Upcoming Discussions

Friday, 8/11/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Nathan Hill, THE NIX (2016)

 

THOMAS HARDY, THEN AND NOW

Friday, 9/15/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), first half

Friday, 9/29/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), second half

Friday, 10/20/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Damian Wilkins, MAX GATE (2016)

Friday, 11/10/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES (1891)

Friday, 12/8/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Christopher Nicholson, WINTER (2016)

 

THE WINTER NOVEL

Friday, 1/12/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TBD

Friday, 1/26/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TBD

Friday, 2/9/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TBD

Friday, 2/23/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

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Entries in George Eliot (9)

Thursday
Feb112016

DANIEL DERONDA and Modern Zionism

If you haven't finished the novel, HERE BE SPOILERS. Consider coming back when you're done.

This is an early picture of Jews returning to modern-day Israel. It was taken in 1947. It has nothing to do with DANIEL DERONDA.

True, as George Eliot's sweeping, final novel comes to a close, we do have an intimate vision of Deronda setting off for "the East" in search of his personal roots as well as the foundations of his new Jewish identity. By "the East," both the character and the author are probably talking, not about China or India, but about the Middle East, specifically what had been called the Levant, or perhaps modern-day Israel. But actually, it's not that simple, not that definite. It's vague. It had to be, as you'll see.

One of the first synagogues built in modern-day Israel, from about 1885.At the time the novel was written (the mid-1870s) and even the time when it was set (the late 1860s), Deronda's and Mirah's voyage would have been nothing short of pioneering--and dangerous at that. The first modern "colony" of Jews in what is now Israel was founded only in 1860, just a few years before the action of the novel. That colony was always a tenuous affair. It didn't even last. In fact, the first lasting resettlement occurred in the early 1880s, years after the events of the novel and in fact a few years after Eliot's death. So if Deronda's voyage would have actually taken place in the real world, it would have been an extremely early expression of what came to be known as Zionism, the political and cultural movement to relocate the Jews to a homeland.

A homeland, not "the." And which one? It's not easy to answer. After the Roman Empire brutally crushed the Jewish uprising in 70 CE, the Jews were scattered throughout the Mediterranean region, first settling in modern-day Turkey; around Alexandria, Egypt; and in modern-day Iran near Tehran--and then spreading farther and farther out across the Empire, the far East, and Africa. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the bulk of European Jewish settlements were in the region of modern-day Poland, Hungary, and eastern Russia; but there were many more on the Iberian peninsula and even in northern Africa.

By the nineteenth century, a revival of both Hebrew and Rabbinic culture across Europe (see the previous post) led to the belief that the Jews would never be able to practice their religion properly without being in their own land. These were the halcyon days for the idea of what we now call the "nation-state," the nineteenth century absurdity that claimed each ethnicity should have its own place: the French, the British, the Germans, etc. Of course, you'd have to buy that the French, the British, the Germans, etc., are indeed ethnicities, apart from languages and, say, cooking techniques. However, such was the world they lived in--and that we inherited. So nations were supposed to equal races (another nineteenth-century absurdity).

The first Zionist conference in 1897Early Zionist leaders suggested many places as a homeland: yes, what's now modern Israel, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire; but also Uganda, Argentina, and even a few spots in India. These suggestions are what account for George Eliot's rather vague notion of "the East."

In truth, there wasn't a concerted call yet for modern Israel to be what it now is. After all, that region had been run over by the Crusaders, by various conquering armies, and finally by the Ottomans. It wasn't exactly Paradise.

Things would take a dramatic turn after the close of Eliot's novel--and indeed, after the end of her life--when Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist, penned Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State") in 1896, a plea for a modern Israel. Herzl helped convene the first Zionist conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. The road began to open for more and more Jews to immigrate to Israel. But all that took place decades after DANIEL DERONDA.

