‘We could never have loved the earth so well if we had no childhood in it.’ (The Mill on the Floss, 1860)
Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot (1819-1880) was another Victorian writer whose ‘husband’i haunted the shadows of a wife’s more famous identity, and George Lewes, a writer of science and philosophy, with whom Eliot cohabited, was sometimes referred to as ‘Mr Eliot’. George Eliot’s real name was Marian Evans, and, as well as her authorial nom-de-plume, for much of her life she also called herself Mrs Lewes. Frederick Karl, in his biography of Eliot, notes in Lewes and Eliot’s relationship a dim foreshadowing of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, especially in the ‘cocooning’ aspect on Lewes’s part, particularly at the start of Eliot’s fiction career. Lewes filtered the more discouraging reviews and criticism from her attention, and acted as go-between with the publisher Blackwood, protecting her identity and giving the impression she was masculine by referring to her as ‘his clerical friend.’ ii Dickens was not fooled; writing about Eliot’s first book ‘Scenes from Clerical Life’ he declares: ‘If these two volumes or parts of them had not been written by a woman, then should I begin to believe that I am a woman myself.’
It was as though Eliot needed the shield of these other identities before she could expose the consciousness of Marian Evans. Karl notes how a strange kind of transference occurred:
Literally taking on another identity, somewhere between male and female; somewhere between Lewes’s ‘clerical friend’ and not being a cleric; somewhere between Lewes’s closest companion, his ‘Mrs Lewes’ and not Mrs Lewes. She has become, in these respects, fiction itself, part of the process in which transformation is key.iii
Many meanings can be read into Eliot’s ‘authorial’ gender crossover; in a letter she writes how the use of a nom de plume ‘secures all the advantages without the disagreeables of reputation.’ Prejudice on the part of male reviewers accounted for the use of pen names amongst women writers in the 19th century, the most famous example being the Brontës. With the perception of women as emotional (as opposed to men as rational) the advantage of writing under a male pseudonym gave Eliot the sense of masculine and intellectual power she always coveted. This was a time when ‘lady novelists’ were somewhat derided as insubstantial, not least by Eliot herself. In her essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ she describes this ‘mind-and-millinery school’ as ‘determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them – the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic.’iv
Eliot, essentially an autodidact, was deeply intellectual, yet also an extremely competent housekeeper. After the death of her mother in 1836 she cared for her father until his death in 1849. She invented the Marmalade Brompton Cake, which for a while became the most famous cake in England. Eliot had already caused a rift in the family when she stopped going to church, and although she compromised, she aroused further disapproval when she moved from Foleshill in the West Midlands to London. Here she took up with intellectual radicals,v thus gaining her independence at the cost of her relationship with her brother Isaac, who as eldest son had taken over patriarchal responsibilities as well as the family home. This fracture culminated in total estrangement at her liaison with George Lewes; nevertheless her childhood memories remained constantly precious to her, and she used them to great effect in ‘The Mill on the Floss,’ though not without a certain ambivalence.
Birthplace of George Eliot
Eliot’s use of external commentary and observations by the narrator has the effect of intensifying the level of discourse in her books. One of the themes in ‘The Mill on the Floss’ is the comfort and delight to be found in the familiarity of the past, and Eliot turns to first person narration to emphasise her point:
The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet – what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky, with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows – such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass to-day, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years which still live in us, and transform our perception into love.
This pastoral evocation has the effect of lulling the reader into a sentimental pact with the narrator while at the same time provoking the reader’s own nostalgic memories of childhood.
Karl writes: ‘Like Flaubert, she planned to heroize the insignificant until it radiated importance.’vi This strategy is part of Eliot’s telescopic method of putting 19th century provincial society under philosophical and psychological scrutiny, rather in the manner of a scientific historian. Acknowledging the importance of Darwin Eliot saw her own writing as an exploration of ‘the mystery that lies under the process.’ Eliot shared Lewes’s interest in scientific and biological discovery, and makes use of her knowledge in the acute dissection of her characters. In ‘The Mill on the Floss, Philip, the deformed son of lawyer Wakem, reacts to Maggie Tulliver’s ‘advances towards a good understanding very much as a caressed mollusc meets an invitation to show himself out of his shell.’ And the imagery of the ‘primeval strata’ of sister Glegg’s wardrobe conjures up a fossilised depth of ancient clothing pressed between layers of tissue paper, analogous to that good lady’s deep-rooted sense of preserving the provincial modus operandi – of clothes, fuzzy-fronts, and old-fashioned standards in general.
