George Eliot and Schiller: Narrative, Ambivalence in Middlemarch and Felix Holt

By Guth, Deborah | The Modern Language Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

George Eliot and Schiller: Narrative, Ambivalence in Middlemarch and Felix Holt


Guth, Deborah, The Modern Language Review


Much has been written about the various literary and philosophical currents that contributed to the making of George Eliot's work. In a woman as intensely intellectual as she was this can be fascinating work, especially as she was widely read in English, French, and German ideas, and within each one in a variety of fields, from literature and philosophy to phrenology, social thought, Biblical criticism, and scientific ideas, to name but the most prominent. Most significant, however, is to look at how Eliot integrated the work of these authors, often challenging, recontextualizing, or adapting those she admired in order to suit her own unique perspective and fictional purpose. When one listens closely, one may hear many 'voices' within her work, not replicated as such (she should not be seen as a simple repository of others' thoughts) but inspiring and dialogizing her own thinking. As she herself stated: 'No mind that has any real life is a mere echo of another.' (1) Elsewhere she makes the case more clearly:

I wish you thoroughly to understand that the writers who have most profoundly influenced me [...] are not in the least oracles to me. [...] [Even if] Rousseau's views of life, religion, and government are miserably erroneous [...] it would not be the less true that Rousseau's genius [...] has awakened me to new perceptions, which has made man and nature a fresh world of thought and feeling to me--and this is not by teaching me any new belief. It is simply that the rushing mighty wind of his inspiration has so quickened my faculties that I have been able to shape more definitely for myself ideas which had previously dwelt as dim 'ahnungen' in my soul--the fire of his genius has so fused together old thoughts and prejudices that I have been ready to make new combinations. (Letters, I, 277)

One of the many voices that resonates in this way, but has received scant attention, is that of Schiller. (2) His reputation and popularity during the first half of the nineteenth century was enormous and is well documented. (3) From the time his early play Die Rauber came out in the late eighteenth century, causing an enormous stir, until the time when Goethe's reputation overtook his in the mid-nineteenth century, Schiller was widely read and much discussed in England. His influence on Coleridge is well known; other admiring readers include Shelley, Byron, Walter Scott, Thomas Campbell, Southey, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Carlyle (who wrote his biography), Bulwer-Lytton (who translated his poetry), and later on, Thackeray, John Stuart Mill, Macaulay, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to name but a few. Many of them wrote of him in the most exalted terms. Thackeray saw him as second only to Shakespeare; De Quincey's entry on Schiller for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1837 is typical of many responses: 'Schiller is the representative of the German intellect in its highest form [...] and his works are not more worthy of being studied for their singular force and originality than his moral character for its nobility and aspiring grandeur.' (4)

George Eliot, as we know, was widely read in German literature and thought altogether. She read it fluently from her late teens, she travelled to Germany no fewer than eight times with G. H. Lewes, often for lengthy periods. She knew many prominent intellectuals personally; she collaborated with Lewes on his major biography of Goethe. Her work for the Westminster Review included numerous reviews of German letters as well as five lengthy articles, and her letters and journals, liberally sprinkled with comments on her reading, testify to her continuing and intimate acquaintance with German ideas.

Given her affinity to the literature, given also Schiller's standing at that time as one of the great stars in the German firmament, it is hardly surprising that Eliot read most of his work and expressed great admiration for it. (5) She started learning German in March 1840 and by October of the same year she was reading Schiller's Maria Stuart. …

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