By the way, this mass immigration is known as the Aliyah (ah-lee-yah), a Hebrew word that means something like "the going up." If you're familiar with the language of the Bible, you know that Tanakh (what Christians call "the Old Testament") repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as "up." "Let us go up to Jerusalem." Thus, the Aliyah (or "going up") is the modern term for the mass migrations that began at the turn of the twentieth century and then picked up speed after World War II. That first permanent settlement in the 1880s is now referred to in retrospect as the first Aliyah. Still, Deronda in the 1860s would have been well ahead of this, even well ahead of Herzl.

Indeed, Eliot was well ahead of her time. Don't think that it was a common thing that Deronda should head to "the East." Eliot was sensing--even predicting--something that would happen in the decades after her death.

Theodor HerzlAs an interesting side note, Herzl's Zionism was motivated by the pogroms that regularly ran across Russia, murdering and disappearing Jews by the millions long before the Holocaust. By the time Herzl was writing, the notion that the Jews should return to their ancient homeland, what we now call Israel, was well versed--but not before. Many early Zionists believed that Jews simply needed a place, any place, of their own. In fact, because of the intense antisemitism inside Russia in the nineteenth century, many Jewish intellectuals supported Germany in World War I. It's easy--and deadly--to imagine that the devil you don't know is better than the devil you do.

Of course, much happened post-DERONDA. The Ottomans were defeated in World War I. They lost their empire. Great Britain picked up the pieces in a colonial move that proved tricky, if not absurd. The genocidal nightmares of the Nazis became a reality. The British gave up that land under a U. N. mandate. And the modern Aliyah (and state of Israel) began in 1948. But that's seventy-two years after DANIEL DERONDA's publication and sixty-eight years after Eliot's death. What she senses isn't a reality in the 1870s. It's not even a dream. She imagined it.

Tuesday
Feb022016

Reinventing Hebrew

A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in a specific dialect of HebrewWhen Deronda learns Hebrew, it isn't quite the quiet, tame act it seems. Eliot is playing with Zionist fire. In the nineteenth century, the language itself was a charged subject--mostly because it had been long considered "dead," the province of rabbis, their students, and a few scholars. But in the mid-1800s, Hebrew began its quick resurrection.

Let's go back. Spoken Hebrew, the language of Torah (or the Old Testament) began falling out of favor sometime around 700 BCE, around the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel. By 400 BCE, no one spoke Hebrew; it was merely a liturgical language, the language of the sacred text. Jesus and his followers did not speak Hebrew (and certainly didn't speak Greek, the language of the New Testament). They spoke Aramaic, the formerly official language of the Assyrian Empire and a language well spread throughout the northwestern Middle East, a language related to Hebrew and Phoenecian. Parts of the Biblical books of Ezra and Daniel are written, not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic. And Aramaic, not Hebrew, became the important language of many of the commentaries on Torah. Even Hebrew itself, because it was not in use except for liturgical and rabbinic purposes, developed its own idiosyncracies unrelated to normal speech patterns. Medieval Hebrew is a language that was almost never spoken, only written, about the way Latin functioned in the Roman Catholic Church through parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Eliezer ben-Yehuda (1858 - 1922)It probably would have stayed that way if it weren't for the rise of Zionism, the political movement that claimed the Jews were not Germans or Poles, but a unique people, subject to almost unprecedented levels of persecution, who could only find safety in a permanent homeland. Nothing aided that effort like the rise of a common language. Indeed, modern Hebrew, the language now spoken in Israel, is a nineteenth-century, Zionist creation. The Jewish intellectual Eliezer ben-Yehuda, a Lithuanian newspaper editor, undertook the almost Herculean task of bringing the language back to life.

Here was his problem: after the destruction of the Temple and the upstart Jewish rebellion against the Roman empire in 70 A.D., the Jews were brutally scattered throughout the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent, and even into modern Italy, Turkey, and Bulgaria. (This great movement of their civilization is now known as the "diaspora.") Over the centuries, often in response to official pogroms or local persecutions, Jews began to fan out across wider and wider areas. Most eventually settled in east-central Europe: eastern Germany, Poland, Ukraine, western Russia, and adjoining territories. This area has come to be known as the "pale of settlement." (That name was originally applied just to western Russia but soon began to include adjacent territories.)