One would need to be learned in the fashions of those times to know how far in the rear of them Mrs Glegg’s slate-coloured silk-gown must have been; but from certain constellations of small yellow spots upon it, and a mouldy colour about it suggestive of a damp clothes-chest, it was probable that it belonged to a stratum of garments just old enough to have come recently into wear.
Full of self-importance, sister Glegg claims to have some kind of monopoly on time in the shape of her large gold watch, observing ‘that whatever it might be by other people’s clocks and watches, it was gone half-past twelve by hers.’
Eliot’s meditation on time in the opening chapter of ‘The Mill on the Floss’ is so Proustian that Proust himself claimed to have been reduced to tears upon reading it. Karl writes:
The foreshadowing of certain elements in Proust which bind past and present is uncanny, but not because Eliot was as artistically self-conscious as Proust. Instead, she sensed that words carry deep meanings which go well beyond their sense in a particular context. She experienced language as profoundly linked to a whole range of feelings which carry us back into our personal histories.vii
Eliot draws on her own ‘history’ for the powerful heroines in her books that yearn to be more than society allows, and it is generally agreed that Maggie Tulliver in ‘The Mill on the Floss’ is Eliot’s most explicit self-characterisation. One of the themes in ‘The Mill on the Floss’ is that of the woman hemmed in, and Maggie bears the burden of Eliot’s ideological conflict in a male-dominated culture. Maggie’s brother Tom gets the education that, as a girl, Maggie is deprived of, yet would so much more have appreciated than her brother: ‘Tom, like every one of us, was imprisoned within the limits of his own nature, and his education had simply glided over him, leaving a slight deposit of polish.’ Maggie’s imaginative intelligence finds little satisfaction when confronted with her brother Tom’s idea of his own superiority. Kerry McSweeney notes:
Tom is the epitome of society’s attitude to gender…it is he who is the novel’s dominant symbol of repressive male authority…When she [Maggie] observes that being a man means that he has the power to do something in the world, Tom replies: ‘Then if you can do nothing, submit to those who can.’viii
The Victorians believed that women occupied a lower level in mental evolution, with craniologists and phrenologists asserting that the female brain weighted 5ozs less than a man’s. It was believed, as Karl writes: ‘With their smaller brain, their lack of mental development and will, women were more subject to diseases of excitement; that is, hysteria and related nervous ailments.’ix Deirdre David notes how ‘Maggie’s head becomes a compelling image of female intelligence in the novel.’x This intelligence is a burden for Maggie. She retreats to the attic to punish her ‘fetish’, the trunk of a wooden doll, by beating its head on the brick chimney and driving nails into its skull. Another symbolic gesture is made when Maggie hacks off her hair: on the one hand this is a denial of her gender, on the other an attempt to make people notice her cleverness. And while she feels ‘a sense of clearness and freedom, as if she had emerged from a wood into the open plain,’ she is soon aware, as usual too late, of the consequences of her impulsiveness, and has to suffer feeling foolish under the critical scrutiny of her relatives.
Eliot believed that an historical consciousness was essential for a sense of moral responsibility. Maggie Tulliver calls on this bondage to the past in her attempts to resist the romantic demands of Stephen Guest: ‘If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.’ Wordsworth’s lines from ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ seem to underpin Maggie’s dilemma: ‘Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight, / And custom lie upon thee with a weight, / Heavy as frost, / and deep almost as life!’ Reading Wordsworth at the age of twenty, Eliot writes: ‘I never before met with so many of my own feelings, expressed just as I could like them.’ xi While demonstrating the traditional sanctities of 19th century pastoral England she also hearkens back to the romantic state of mind of the late 18th century that reflected on the beauty of an pre-Edenic earthly paradise. Eliot is aware of her own fall from grace: in ‘The Mill on the Floss’ she reconstructs the innocent love of brother and sister. At the point of Tom and Maggie’s death McSweeney observes how ‘a prelapsarian glow surrounds the time when brother and sister had “clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together.”’xii As well as ‘The Mill on the Floss’ being Eliot’s “most Wordsworthian novel” Margaret Homans points out that ‘it is also her novel most concerned both with female education and with the brother-sister relationship.’xiii As a child Maggie never quite succeeds in pleasing Tom, as an adult she alienates herself completely from him by her relationships with Philip Waken and Stephen Guest, a fictional representation of Eliot’s alienation from her brother Isaac. Although Maggie and Tom Tulliver’s relationship follows a very different pattern to that of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, there is still the idea of the brother as a god-like figure, the omnipotent instructor.
‘Ah, Maggie,’ said Philip, almost fretfully, ‘you would never love me so well as you love your brother.’
