Academic journal article The Hudson Review

George Eliot and Her Critics

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

George Eliot and Her Critics

Article excerpt

"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 fictionwhere 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."

Woolfs 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 Woolfs 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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.