While the bulk of the Jewish population settled here (and note that some of our novel takes place in Germany), many others settled far and wide. Over time, Aramaic--and even liturgical Hebrew--began fusing with the surrounding languages. By the nineteenth century, the bulk of Jews in central Europe spoke Yiddish, a fusion of Hebrew, German, Russian, and a smattering of other languages. Other Jews in Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa spoke Ladino, a fusion of liturgical Hebrew, the Sephardic dialect of Hebrew, Aramaic, Spanish, and Arabic. Jews in Lithuania spoke Litvak, a local dialect of Lithuanian. Still others, far out in central Asia, spoke Bukhori, a fusion of Aramaic, liturgical Hebrew, Tajik, and a smattering of Hindi and Chinese. Still others left in Palestine spoke Judeo-Arabic, a mostly Arabic-influenced dialect of Aramaic.

Most of these languages have died off, thanks to the rise of modern Hebrew. But they do still survive in songs. (I once sang an entire Ladino concert with a group in New York City.) Here's a clip of fantastic singer doing a Ladino number:

 

And of course, Yiddish was kept alive for many years in New York City with its Yiddish theaters on the Lower East Side and through many folk songs. Even if you don't know Yiddish, you know it as a line in a famous song (I think you have to get through a wretched ad first):

Modern Hebrew's problem was ancient Hebrew. Like all Semitic languages, Hebrew is built off roots. In Hebrew, three consonants in a set succession always represent some sort of general concept: water, life, meat, love, loyalty. For example, these three consonants, כתב, "ktb" (remember: Hebrew is read right to left), form the basis of the concept of "writing." Note that there are no vowels here. Hebrew is technically a language that only writes the consonants (the vowels are often added as dots and lines under or next to the consonants, dots and lines called "points," to help those not yet proficient in the language). For now, let's add a flat "a" between each consonant: katab. Now the word means "he writes." But we can start playing with, altering, and morphing that root, keeping those three consonants intact to create other words: katabnu ("we wrote"), yiktob ("he will write"), katib ("a writer"), hiktib ("he dictated"), hikatteb ("he wrote a letter"), miktab ("mail"). See: by altering the sounds around the root while keeping that root intact, we keep creating new meanings, all about writing. We can do this with hundreds of thousands of three-letter roots.

But that doesn't do much good for modern Hebrew. After all, the world is quite different from the time of King Solomon. What's the three-letter root that would offer us "democracy" or "cannon" or "tomato"? So Eliezer ben-Yehuda began fusing ancient Hebraic roots onto mostly Russian and German words. He was re-inventing a language to deal with concepts like "cotton gin" or "whiskey" or "czar." He was creating words. He also began to change the language itself, using the grammar of German and Russian to "modernize" Hebrew. For example, Biblical Hebrew isn't very big on verb tenses: past, present, future. They're there but slippery. Ben-Yehuda began introducing mode modern verb tenses into his version of Hebrew, standardizing the language to make it more "European."

In so doing, he was creating controversies. Most Rabbis considered his efforts heretical. Hebrew was liturgical, sacred. Furthermore, ben-Yehuda adopted a pronunciation system that was Sephardic--that is, mostly from Spain and northern Africa--not the Ashkenazi system favored by most Jews in central Europe.

But how else will you form a nation out of whole cloth without a unified language? Ben-Yehuda was one of the very earliest immigrants to Palestine in the early 1880s. But his ridiculously complicated efforts soon paid off. Zionism soon breathed life into the hope for a homeland. (It came too late for six million.) At the turn of the century, Jews began arriving more and more in the "Holy Land." They came from all over; they needed a common language, especially since they faced so much resistance among the local populations. Ben-Yehuda had crafted a ready answer. His work produced the Hebrew that is now the language of Israel.

