“George Eliot,” by Jill L. Matus

Barbara Bodichon described Mary Ann Evans as having a “great big head and heart…[and] wise wide views.” Reviled for her aberrant conjugal situation, she emerged later in life, despite attempts to maintain anonymity, as a Victorian sage, asked for by Queen Victoria herself (they shared a birthday). Matus points out that Adam Bede hit the literary scene jsut as England was ready for an emergent novelist: all the Brontës were dead, Dickens had been established for a good while, Thackeray had just published Esmond and would die three years later. Eliot was conscious of her role as woman-author: she looked down on the frivolous nature of many “silly” women writers.

Eliot had an ethics of art: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” One thinks of her ability to render the rather obdurate otherness of Causabon in a sympathetic manner. She pits truthful representations of ordinary life against the sentimental and the euphemistic. But this realism is above all psychological, even if these psyches that go under the knife of Eliot’s incisive pen are historical and social products. They are caught up in a “web” that is never fully visible to the character…only to the Omniscient narrator.  Matus draws the analogy to Lydgate’s research in Middlemarch:

[TO] pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition that determine the growth of happy ir unhappy unconsciousness.

Crucially, the emotions are physical not mental processes. In Eliot, the body, soul and mind are inextricable linked together, and they are all in turn linked to society and history. Whereas Charlotte Brontë might access the interior of Jane via a sejour in the frist person; Eliot mediates the interior by way of an analytic, reflective, incisive narrator. Interesting to compare this narrator to the “intrusive” narrator of Thackeray and Trollope. She uses Bulstrode, not a particuarly reflective character, as an example of what Eliot’s method can do: thinking oneself into the place of an other even when the character is unable to fully articualte their subjective position:

Who can know how much of his most inmost life is made up of thoughts he believes other men to have about him, until that fabric of opinion is threatened with ruin?

 

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