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About this book

George Eliot was one of the great thinkers of her time, a figure central to the main currents of thought and belief in the nineteenth century. Yet when this distinguished public intellectual turned to fiction writing at the age of thirty-six, she regarded it not as a lesser pursuit, but as the distillation of all of her knowledge and ideas. For Eliot, fiction enabled the consideration of life 'in its highest complexity', and had the capacity not merely to elicit, but actually to create, moral sentiment by surprising readers into the recognition of realities other than their own.

In this new study, Pauline Nestor offers a challenging reassessment of Eliot's contribution to the critical debates, both of her age and of her own era. In particular, she examines the author's literary expolration of ethics, especially in relation to the negotiation of difference. Nestor argues compellingly that, through a reading of their sophisticated drama of otherness, Eliot's novels can be seen as freshly relevant to contemporary theoretical debates in feminism, moral philosophy, post-colonial studies and psychoanalysis.

Covering the writer's complete body of major fiction, this is an indispensable voume for anyone studying the work of one of the most important and influential novelists of the nineteenth century.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
On the last day of December 1872, George Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood, declared that the publication of Middlemarch would be ‘one of the events by which 1872 will be remembered’.1 If, from our vantage point, the claim now seems exaggerated, it is not difficult to forgive the hyperbole. His client and friend, George Eliot, was the greatest living writer of the time, and she had just delivered to him her finest novel. With its publication, her reputation was at its zenith and her influence extended far beyond literary circles. More than simply a novelist, she was a public intellectual whose contribution to the public debate was constantly sought across a wide range of topics. Campaigners for women’s rights, for example, solicited testimonials in support of the extension of the franchise to women, the reform of laws relating to married women’s property, increased educational and employment opportunities, and the admission of women as doctors. Followers of Auguste Comte entreated her to produce a work that would embody his Positivist vision for an ideal social state and to provide a liturgy for their Religion of Humanity. John Blackwood urged her to intervene in the debate surrounding the Second Reform Bill of 1867, and prevailed upon her to write an ‘Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt’, emphasising the ‘new responsibilities’ of the recently enfranchised (IV, 395). Her work was quoted in parliamentary debates and her ‘wit and wisdom’ were collected into a popular volume by Alexander Main.
Pauline Nestor

2. The Making of a Novelist

Abstract
George Eliot had always nourished a ‘vague dream’ that she might one day write a novel, although for years her plan never progressed beyond an introductory chapter, ‘describing a Staffordshire village and the life of the neighbouring farm houses’ (II, 406). When she did finally take up her pen to begin ‘The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton’, the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, her life was transformed. She left behind the arduous and largely anonymous life of periodical writing, and embarked on a path which would bring both fame and fortune with remarkable rapidity.1 And even as she took that first step as a novelist, she recognised the moment as epochal: ‘September 1856 made a new era in my life, for it was then I began to write Fiction’ (II, 406).
Pauline Nestor

3. ‘My first bit of art’: Scenes of Clerical Life

Abstract
Eliot’s determination to exemplify the artistic credo she had so extensively enunciated through her literary journalism is evident at every turn in Scenes of Clerical Life. To begin with, the stories are insistently unromantic. The narrator of ‘Amos Barton’, for example, affects a simplicity of mind and incapacity of invention to explain the mundanity of his tale. He maintains that his ‘only merit’ lies in ‘faithfulness’ (50), and warns readers in search of ‘thrilling incident’ to look elsewhere to the more fashionable novels of ‘the last season’ (37). Similarly, Eliot’s first protagonist, Amos Barton, is adamantly unheroic, ‘the quintessential extract of mediocrity’ (40). The initial description of Barton stresses the generic rather than the exceptional, thwarting the superficial desire to read character through appearance. He has a narrow face ‘of no particular complexion’, features of ‘no particular shape’ and an eye of ‘no particular expression’ (15). His nondescript visage is complemented by his ‘unmistakably commonplace’ (36) character, inclining the putative ‘lady reader’ to declare him ‘utterly uninteresting’ (36). Yet it is precisely because everything about him is ‘so very far from remarkable’ (36) that Barton acquires a representative status that warrants attention:
it is so very large a majority of your fellow-countrymen that are of this insignificant stamp. At least eighty out of a hundred of your adult male fellow-Britons returned in the last census, are neither extraordinarily silly, nor extraordinarily wicked, nor extraordinarily wise; their eyes are neither deep and liquid with sentiment, nor sparkling with suppressed witticisms; they have probably had no hairbreadth escapes or thrilling adventures; their brains are certainly not pregnant with genius, and their passions have not manifested themselves at all after the fashion of a volcano. They are simply men of complexions more or less muddy, whose conversation is more or less bald and disjointed. (37)
Pauline Nestor

4. Self-regulation and the Limits of Subjectivity: Adam Bede

Abstract
Encouraged by the modest success of Scenes of Clerical Life, and by the assiduous enthusiasm of both her partner, George Lewes, and her publisher, John Blackwood, George Eliot began work on Adam Bede in October 1857, less than a fortnight after having despatched the conclusion of ‘Janet’s Repentance’. From the outset she signalled her intention to continue with the same dedicated realism of Scenes, promising Blackwood that her new tale would be ‘a country story — full of the breath of cows and the scent of hay’ (II, 387).
Pauline Nestor

