of the Work
of George Eliot
George Eliot 1885-1930
(Mary Anne Evans/ Marian Evans)
My knowledge of George Eliot has two strands, first in that she translated Life of Jesus Critically Examined, sometimes called Life of Christ, with later Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, and then Middlemarch for its social change. I saw the BBC TV series and I remain a bad reader of fiction. I never saw Silas Marner with Ben Kingsley on BBC television, because it looked a bit grim! My interest in her has been mainly as a woman in nineteenth century Britain living unconventionally and revealing impacts of social change.
The Mill on the Floss
Felix Holt, the Radical
Life of Jesus Critically Examined, was translated by George Eliot, and published in 1846 by John Chapman, who owned the Westminster Review. George Eliot became Chapman's Assistant Editor. She stayed with him and his wife until rumours became too much. She fell in love with Herbert Spencer, who responded little. Then she got closer to G. H. Lewes (1817-1878) who, although already married, lived with her as a couple. He encouraged her work. In 1857 she wrote anonymously for Blackwoods Magazine The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton which showed that her strength was in fiction. John Blackwood thought they were by a man, and so she adopted the name of George Eliot to maintain the fiction (though Charles Dickens realised it was a woman's pen). After Lewes died, she married her sympathetic Financial Advisor, Walter Cross, but she died seven months after the marriage.
- Intelligent and a little pessimistic.
- Gently humorous.
- She develops as a writer towards more subtlety, more stability of characters, more tying in economic change and characters' lives.
- Much realism and naturalism.
- Care to detail.
- Ironic elements look forward to later literature.
- Analytical and observational suggest an older approach to writing.
- Looks at social change related to individual lives.
- Eliot gets people to act both according to moral understandings and yet their social standing as a base line.
- There is tension between trade, aristocracy, social climbing and appearance.
- People are sensitive to how they must act and appear when social climbing.
- Looks at small town rural/ urban dynamic interfaces.
- Eliot shows how society regulates an distributes work.
- Historical consciousness with psychological insight.
- She can handle symbolism with subtlety.
- There is the storm during the time Dorothea and Will in Middlemarch decided to come together - of the dangers ahead for these two inexperienced lovers and the tears for her past.
- Clothes are also symbolic in Middlemarch of economic status, either Dorothea's "no new clothes", in order to live within her means and marry Will, or how Harriet changes her elegant clothes for simple ones in order to be visibly in keeping with her exposed husband Bulstrode.
- Jewels are symbols of frivolous wealth but also enticing beauty.
- Eliot brings the general to the particular
- She also brings the social to the personal, for example just as people then did not understand the railways, so they do not understand Lydgate in Middlemarch.
- Chance has its place.
- Analyses individual duplicity and motives.
- There is an underplay of climax and moralising.
- Characters in earlier novels go through conversions of moral character, but in later novels the reader encounters people who fundamentally stay as they are.
- Authorial judgement which questions the reader's.
- Generally compassionate.
- Sympathetic to characters who question.
- Warm towards romantics.
- Brings together vocation.
- Combines class with character and outcome.
- Middlemarch is both historical and psychological.
- It is also a book about the march of science and something of its sociology (how the town responds) and the science is a metaphor for what her novel is doing as an examination.
- It is a Newtonian and humanist novel of social cause and effect but with an ethical heart of detailed largely unknown lives.
- It began as two separate novels, Miss Brooke (about Dorothea) and Middlemarch (centred on Lydgate and Rosamund).
- It is written of a time earlier that when Eliot wrote
- It covers 1829-1831 as suffrage is about to be extended to reflect the transformations of society.
- Social history and personal histories are linked, such as when Mr Brooke is unhappy not because the Lords rejected the Reform Bill but because Will is going to marry Dorothea.
- It shows in detail what people did and how they did it.
- Their work threw up moral dilemmas and she examines these.
- It's about direction and restriction - upon everybody.
- She also describes when someone is underemployed, like Dorothea.
- This is a psychological problem, especially for idealistic women.
- Dorothea looks to Causabon to fill her time with stimulating intellectual activity.
- Dorothea is a sexual innocent and of Puritan background.
- She also has a strong sense of duty, as with Causabon's imminent death.
- She is unfulfilled potential, as were so many women (when the vote was being extended around them).
- Eliot also rounds of Middlemarch by saying only so much was available to Dorothea, though not making it into a tragedy (as, after all, things were better).
- Her ideals as a woman (including an external social purpose of marriage) are asexual despite her sexual nature.
- Causabon, unfortunately, is part of a remote social world, who offers her nothing much and is no teacher.
- His own research is remote and rather pointless.
- He is also sexually zero.
- Causabon thinks Dorothea is the wife-accessory, which is how Lydgate regards his wife.
- However Lydgate is a good man in the wrong marriage.
- Causabon also intends to trap Dorothea into faithfulness to his dull grip even after his coming death (by using his wealth).
- Her Italian wedding tour shows Causabon as a teacher to be out of touch.
- Rome is also a place of overblown ambition whereas for George Eliot more is achieved in the real lives people lead (her humanist ethic).
- Will is in touch with the renaissance in its fullness and is sexually awakening.
- However, Will is not ideal, having a certain lightness of concentration, lacking a serious study process and full of egotism.
- He is though sensitive and aware.
- He can be angry, self-centred, touchy, exasperated and bitter yet able to give.
- In a sense, Dorothea and Will are both underdeveloped, as comes out when she renounces her inherited wealth.
- Will is not all good just as Causabon is not all bad.
- Nevertheless, the authorial voice comes in strong on bad character traits, compassion joined by condemnation.
- Rosamund Vincy, married to Lydgate, finds herself quite self centred but can hardly help herself.
- Eliot the writer was accused of being agnostic.
- Morals are not discussed in relationship to Christianity.
- Wealth and living according to evangelical Christianity are shown to be in conflict.
- Mary Anne Evans Christianity was at first evangelical under her tutor Maria Lewis.
- Freethinking Charles Bray and Charles Hennell, a rationalistic writer on the origin of Christianity, led her away from it.
- She showed a superior intellect regarding Christian theology when her local vicar (like her father) tried to persuade her back to church.
- Her first book was a translation of Strauss Das Leben Jesu in 1846 (begun by Hennell's wife) (Mary Anne was fluent in French and German).
- It was a huge work in two volumes of 1500 pages which followed reading of the Tanakh and New Testament in original languages and also theological commentaries.
- Life of Jesus rejects both supernatural miracles and a rational explanation for them, but rather shows Jesus to be a strange character in a lost time-world of apocalyptic thought.
- The book was received as anti-Christian and even concerned theological liberals.
- It was so controversial that it ended Strauss' academic career.
- Nowadays the book is the basic starting point for theology - Strauss thought he was writing a history of sorts within a mythological culture and therefore no one was deceived in such a culture.
- It opened up a gap between intelligent theology and the Church that has never been best closed.
- In 1854 she translated Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity as Marian Evans (she'd changed her name after her father died) rather than George Eliot.
An interpreted summary of points made about Middlemarch in dialogue by Barbara Hardy and David Daiches in Watts Watts, C. (intro.) (1976), The English Novel, Questions in Literature series, London: Sussex Books.
Cupitt, D. (1985), The Sea of Faith: Christianity in Change, London: BBC, 92-96.