Daniel Deronda and the Too Much of Literature
When she began her last novel, George Eliot was in a funk. She had never been a truly self-confident novelist; in her private correspondence, she worried throughout her career about not pleasing her readership, about merely pleasing them, about having too little success, about having too much success, about dejection, and about egotistical elation. But the journals and correspondence of the mid-1870s betray an anxiety of authorship unusual even for her. At the apex of her career, after the triumphant reception of Middlemarch, she developed a horror of overproduction mixed with a dread of artistic depletion, which led to repeated condemnations of authorial repetition and excessive harping on excess:
The fact is, I shrink from … sinking into an insistent echo of myself. That
is a horrible destiny—and one cannot help seeing that many of the most
powerful men fall into it.1
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I have the conviction that excessive literary production is a social offense.
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I am haunted by the fear that I am only saying again what I have already
said in better fashion.… Every one who contributes to the “too much” of
literature is doing a grave social injury. (5:212)
What did she mean by the “too much” of literature? Not exactly what we would probably mean by it: for us the phrase tends to imply the supplemental nature of the signifier, the doubling of mimesis, the simulacra, imaginary annexes or multiple worlds of fiction—all the ways in which, we've convinced ourselves, literature is not only constitutionally but also proudly de trop. Eliot proceeded from the opposite bias: there should be just enough literature, which should be just sufficiently contained in books just adequate to express only the important thoughts of just those authors capable of genuine originality. When those authors repeat themselves, or when others make feebler imitations, Eliot complained, they bury even “the most carefully written books”
1The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 5:76.