And one more thing, closely related. If you don't know about klezmer, the Yiddish-focused music style popular with Jews across Europe (and of course, the namesake of a certain musician in our novel), here's one of my favorite groups, The Isle of Klezbos, a lesbian klezmer band, giving a rousing live performance:

Wednesday
Feb222012

What They Said About MIDDLEMARCH

Since its publication, MIDDLEMARCH has provoked debate among readers, writers, and literary critics. Early reviewers were befuddled by its scale and subject; Jazz Age sophisticates sneered at its priggish moralizing; Julian Barnes has called it "probably the greatest English novel." Blackwood's Magazine in 1883 declared that the novel made Eliot the heir of Shakespeare; modern feminist scholars like Lee R. Edwards have found the novel nothing more than a long-winded "cop-out"; and F. R. Leavis, the Cambridge intellectual who helped define the modern notion of the "great books," wrote in 1948 that MIDDLEMARCH showed Eliot was the long-sought English Tolstoy.

It's all a muddle. But I thought we might look at a few of the reviews and reactions to this sprawling masterpiece.

An early, anonymous assessment in "The Saturday Review" (1872) starts us out with a common comment about the novel having the unhappiest of happy endings:

If Middlemarch is melancholy, it is due perhaps to its religion being all duty, without sufficient admixture of hope.

You might want to think more about that in relation to Dorothea's and Lydgate's fates--and the way the novel seems to swerve for both just at its ending, particularly in the "Finale."

A year later, Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in "The Atlantic" was caught in a dilemma familiar to many who have read the novel: how to get a grip on so much material.

It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of "Middlemarch." The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated. Out of the history of Dorothea's marriage and domestic life, Lydgate's marriage and domestic life, Bulstrode's crimes and hypocrisy, the love-affair of Mary and Fred, and the adventures of Ladislaw, a library of novels might be made; while on the humor, the observation, reflection, and suggestion contained in the book a regiment of writers of social articles might support themselves for a lifetime. It is an interesting question, whether this Study of Provincial Life is a success or a failure; whether it is a work which, judged by its own standard, reaches or falls short of that standard.

Sedgwick never answers that last bit. Instead, he bogs down in the question of whether Dorothea or Lydgate is the center of the novel--and laments that the novel may not have a true center. (I would disagree and claim the novel does have a moral but not a narrative center.) He ends his review with this curious obfuscation: "One cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed." (If you'd like to read Sedgwick's review in full, click here.)

Henry James reviewed the novel in "The Galaxy" that same year (1873). He was far less befuddled. He begins by claiming that "Middlemarch" is "one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels," a "treasure-house of details" but "an indifferent whole." James, too, seems to find too much muchness in the novel; he yearns for it to be, not about everything, but just about Dorothea:

George Eliot's men are generally so much better than the usual trousered offspring of the female fancy, that their merits have perhaps overshadowed those of her women. Yet her heroines have always been of an exquisite beauty, and Dorothea is only that perfect flower of conception of which her predecessors were the less unfolded blossoms. An indefinable moral elevation is the sign of these admirable creatures; and of the representation of this quality in its superior degrees the author seems to have in English fiction a monopoly. To render the expression of a soul requires a cunning hand; but we seem to look straight into the unfathomable eyes of the beautiful spirit of Dorothea Brooke. She exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness, and we believe in her as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day when we should find ourselves doubting of the immortality of the soul.

Quite a lot to claim for one character! Still, James's ire seems to be saved for Will Ladislaw:

