At the time of Eliot’s death in December 1880, she was generally regarded as the greatest living writer of fiction. Leslie Stephen declared that such a view was unanimous: ‘No one — whatever might be his special personal predilections — would have refused that title to George Eliot.’1 Yet even as he offered his eulogy in The Cornhill Magazine, Stephen’s laudatory assessment anticipated some of the concerns which would soon overturn Eliot’s high reputation. He addressed a prevailing suspicion that she was overly intellectual; he suggested that there had been a dropping off of talent in her last two novels; and, only two months after she died, he placed her firmly in the past as ‘the termination of the great period of English fiction that began with Scott… the last great sovereign of a literary dynasty’.2 Anthony Trollope took up the theme in 1883, objecting to the analytical rather than creative bias of her mind, which led Eliot to write ‘like a philosopher’,3 although it was probably Henry James who guaranteed that this estimate would prevail for more than fifty years. In a series of articles, beginning in the mid-1860s, James acknowledged genuine admiration for Eliot, while at the same time making a case for the deficiency of her imagination. He was offended by what he took to be the ‘diffuseness’ of Eliot’s fiction, its absence of ‘design and construction’, and its lack of ‘organized, moulded, balanced composition’.4 Thus, within ten years of her death Eliot stood reproved for her seriousness,5 and condemned for her lack of form and imagination.
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