Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

George Eliot and the Idea of Travel

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

George Eliot and the Idea of Travel

Article excerpt

Compared with Dickens, George Eliot makes little use of her extensive foreign travels in her fiction. This essay traces the incidental role of travel in the novels until it becomes central to Daniel Deronda. In the early fiction the circumscribed lives of provincial England are framed by the narrative discourse of a well-traveled mind. The journey, particularly for women, dramatizes a crisis of identity, a theme continued in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, where it is contrasted with the male experience of travel as self-culture. In Daniel Deronda travel defines the unstable world of modernity and the condition of Jews, culminating in the problematic journey to the East.

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On their way to Munich in April 1858 George Eliot and G. H. Lewes stopped for a night in Nuremberg and on the following morning, a Sunday, 'wandered about the beautiful streets and wondered at every turning, until it was time to go to dinner'. (1) If her admiring but measured appreciation of the town in her journal can be seen to express what Henry James was later condescendingly to describe as 'the tempered enjoyment of foreign sights, which was as near as she ever came to rapture', (2) the ebullient Lewes, in a letter to John Blackwood, was less restrained in conveying their enthusiasm for the place, using terms that directly challenge James's assessment:

Our journey was like every other journey except the two days at Nurnberg, which was one protracted oh! Were you ever there? If so, you will understand our rapture; if not, I don't think any description bearing the marks of sanity would convey a proper feeling of the pleasure we received. (3)

He concludes his letter by holding out to the publisher an intriguing possibility: 'Who knows but some day we may have a Nurnberg novel, as the product?' Despite the couple's intense excitement no such novel ever emerged, and its absence is indicative. With the exception of Romola, whose laborious reconstruction of fifteenth-century Florence owed in any case more to the lamp and the library than to the observing eye and the experience of contemporary Italy, George Eliot's extensive foreign travels left no novels as their direct product. Only the Roman scenes of Middlemarch and a few brief and scattered episodes elsewhere, most notably in Daniel Deronda, bear immediate testimony to her European journeys. The life and the writing took different roads. The adventurous traveler who, from the time she became independent on the death of her father in 1849 until the last year of her life, made frequent and often lengthy journeys to the Continent, exploring with eager interest most of the great cities of Western Europe as far east as Berlin and Vienna, wrote novels of a singularly stay-at-home kind. Of course her fiction, however provincially English its setting, is always informed by a profound knowledge of the literature, culture, and history of the wider world of Europe and beyond; so much so that Barbara Hardy has justifiably argued that a need for foreignness was an essential component of the novelist's creative life, while Deirdre David has shown how that wider world was a fertile presence in her literary imagination. (4) Nevertheless, foreign travel itself, or even journeying of a more limited kind, plays little obvious part in her fiction before the 1870s. The impact of abroad is confined to 'spots of foreignness' (Hardy, p. 9) rather than the extended engagement that travel implies. Yet the idea of travel, so important for the life, is still interestingly present in the wings of the fiction, so to speak, before it finally takes centre stage in Daniel Deronda; and to trace that presence can be to throw light not only on that last novel but also on some of the distinctive qualities of George Eliot's fiction as a whole.

The composition of her first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, was bound up with her travels with Lewes around the coasts and islands of southern England as he collected material for his Sea-Side Studies. …

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