The figure of Will Ladislaw is a beautiful attempt, with many finely-completed points; but on the whole it seems to us a failure. It is the only eminent failure in the book, and its defects are therefore the more striking. It lacks sharpness of outline and depth of color; we have not found ourselves believing in Ladislaw as we believe in Dorothea, in Mary Garth, in Rosamond, in Lydgate, in Mr. Brooke and Mr. Cauaubon. He is meant, indeed, to be a light creature (with a large capacity for gravity, for he finally gets into Parliament), and a light creature certainly should not be heavily drawn. The author, who is evidently very fond of him, has found for him here and there some charming and eloquent touches; but in spite of these he remains vague and impalpable to the end. He is, we may say, the one figure which a masculine intellect of the same power as George Eliot's would not have conceived with the same complacency; he is, in short, roughly speaking, a woman's man. It strikes us as an oddity in the author's scheme that she would have chosen just this figure of Ladislaw as the creature in whom Dorothea was to find her spiritual compensations. He is really, after all, not the ideal foil to Mr. Casaubon, which her soul must have imperiously demanded, and if the author of the "Key to all Mythologies" sinned by lack of order, Ladislaw too has not the concentrated fervor essential in the man chosen by so nobly strenuous a heroine. The impression once given that he is a dilettante is never properly removed, and there is slender poetic justice in Dorothea's marrying a dilettante.

James ends his essay with a curious, half-hearted praise: Middlemarch "sets a limit . . . to the development of the old-fashioned English novel." You can hear in that a young writer's goosing one of the literary lions of the previous generation. But you can also hear a certain ring of melancholy: an ideal passing away, a realist fiction project that is simply not possible in the ever-modernizing world. (To read the full text of James's review, click here.)

As to that modernizing world, it, too, has been obsessed with Eliot's masterpiece. You've heard me say that Virginia Woolf called MIDDLEMARCH one of the few novels written in English for adults. Fair enough, but the quote is often stated a bit out of context. It's not quite the full-on endorsement you might think. Here's the complete thought from Woolf's assessment of George Eliot's achievement in "The Times Literary Supplement" in November, 1919:

Her humour has shown itself broad enough to cover a wide range of fools and failures, mothers and children, dogs and flourishing midland fields, farmers, sagacious or fuddled over their ale, horse-dealers, inn-keepers, curates, and carpenters. Over them all broods a certain romance, the only romance that George Eliot allowed herself--the romance of the past. The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view, it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature "Middlemarch," the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. In "Adam Bede" there is a hint of her in Dinah. She shows herself far more openly and completely in Maggie in "The Mill on the Floss." She is Janet in "Janet's Repentance" [one of the three novellas in "Scenes of Clerical Life"], and Romola, and Dorothea seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what in marriage with Ladislaw. Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason, for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar. Yet if you could delete the whole sisterhood, you would leave a much smaller and a much inferior world, albeit a world of greater artistic perfection and far superior jollity and comfort.

If you'd like to read the whole assessment by Woolf--and it is itself quite a piece of writing--click here.

More recently, A. S. Byatt has followed in a path well worn by contemporary English novelists. In "The Guardian" (2007), she argued that "Middlemarch" is simply the greatest English novel. Byatt's assessment is largely about the strength of the characters--not the strength of their actions, but rather their strength as characterizations, as portraits of individuals caught in a web.

[The novel is] held together by one of the most complicated and brilliantly worked metaphors anywhere in fiction. It is a metaphor of a web. . . . It is both a field of force, a trap like a spiderweb, and a pattern of invisible connecting links between humans meeting each other's eye. We meet it in Mrs Cadwallader, the vicar's wife, who sees Middlemarch itself as a spiderweb of gossip, which connects to the idea that Lydgate is doomed by the common consciousness of the society he is in: "Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably."

Byatt does get her facts wrong--she claims Eliot started writing about Dorothea and then switched to a plot about Lydgate (in fact, the opposite is the truth)--but she also points out something that was very true at the time of the book's serialization and that we may have lost today: most Victorian readers expected Lydgate and Dorothea to end up together. That these two didn't may account for some of the discomfort among nineteenth-century reviewers. (To read Byatt's entire essay from "The Guardian," click here.)

As I said, it's a muddle. In fact, when I was a graduate student, I used to refer to the novel as "Muddlemarch." Perhaps we're best to leave the assessment to one of the most original voices in all Anglo-American literature, to Emily Dickinson. She called MIDDLEMARCH "a little book of granite for you to lean on." And she wrote this about it to one of her confidants:

What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’? What do I think of glory--except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the mysteries of redemption, for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.

