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About this book

This volume guides students through Eliot's most widely studied novels: The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch. The first part of the book is based on analysis of extracts grouped by themes including relationships, society and morality. At the end of each chapter, a 'Methods' section offers ideas for independent study. The second part describes Eliot's biographical, cultural and intellectual environment, and gives readings of representative critical writing.

Table of Contents

Analysing George Eliot’s Novels

Frontmatter

1. Beginnings

Abstract
Three of the best-known of George Eliot’s seven novels have been selected for this study: The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch. The first two of these novels illustrate contrasting aspects of her early work, and the third is the pinnacle of her later writing. The Mill on the Floss, Eliot’s second full novel, was published in 1860, the year after Adam Bede. It is distinctive in two fundamental respects. With some close parallels in the earlier pages between the protagonist and the author, it is her most autobiographical novel. Its emotive title singles it out not only from Eliot’s other works, but also from the undemonstrative inclination of Victorian writers in general to name novels after a protagonist; it was, indeed, suggested by Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood. After The Mill on the Floss, next in order of publication was Silas Marner (1861); though it, too, took its origin from Eliot’s childhood, it is a more consciously objective book than its predecessor, with rather more of the feeling of a parable. Middlemarch dates from much later, 1872, after Eliot had produced two further books. It is unique among her novels in taking the name of a town for its title and this reflects its broader scope. The complexity of Middlemarch shows a fully mature control of the elements of structure and theme.
Mike Edwards

2. Characters

Abstract
George Eliot’s characters in the novels discussed here fall within the range of normality of the kind of people among whom she grew up. She does not deal with extremes of good or evil, wealth or poverty, and avoids the extreme ends of the social spectrum, preferring to describe the modest aspirations, moderate habits and average acumen of the rural communities of the midlands; the very title of Middlemarch points unambiguously to her intention. Significantly broader than Jane Austen’s, Eliot’s field of vision is nevertheless restricted. The rich, glittering variety of London life with which Eliot was familiar makes no appearance in these novels. Only in Middlemarch do the protagonists travel farther than locally.
Mike Edwards

3. Relationships

Abstract
Relationships are the lifeblood of Eliot’s novels. They are an essential part of her method of developing character, and it will have become evident in the last chapter that discussion of character and characterisation inevitably strays into the domain of relationships. Through recognition of the expectations of others, and through acceptance or avoidance of responsibilities to others, her characters define themselves. Furthermore, the behaviour of characters involved in relationships allows Eliot to organise and develop the moral problems and moral choices over which her novels work; these will be the subject of later chapters.
Mike Edwards

4. Society

Abstract
This chapter deals with the carefully detailed social structure that provides the backdrop of the novels and considers Eliot’s effort to create the illusion of historical reality within which her characters exist. Though the social worlds of the novels are distinct from each other, they all share something of the quality of the conceit that dominates Middlemarch — the web. This chapter does not attempt to sum up Eliot’s thinking about society, nor does it try to explore the social worlds of the novels fully. Rather, a few strands are selected that suggest the range and tendency of Eliot’s social concerns. Among the most prominent topics she deals specifically with the position of women in society, the gap between rich and poor, and the importance, social and personal, of work.
Mike Edwards

5. Morality

Abstract
The subject of this chapter is large. It will have been apparent in the earlier chapters that Eliot’s novels adopt a consistently moral perspective. The nature of the moral vision is not always easy to assess, however, because of the varying tone of Eliot’s narrative style. The analyses of The Mill on the Floss, for example, have considered the cutting of Maggie’s hair as an expression of rebellion against the constraints of her family life, and the possible effect on her family of her relationship with Philip Wakem; she is judged morally by the standards of St Ogg’s, but those standards are in turn treated ironically by Eliot. The opening of Silas Marner deals with the sense of evil in rural communities, and the whole novel hinges on the falsely assigned crime in Silas’s past, his eventual overcoming of the oppression of Lantern Yard and the inhumanity of Godfrey’s treatment of his first wife. The extracts in this novel, too, have a moral aspect, focusing on Godfrey’s sense of guilt, or at least anxiety at the discovery of the woman in the snow, and the nature of the position of the Cass family in the community of Raveloe. Middlemarch establishes its moral perspective at once by opening with a discussion of St Teresa. Another extract, in which Celia and Dorothea consider their mother’s jewels, considers the propriety of wearing them.
Mike Edwards

6. Conclusions

Abstract
This chapter has two purposes. The first is to consider how Eliot uses the final paragraphs in each novel to resolve the themes she has developed. The second is to formulate some conclusions about the way she works and how she treats the essential themes of her novels; each ending may be expected to reflect the stylistic and technical features as well as the subject matter of the novel it belongs to. In this chapter, it is especially important to consider the immediate context of the passages: each conclusion is a natural outcome of what precedes it; it is part of a larger conclusion.
Mike Edwards

The Context and The Critics

Frontmatter

7. George Eliot’s Life and Work

Abstract
George Eliot’s life mirrors the turbulent times she lived in. She led an unconventional life full of vicissitudes, yet there is about her and her work a steady conscientiousness and seriousness that express the highest aspirations of a great period in British history. She thus illuminates the contrary impulses of conservatism and revolution that guided her era. It is perhaps consistent with the depth and complexity of her personality that she should have had difficulty determining her own name. Her choice of a literary pseudonym and her revisions of the spelling of her own name reflect incidentally the issues of gender and faith that troubled her and her contemporaries. Here I shall use her pen name and the ‘Mary Anne’ spelling of her real name, which she also variously spelled Mary Ann and Marian.
Mike Edwards

8. The Context of George Eliot’s Work

Abstract
George Eliot is easy to place historically. She was born in the same year as Queen Victoria and lived through the middle sixty years of the nineteenth century. During her lifetime the railway networks were established, the penny post that became uniform in 1840 revolutionised communications, and, in her final years, the first telephone exchange began to operate in London. The Industrial Revolution bore fruit in thriving coal and steel industries and Britain became famous not only as the centre of a great empire but also as the workshop of the world.
Mike Edwards

9. Some Critical Approaches

Abstract
This chapter presents samples of criticism from a vast field of Eliot scholarship. Rather than attempt to deal with Eliot criticism in general, I have selected pieces that complement Part 1 of this book. The critics represented here deal with Eliot’s narrative method, with her sense of history and with the question of gender. The earliest of the pieces is from Barbara Hardy’s Particularities: Readings in George Eliot (London: Peter Owen, 1982) and deals with the development of Eliot’s use of narrators. This topic has been touched on in Chapter 1 in considering the opening paragraphs of the novels; Hardy’s essay carries the subject further and deals with additional novels. The second piece is a part of Chapter 4 of Michael Wheeler’s English Fiction of the Victorian Period 1830–1890 (Longman, 1985): this piece, entitled ‘Incarnate history and unhistoric acts’ refers particularly to Silas Marner and Middle-march, and more briefly to Romola and Daniel Deronda, tracing Eliot’s treatment of the impact offictional history on her characters. Wheeler’s analysis extends some of the comments made in Chapters 5 and 6. Finally, we consider an essay by Kate Flint on ‘George Eliot and Gender’, from The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (ed. George Levine, CUP, 2001): it develops a topic the other critics — indeed, most critics — allude to more briefly.
Mike Edwards
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