dairy have vanished, and with them the old-world charm. We have no longer the peculiar glamour which invested the former stories; the sense of looking at the little world through the harmonising atmosphere of childish memories and affections; or of becoming for the once denizens of a social order, narrow enough in its interests, but yet wholesome, kindly and contented. We have some of the old-fashioned country gentry and a parson who fill the subordinate parts satisfactorily enough; but the principal interest is to be in the country-town of Treby Magna, just waking to the consciousness of the great political movement outside, and with little enough that was romantic about its lawyers, tradesmen, or manufacturers. Canals and coat-mines and a saline spring are beginning to rouse it from its “old-fashioned grazing, brewing, wool-packing, cheese-loading life:” and the change only seems to reveal thoroughly prosaic, not to say vulgar and stupefying characteristics. Naturally, therefore, we are expected to sympathise with Felix Holt, the Radical who is trying to stir up this stagnant pool.
Felix Holt is a radical of the days of 1832; and George Eliot, as we have seen, had been refreshing her memories of that period by reading the old newspapers, and had been surprised by the strength of the language. Felix Holt, however, has to be a model young man, and, therefore, he sees from the first the errors of contemporary zealots. When a self-styled radical orator addresses a public meeting and demands “universal suffrage,” and the other points of the Charter, Felix appeals to reason. Systems of suffrage and the rest, he tells the mob, are engines; the force that is to work them must come from men’s passions. No scheme will do good, therefore, unless the power behind it takes a right direction. The “steam, that is to work the engines” is public opinion, that is, “ruling belief in society about what is right and what is wrong, what is honourable and what is shameful.” Nothing, therefore, is to be expected from a party which sanctions bribery and corruption. When Felix makes a personal application of this lofty doctrine by pointing out that the agent of his own party is an embodiment of corruption, he naturally produces loud cheers; but the doctrine itself, however philosophical, would hardly have pleased his audience. The effect is to take the sting out of the hero. He is too reasonable for this part. He is introduced as a redhot radical, and shows it by extreme rudeness to Esther, whom he suspects of fine-ladyism. Esther, benign and admirable young woman, comes to see that he is right, and even that there is something complimentary in his exasperation against her. No doubt, Felix is an honourable man, for he refuses to live upon a quack medicine or to look leniently at bribery when it is on his own side. But there is a painful excess of sound judgment about him. He gets into prison, not for leading a mob, but for trying to divert them from plunder, by actions which are misunderstood. He is very inferior to Alton Locke, who gets into prison for a similar performance. His impetuosity and vehemence comes out only in his rudeness to Esther and plain speaking to her adopted father; and in trying to make him ideal of wisdom, George Eliot only succeeds in making him unfit for his part.
7. Middlemarch
This novel, regarded by many as George Eliot’s masterpiece, was published in eight parts—the first on the 1st December, 1871, and the last in December, 1872. Nearly twenty-five thousand copies were sold at once, and it raised her to the rank of the first living novelist of England.
The novel takes its name from the town of Middlemarch in the Midlands where the scene of the story is laid. Says Leslie Stephen “Middlemarch is primarily a portrait of the circles which had been most familiar to her in youth, and its second title is ‘a study of provincial life.’ Provincial life, however, is to exemplify the results of a wider survey of contemporary society. One peculiarity of the book is appropriate to this scheme. It is not a story, but a combination of at least three stories—the love affairs of Dorothea and Casaubon, of Rosamond Vincy and Lydgate, and of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, which again are interwoven with the story of Bulstrode. The various actions get mixed together as they would naturally do in a country town. It is tiresome, of course, if a reader is to think only of the development of the plot. But when the purpose is to get a general picture of the manners and customs of a certain social stratum, and we are to be interested in all the complex play of character and opinions of neighbours, the method is appropriate to the design. The individuals are shown as involved in the network of surrounding interests which affect their development.”