Wednesday
Feb082012

Writing "Middlemarch"

In her dairy on 1 January 1869, Eliot sketched an ambitious plan for her fiftieth year: "a Novel called Middlemarch, a long poem on Timoleon, and several minor poems."

In fact, she would not complete the promised novel for another two and a half years, an agonizing stretch of writing that caused her to fall into repeated depressions, only alleviated (as ever) by the constant attentions of George Henry Lewes.

Frankly, in 1869, Eliot needed to land a hit, if not to knock one out of the park. Although comfortably well-off from her books and now one of the darlings of the London literary glitterati, she hadn't published a commercial success in five years. Yes, critics had loved some of the pieces, but the public had yawned. And no wonder: she had wandered far afield, publishing obscure, didactic, and exhausting failures--a long poem called "The Spanish Gypsy," two disappointing novels ("Romola," set in fifteenth-century Florence about the doings around the reform-minded but squinty-eyed priest Savonarola and "Felix Holt: The Radical" about a rural uprising in a fictionalized bit of Warwickshire on the eve of the first reform bill, a nasty bit of priggish Toryism that "helped" the workers understand that the vote, while theirs, should not be exercised until they were more cultured), and a few short stories, each more lugubrious and plodding than the last. If she'd followed out her plan for 1869, a long poem about the Greek general Timoleon would probably not have helped things.

Despite repeated promises to John Blackwood, her publisher, that she was making progress on this novel called "Middlemarch," she was stuck hip deep in poesy. During 1869, she worked and reworked a lamentably wooden sonnet sequence called "Brothers and Sisters," a thinly veiled plea to remember the good ol' days back on the farm with her stern and evangelical brother Isaac who now headed the family and had summarily cut her off when she moved in with Lewes. Two shorter poems followed, these about her own fears of morphing into a half-baked has-been artist. Still, she was lucky she was a known commodity; she got a respectable two hundred and fifty pounds for one of them. Eventually, Eliot crumpled under the stress of writing and made no headway on the planned novel, believing (as she always did when she was writing) that everything she had written before had been a fluke.

But there were considerably headwinds. Just before she set "Middlemarch" on the docket, on 19 October 1868, Thornie, one of Lewes' sons (named for Thornton Hunt, Lewes' wife's lover), had died, a terrible tragedy. He was in his mid-twenties, something of a rake, and a bit of a flop at almost everything. Eliot and Lewes had packed him off to Africa to try to get him set up on a farm. Instead, he had come home with tuberculosis of the spine, a rare and horrible disease in which the bacteria take residence in the spinal column, slowly dissolving tissue and bone until the vertebrae collapse and paralysis sets in. Thornie lay on the floor of Eliot and Lewes' home and screamed in agony for hours on end. Henry James was present for one particularly horrible episode and knelt beside the boy, mopping his brow with brandy, thought to cool fevers.

Eliot had loved Thornie, always insisting that he call her "Mutter," the German for "mother." (He was educated in Swiss schools.) She took his education and raising to heart, although it was clear early on that despite intellectual promise he couldn't stick to any task at hand. Nonetheless, she repeatedly told her confidants that she had finally become a mother. And he died in her arms. Perhaps a story about a medical doctor was just too close to the bone.

You see, "Middlemarch" started out as solely Lydgate's story. Eliot had become entranced by a narrative about the medical profession. Besides the constant medical attention at their home up until Thornie's horrid death, she knew about recent advances and past failures through Lewes. At the time, he was busy researching medical history for what would become his ground-breaking books on the theory of psychology long before Freud. She also remembered her sister Chrissey's husband, Edward Clarke, who had tried to practice medicine in rural England as a "gentleman" and was continually rebuffed by the local gentry as just another tradesman.

Eliot hammered away at the Lydgate story on and off throughout 1869. But in December of that year, she records that she paused from this hard-won novel to begin another, tentatively titled "Miss Brooke." She wrote that it was a "subject which has been recorded among my possible themes ever since I began to write fiction."