5. ‘A widening psychology’: The Mill on the Floss

Abstract
Adam Bede was a publishing triumph — the work that established George Eliot as both a ‘popular’ and a ‘great author’ (III, 33). Its success was doubly welcome, for not only did it bring a new level of financial security for Eliot, but it provided her with the kind of ‘warmly expressed sympathy which only popularity can win’, and of which, she confessed to her publisher, she was ‘much in need’ (III, 6). As well, however, it brought new fears, creating for the first time the pressure of ‘immense expectation’ (III, 270), and making the writing process for Eliot ‘a matter of more anxiety than ever’ (III, 185).
Pauline Nestor

6. The Mystery of Otherness: Silas Marner

Abstract
George Eliot left England for Italy within forty-eight hours of despatching the proofs of The Mill on the Floss. She had looked forward to this trip for a number of years, not, as she pointed out with characteristic earnestness, in ‘the hope of immediate pleasure’ but ‘rather with the hope of the new elements it would bring to my culture’.1 She was also anxious to leave the country before her new novel appeared, determined to escape the ‘chorus, pleasant or harsh’ (III, 270) which would greet it. Her anxiety to escape the critical storm arose in part from her sense that there was a ‘very strong disposition’ to see The Mill on the Floss as a ‘falling off’ after her triumph with Adam Bede (III, 270). But this was also the first book to appear after Eliot’s true identity had become public knowledge and hence her pseudonym could no longer protect her from the censure arising from her unorthodox relationship with George Lewes.
Pauline Nestor

7. Between Two Worlds: Romola

Abstract
When George Eliot became ‘fired’ with the idea of writing an historical romance set in fifteenth-century Florence, she contemplated this leap into unfamiliar creative territory with a mixture of trepidation and determination. So conscious was she of the risk of producing ‘something else than what was expected’ (III, 339), that she considered publishing her ‘Italian story’ anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine.1 Nonetheless, Eliot was resolved to sacrifice popularity — ‘Of necessity, the book is addressed to fewer readers than my previous work’ — in the interests of extending and diversifying her creative range: ‘If one is to have the freedom to write out one’s own varying unfolding self, and not be a machine always grinding out the same material or spinning the same sort of web, one cannot always write for the same public’ (IV, 49).
Pauline Nestor

8. A Politics of Morality: Felix Holt

Abstract
George Eliot’s prediction that Romola was destined to be less popular than her earlier works proved to be all too accurate for her new publisher George Smith, whose gamble in paying £7000 for the serialisation of the novel in his Cornhill Magazine failed to pay dividends in the form of increased sales. Undeterred, however, Eliot continued to experiment with new forms, determined with her next project, The Spanish Gypsy, to write ‘rather to please myself than the public’, and uncertain as to whether her new work would ever be published (IV, 176). For the first time in her ‘serious authorship’ Eliot was attempting to write in verse,1 and, almost perversely, after the ‘unspeakable pains’ (IV, 301) she suffered in the preparation of Romola, Eliot chose once again to set her new work in a distant place and time — Spain in the fifteenth century. Accordingly, the end of 1864 saw her immersing herself in Spanish history and learning Spanish grammar.
Pauline Nestor

9. The ‘difficult task of knowing another soul’: Middlemarch

Abstract
Having finished Felix Holt on the last day of May 1866, Eliot left almost immediately for the Continent, according to her now well-established custom of seeking both refuge from the fuss of publication, and restoration of her health and well-being after the ‘dreadful nervousness and depression’ (IV, 265) of composition. It was to be five and a half years before she published another novel, the longest gap in her novelistic career. In the intervening period she turned her attention to poetry, first taking up once more her verse drama, The Spanish Gypsy, which appeared in April 1868, and subsequently producing a number of poems, which formed the bulk of her 1874 volume, The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems.
Pauline Nestor

10. ‘The transmutation of the self’: Daniel Deronda

Abstract
While Middlemarch depicts its protagonist as defeated by the constrictions of ‘an imperfect social state’ (821) and ends with the regretful recognition that, given Dorothea’s inevitable struggle with ‘prosaic conditions’, the ‘determining acts’ of her life could never be ‘ideally beautiful’ (821), Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, reserves a grander fate for its hero. Eliot was keenly aware of the dissatisfaction generated by the unheroic future ascribed to her ‘new Theresa’ (821) in Middlemarch, ‘perfectly sure that everybody will be disappointed’ (V, 333). Even within the novel she explicitly acknowledged that many would think it ‘a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother’ (819), and though she deleted it from later editions, she gave vent to her own frustration in the first edition:
Among the many remarks passed on her mistakes, it was never said in the neighbourhood of Middlemarch that such mistakes could not have happened if the society into which she was born had not smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age — on modes of education which make a woman’s knowledge another name for motley ignorance — on rules of conduct which are in flat contradiction with its own loudly-asserted beliefs. While this is the social air in which morals begin to breathe, there will be collisions such as those in Dorothy’s life.1
Pauline Nestor

11. Conclusion

Abstract
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.
Pauline Nestor
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