‘Perhaps not,’ said Maggie, simply; ‘but then, you know, the first thing I ever remember in my life is standing with Tom by the side of the Floss, while he held my hand; everything before that is dark to me.’
It is the river, such a strong motif in the book, which bears Maggie and Tom ceaselessly backwards towards a past that holds them hostage. David writes: ‘in the drowning of Maggie Tulliver we see the destruction of all that constrains her.’xiv
Tom and Maggie Tulliver (illustration from ‘The Mill on the Floss’)
The final line of the Conclusion to ‘The Mill on the Floss’ is David’s lament for Saul and his son Jonathan, David’s beloved: ‘In their death they were not divided’ (2 Samuel 1.23), just one of the many biblical allusions in Eliot’s texts. For Eliot, brought up in a low church Anglican family, she moved from being deeply religious towards a secular humanism.xv She describes events from the Gospels as being embroidered with ‘shining ether’ and asks, ‘subtract from the New Testament the miraculous and highly unprobable and what will be the remainder? Karl writes: ‘That question, posed when Mary Ann (sic) was almost twenty-eight, would occupy her for the remainder of her life and become the subtext of virtually all her fiction.’xvi Essentially Eliot’s message is that without knowledge we do not question God’s ways, and thus remain under the Church’s intellectual control. Nevertheless, she understood early religious experience as ‘a portion of valid knowledge,’ and important towards the formation of good character. Virginia Woolf maintains that Eliot’s heroines:
cannot live without religion, and they start out on the search for one when they are little girls. Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness, which makes the place where she stands in aspiration and agony the heart of the book – still and cloistered like a place of worship, but that she no longer knows to whom to pray.xvii
A sense of Calvinistic determinism also informs Eliot’s novels. Pauline Nestor writes how in ‘The Mill on the Floss’:
Maggie’s efforts to manage a hostile and unsupportive world had an intimate relevance for her author, and the heroine’s fitful struggle with the need for resignation mirrored the conflict closest to Eliot’s own heart. So, inspired by her reading of Thomas à Kempis, Maggie recognises the wisdom of acquiescence: “our life is determined for us – and it makes the mind very free when we give up wishing, and only think of bearing what is laid upon us, and doing what is given to us to do.”’ xviii
Elaine Showalter refers to Maggie Tulliver as ‘the heroine of renunciation.’ Nestor, however, feels that ‘Eliot’s empathy with Maggie leads…to her most radical insight – that the Spinozan ideal of self-regulation may, in fact, be undesirable or, more accurately, may come at too high a price.’xix As Philip tells Maggie at their second meeting in the Red Deeps ‘you are shutting yourself up in a narrow self-delusive fanaticism; which is only a way of escaping pain by starving into dullness all the highest powers of your nature.’ The renunciation aspect of Eliot’s heroines makes the author a difficult figure for feminist criticism to come to terms with, for there seems to be a gap between her life and her fiction. McSweeney writes:
Marian Evans had established herself independently of her family, earned her own living, edited a journal, expressed advanced opinions in defiance of convention, and attained both private happiness and vocational fulfilment through doing so. But none of this was ever reflected in the lives of her female characters. Just as Marian had lived through the Victorian crisis of belief but never makes it the subject matter of her fiction, so too she lived the life an emancipated woman but never wrote about it. Instead, her heroines either dwindled into wives or were forced to swallow the pills of renunciation and resignation.’xx
Henry James, who became a regular Sunday visitor at Eliot and Lewes’s house The Priory, near Regent’s Park in London, describes Eliot as being ‘both sweet and superior, and has a delightful expression in her large, long, pale, equine face.’ James’s psychotic sister Alice saw Eliot as a depressive, living without joy. Eliot was no beauty, but surely Alice James was looking at Eliot through her own veil of horror when she describes Eliot’s features as ‘dank’ and ‘moaning’ and that she ‘makes upon me the impression, morally and physically, of mildew or some morbid growth – a fungus of a pendulous shape, or as of something damp to the touch.’xxi
Karl suggests that Eliot’s writing was ‘a product of a poor self-image, which she could transform into the strength of the word, in some kind of transmutation of self into language.’xxii Virginia Woolf gives us some further points of view:
To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her…Indeed, one cannot escape the conviction that the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power has stamped itself depressingly upon the minds of people who remember George Eliot, so that it looks out upon them from her pages. Mr Gosse has lately described her as he saw her driving through London in a victoria: a large, thick-set Sybil, dreamy and immobile, whose massive features, somewhat grim when seen in profile, were incongruously bordered by a hat, always in the height of Paris fashion, which in those days commonly included an immense ostrich feather.
