MY first introduction to George Eliot was unpropitious. At the age of eleven I underwent a class 'reading' of Silas Marner at Sheffield High School and remember finding it very tedious: no drama, or what there might have been subdued, too many comic country people who bore little relation to anyone I, a city child, had met, no romance of the simple sort I was looking for. In bed I read Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, endless historical romances and a lot of poems. I was quite incapable of appreciating the economy and sober order of Silas. I don't think, although it's a legendary Tale, it should be given to children. Then I read The Mill on the Floss, which I found unbearable for different reasons. I didn't like the beginning because of its inexorable damping-down of the fire and energy of a lonely, clever girl. I didn't like the end, because it didn't seem appropriate: drowning with her brother was not (and I must say, is not) a fate for Maggie Tulliver that leaves one with any feeling of having really come to the end--tragic, passionate, despondent--of the complexities of cross, clever, ferocious Maggie. The author drowned the heroine for dramatic reasons--and I, as a child reader, felt cheated. So I didn't persevere.
When I was at Cambridge, good undergraduates were learning about the Great Tradition of the English novel from F. R. Leavis. Jane Austen, George Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, Conrad. Not, in those days, Dickens or Scott, my early loves, and only one Bronte--Emily. I played safe by avoiding the whole issue and worked with poetry almost exclusively. So I came to George Eliot late, in the days when I was teaching the modern English novel in evening classes and trying to find out how to write a good novel myself. Meeting any great author is like being made aware of freedoms and capabilities one had no idea were possible. Reading Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda I learned several primitive yet crucial lessons about writing novels--and these lessons were also moral lessons about life. It is possible, I learned, to invent a world peopled by a large number of interrelated people, almost all of whose processes of thought, developments of consciousness, biological anxieties, sense of their past and future can most scrupulously be made available to readers, can work with and against each other, can lead to failure, or partial failure, or triumphant growth.
I suppose I was in my late twenties when I began teaching Middlemarch, and I taught it with passion because I perceived it was about the growth, use and inevitable failure and frustration of all human energy--a lesson one is not interested in at eleven or eighteen, but at twenty-six, with two small children, it seems crucial. George Eliot's people were appallingly ambitious and greedy--not always for political or even, exclusively, sexual power, as in most of the other English novels I read. They were ambitious to use their minds to the full, to discover something, to live on a scale where their life felt valuable from moment to moment. In Middlemarch Dorothea, the untutored woman who wishes to contribute to science, even Casaubon, the failed scholar, had hopes which meant something to me, as Madame Bovary's cramped, Romantic, confused sexual lunges towards more life did not. In Daniel Deronda the hero has humane and intellectual ambitions: Gwendolen Harleth is a sympathetic portrait on the grand scale of a deficient being whose conceptions of the use of energy never extended beyond power (sexual and social) and money (not for its own sake, but for social pride). Perhaps the most vital discovery I made about George Eliot at that time was that her people think: they worry an idea, they are, within their limits, responsive to politics and art and philosophy and history.
The next discovery was that the author thought. One of the technical things I had discovered during the early teaching of Middlemarch was George Eliot's authorial interventions, which were then very unfashionable, thought to be pompous Victorian moralising and nasty lumps in the flow of 'the story.' I worked out that on the contrary, the authorial 'voice' added all sorts of freedom a good writer could do with. Sometimes it could work with firm irony to undercut the sympathetic 'inner' portrayal of a character. Consider this early discription of Dorothea:
Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.
There is so much in there, in the style. The magisterial authority of a Greek Chorus, or God, who knows Dorothea's fate before her drama has really begun. Sympathy, in the author, towards the character's ambitions, and a certain wry sense that, unfocused as they are, they are doomed. And then, in that last sentence, which is biting social comedy, the choice of the crucial adjective--'merely canine affection'--to disparage the kind of 'love' thought adequate by most planners of marriages, not only in the nineteenth century.
From close study of the novels, I went on to the life and read George Eliot's essays, written for the large part for the liberal Westminster Review in the years immediately preceding her shocking elopement with the married G. H. Lewes. They are intellectual, yes, and learned--very learned. George Eliot read Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian and German: she was au fait with current philosophy, physiology, psychology and sociology: she wrote with ferocious authority. I liked that--I admire the deployment of a clear mind and a lot of information as one might admire Rembrandt's mastery of colour, chiaroscuro, space. But what is also marvellous about the essays is that they are sharp, trenchant, satirical, in places wildly funny. She takes the prose style of an unctuous Evangelical preacher to pieces with meticulous mockery; in 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' she writes hilarious parodies of the ridiculous plots employed by female pen-pushers and ends with a moving plea for a novel with new depths of insight. As an example of the former, here is George Eliot's description of the archetypal heroine of a species of novel she designates as mind-and-millinery:
Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph and reads the Bible in the original tongues . . . Rakish men either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs; indeed there is a general propensity in her to make speeches, and to rhapsodize at some length when she retires to her bedroom. In her recorded conversations she is amazingly eloquent, and in her unrecorded conversations, amazingly witty.
At the end of the essay George Eliot produced eloquence of another order.
No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction, and there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements--genuine observation, humour and passion. But it is precisely this absence of rigid requirement which constitutes the fatal seduction of novel-writing to incompetent women.
George Eliot was, I suppose, the great English novelist of ideas. By 'novelist of ideas' I do not here mean novelists like Peacock, Huxley or Orwell, whose novels are dramatic presentations of beliefs they wish to mock or uphold, whose characters represent ideas like allegorical figures. I mean, in George Eliot's case, that she took human thought, as well as human passion, as her proper subject--ideas, such as thoughts on 'progress,' on the nature of 'culture,' on the growth and decay of society and societies, are as much actors in her work as the men and women who contemplate the ideas, partially understand them or unknowingly exhibit them. Part of the recent reaction against her, I suspect, is because her 'ideas' have been too generally summed up as a belief in inevitable human progress, a gradual bettering of the human race, a slow movement upwards and outwards. This, with the fact that the societies she depicted were (with the notable exception of Deronda's Jewish plans for a new National Home) static, constricting, rigid in form, has led people to believe she has less to offer modern novelists than may be true.
George Eliot did indeed coin the word 'meliorism' to describe a belief in gradual progress--the word is attributed to her in the OED. But she had a strong--stronger--sense of black comedy, black tragedy than she is now generally credited with, and a saving savagery in her vision of man's normal and natural inhumanity to man. She had no real heir as 'novelist of ideas' in England: Lawrence's 'ideas' are comparatively simple and strident, Forster's timid, and less comprehensive and forceful than hers. Her heirs are abroad--Proust in France, Mann in Germany. Which brings me to another reason for loving her: she was European, not little-English, her roots were Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, not just, as Leavis's Great Tradition implies, Jane Austen. She opened gates which are still open.
And I, as a woman writer, am grateful that she stands there, hidden behind the revered Victorian sage, and the Great English Tradition--a writer who could make links between mathematical skill and sexual inadequacy, between Parliamentary Reform and a teenager's silly choice of husband, between Evangelical hypocrisy and medical advance, or its absence. When I was a girl I was impressed by John Davenport's claim, in a Sunday newspaper novel-column, that 'nobody had ever really described what it felt like to be a woman.' I now think that wasn't true then, and isn't true now. People are always describing that, sometimes ad nauseam. George Eliot did that better than most writers, too--because it was not all she did: she made a world, in which intellect and passion, day-to-day cares and movements of whole societies cohere and disintegrate. She offered us scope, not certainties. That is what I would wish to celebrate.