Middlemarch gives us George Eliot’s most characteristic view of such matters. It is her answer to the question, what on the whole is your judgment of commonplace English life? For provincialism is not really confined to the provinces. The personages who carry out the various plots of Middlemarch may be very life-like portraits of real life, but they are seen from a particular point of view. The “prelude” gives the keynote. We are asked to remember the childish adventure of Saint Theresa setting out to seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors. There are later born Theresas, who had “no epic life with a constant unfolding of resonant action.” They have had to work amid “dim lights and tangled circumstances.” They have blundered accordingly; but “here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off, and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering on some long recognisable deed.” We are to see how such a nature manifests itself—no longer in the remote regions of arbitrary fancy, but in the commonplace atmosphere of a modern English town. In Middlemarch there is full picture of the element of stupidity and insensibility which is apt to clog the wings of aspiration.
Middlemarch is a work of extraordinary power, full of subtle and accurate observation; and gives it a melancholy, yet an undeniably truthful portraiture, of the impression made by the society of the time upon one of the keenest observers, though upon an observer looking at the world from certain distance, and rather too much impressed by the importance of philosophers and theorists.
8. Daniel Deronda
Daniel Deronda, the last novel of George Eliot, was published in eight monthly instalments, beginning February, 1876. It is the question of race and heredity which interests George Eliot now. According to Leslie Stephen, “the story is really two stories put side by side and intersecting at intervals. Each gives life embodying a principle and each illustrates its opposite by the contrast. Gwendolen Harleth, a young lady with aspirations in a latent state, is misled into a worldly marriage, and though ultimately saved, is saved “as by fire.” Daniel Deronda is throughout true to his higher-nature, and is, in George Eliot’s works, what Sir Charles Grandison is in Richardson’s—the type of human perfection. The story of Gwendolen’s marriage shows undiminished power. Here and there, perhaps, we have a little too much psychological analysis; but after all, the reader who objects to psychology can avoid it by skipping a paragraph or two. It is another version of the old tragic motive: the paralysing influence of unmitigated and concentrated selfishness, already illustrated by Tito and Rosamond. Grandcourt, to whom Gwendolen sacrifices herself, is compared to a crab or a boa-constrictor slowly pinching its victim to death: to appeal to him for mercy would be as idle as to appeal to “a dangerous serpent ornamentally coiled on her arm.”
This young gentleman is a model from the first. He has a “seraphic face.” There is “hardly a delicacy of feeling” of which he is not capable—even when he is at Eton. He is a very angel. A family is created expressly to pay homage to him. They are supposed to have a sense of humour to make their worship more impressive; but they certainly keep it in the background when speaking of him. To Gwendolen this peerless person naturally becomes an “outer conscience;” and when he exhorts her to use her past sorrow as a preparation for life, instead of letting it spoil her life, the words are to her “like the touch of a miraculous hand.” She begins a “new existence,” but it seems “inseparable from Deronda,” and she longs that his presence may be permanent. Happily she does not dare to love him, and hopes only to be bound to him by a “spiritual tie.” That is just as well, because by a fortunate accident he has picked a perfect young Jewess out of the Thames. Moreover, by another providential accident—Providence interferes rather to excess—he has walked into the city and stumbled upon a virtuous Jewish pawn-broker; and at the pawnbroker’s has met the Jewess, long lost brother Mordecai, who turns out to be as perfect as Deronda himself,
Mordecai is devoted to the restoration of the Jewish nationality. It gives a chance to Deronda, however. For a perfect young man in a time of “social question,” he has hitherto been rather oddly at a loss for an end to which he can devote his powers. Then comes the discovery, strangely delayed by a combination of circumstances, that he was a genuine Jew by birth. Now he can accept Mordecai for his prophet and take “heredity” for his guide.
A.C. Ward is all praises for the novel and says, “Daniel Deronda now takes, after long neglect, a higher place among her novels than at any time before, partly for the interest of its Jewish theme and partly for the character of Harleth, an unadmirable character so minutely studied as to become completely fascinating.” But Hugh Walker is critical of the novel and writes, “She failed to impart to others the interest she herself felt in Jewish nationality, even though she showed herself as a pioneer insofar as, since the publication of Daniel Deronda, some serious steps have been taken towards the re-planting of the Jews in Palestine. However, the Jewish characters depicted by George Eliot are abstract and unreal and there is no vital bond of union between the Jewish and the English parts of the novel.”

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