Lady Ritchie, with equal skill, has left a more intimate indoor portrait:
She [Eliot] sat by the fire in a beautiful black satin gown, with a green shaded lamp on the table beside her, where I saw German books lying and pamphlets and ivory paper-cutters. She was very quiet and noble, with two steady little eyes and a sweet voice. As I looked I felt her to be a friend, not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse.xxiii
Although I have used ‘The Mill on the Floss’ as a template for aspects of Eliot’s consciousness, it is the last paragraph of ‘Middlemarch’ describing the legacy of Dorothea Brooke that illustrates the ‘good and benevolent impulse’ towards humanity that Lady Ritchie felt emanating from this great novelist:
Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrusxxiv broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Many regard Eliot as the greatest English realist, and F.R. Leavis includes her in his ‘canon’ of great English writers. Realism, which first became a literary term in 1826, was generally assumed to be fiction based on the world of ordinary men and women in society. But disentangling the great realist texts reveals the artfulness that goes into creating a sense of ‘reality’. Eliot, using her strategy of intrusive narrator in ‘Adam Bede’, writes about the slipperiness of truthfulness:
Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult…Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings – much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth.
D.H. Lawrence was aware of Eliot’s originality as a psychological novelist: ‘It was she who started putting all the action inside.’xxv Dinah Mulock, writing in Macmillan’s Magazine, in 1861, observes that Eliot was ‘an author who has pre-eminently what all novelists should have, “the brain of a man and the heart of a woman.”’xxvi James, who was critical of her ‘clumsily artificial’ plot-lines, nevertheless realised, as Alan Bellringer writes, ‘the significance of her heroines not only as precedents for his own, but in the development of literature itself.’xxvii James also argues that she ‘helped on the cause of feminism by showing in the dedication of her life that there was nothing that was closed to women.’ xxviii Even after James distanced himself from Eliot, Karl observes ‘her voice can be recognized submerged beneath his.’ xxix
Lévi-Strauss writes: ‘Some claim that human societies merely express, through their mythology, fundamental feelings common to the whole of mankind.’xxx It is exactly these fundamental attitudes that Eliot is describing as she leads us through the provincial backwaters of 19th century England. Eliot’s technique gives the reader a feeling of a shared understanding of the past: her narrator draws the reader into the text, and her use of irony, often accentuated by an interrogative, makes the reader scrutinise him/herself, and so unwittingly accept the ‘reality’ of the author’s premise. We must remember, however, that story-telling can only be the author’s illusion of reality, and that the ‘truth’ lies is our own understanding.
George Eliot, 16 March 1877, sketch by Princess Louise
i George Lewes was already married, although separated from his wife.
ii Karl, Frederick, 1995. George Eliot – A Biography, Harper Collins.
iv Abrams, M.H. ed. 2000. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th ed) Vol 2.
v Eliot became assistant editor of The Westminster Review in 1851
vi Karl, ibid
viii McSweeney, Kerry, 1991. George Eliot – A Literary Life, Macmillan.
ix Karl, ibid
x David, Deirdre, 1994. ‘Maggie Tulliver’s Desire’, in Christ, Carol T., ed., The Mill on the Floss, Norton Critical Edition.
xi quoted in Homans, Margaret, 1994. ‘Eliot, Wordsworth, and the Scenes of the Sisters’ Instruction’ in Christ, Carol T., ed., The Mill on the Floss, Norton Critical Edition.
xii McSweeney, ibid
xiii Homans, ibid
xiv David, ibid
xvIn 1853 Eliot translated The Essence of Christianity (1841) by Ludwig Andreas Feurbach, German materialist and philosopher, in which he maintains that God is merely an outward projection of man’s inner self.
xvi Karl, ibid
xvii Woolf, Virginia, 1925. The Common Reader, Harcourt, Brace & Co. (N.Y.)
xviii Nestor, Pauline, 2002. Critical Issues: George Eliot, Palgrave.
xx McSweeney, ibid
xxi Karl, ibid
xxiii from an article by Virginia Woolf first published in The Times Literary Supplement 20th Nov.1919.
xxiv Cyrus, founder of the Persian empire, divided the River Gyndes after one of his sacred horses drowned in it (Herodotus book 1)
xxv Bellringer, Alaw W., 1993. George Eliot, Macmillan Modern Novelists.
xxvi from Macmillan’s Magazine, April 1861, in Christ, Carol T., ed., The Mill on the Floss, Norton Critical Edition.
xxvii Bellringer, ibid
xxix Karl, ibid
xxx Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1958. ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ in Rivkin & Ryan, eds, Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 2002.