Indeed, "Miss Brooke" may well have been the germ of one of the unwritten "Scenes of Clerical Life," her first book. As it now stands, it contains three stories. However, it was to have had more. But Eliot gave up on the shorter format and turned to more sustained novels with "Adam Bede." Nonetheless we know she had thought about writing another "scene" before cashing in her chips, a small story called "The Clerical Tutor," about a woman who marries a learned parson to help him with his studies, only to realize he has no need for her.

She returned to it with a vengence. Things were picking up. A month later, she'd written a hundred pages of "Miss Brooke." And she continued apace on it throughout 1870. It was only at the beginning of 1871 that she came upon the brilliant notion of stitching the Brooke story onto the Lydgate fragments she had written. What caused her to imagine fusing these two novels is a matter of much critical debate. We know it happened; we don't really know why.

But within three months of her decision, she was back in despair, claiming that the new work had "too much matter, too many moments." Lewes had other ideas. He saw the potential and was already working with Blackwood on the publication details. Eliot had never been serialized in Blackwood's magazine. The stodgy publisher had always felt her stories too daring to risk with his family-values readership. Yes, her Florentine flop "Romola" had been serialized, but it was the only novel not published by Blackwood.

Lewes pressed for serialization, but Blackwood was hesitant, not because he feared the subject matter of "Middlemarch," but because he'd seen almost none of it. As ever, Lewes had all sorts of alternatives. On 7 May, he sketched out a scheme by which the novel would be brought out in eight installments, one every two months, each an eight-shilling edition. He even proposed the unheard-of idea that Eliot would be paid a two-shilling per copy royalty. Writers of the day sold their copyrights outright to publishers for limited amounts of time. Nobody paid royalties. But Blackwood immediately agreed, sensing success. (They didn't even have the word "royalty." Blackwood called it her "lordship share.")

Meanwhile, Eliot kept working. By the time Lewes and Blackwood had a deal, she'd finished Books One ("Miss Brooke") and Two ("Old and Young") of "Middlemarch" while on holiday in Surrey. As usual with Eliot, composition then ground to a halt, then picked up, then stalled, then raced on. But she had enough done that by December, 1871, Blackwood brought out the first book of "Middlemarch," confident he'd get the eight books in good standing at the proper time.

His confidence was almost unfounded. Book Six proved the hardest. She labored over it. It wasn't finished by summer, 1872, and Blackwood needed it immediately to get it ready for an October publication. Lewes whisked her back to Surrey for holiday. She developed gum troubles. She hesitated. She labored. She lay in bed for days. And then just as suddenly, she was off--and Book Six was finished in a (for her) record of five weeks. Encouraged by her writing success, Lewes suggested to Blackwood that he bring out the final two volumes in monthly installments, timed to the Christmas book-buying season--and by that autumn, Eliot was correcting the proofs for the last of them.

Eliot's compositions always involved theatrics on her part. She turned morose, she became depressed, she worked like a dog, she got ill, she got giddy, she got irritable, she lay in bed, she wrote until she had severe headaches, she claimed her pace was four pages a day, she claimed her pace was a paragraph a day--but mostly, she doubted herself the whole way through. It's been theorized--posthumously--that the root causes of her distress were that she needed the aura of heroics as a motivator, or that she was morbidly afraid of failure, or that she could not get the voices of her disapproving family out of her head, or that she felt that her fiction was inferior to Lewes' scientific writing and so needed a way to make it seem weightier. Whatever the cause, the rousing success of "Middlemarch" put her fears to rest. They didn't ever torment her again in quite the same way.

Friday
Jan202012

Eliot's "Holy War"

At the ripe old age of twenty-two, on January 1st, 1842, long before she'd written a word of fiction, long before she became George Eliot, Mary Ann Evans announced to her family that she would no longer attend church.

It was a momentous event for several reasons. First, Mary Ann lived with her father. She was, according to law and custom, under his care. In fact, given the times and her age, she was well on her way to turning into the spinster daughter whose job was to care for the family patriarch until he passed--and then hope some sibling (particularly her older brother, Isaac) would take her in and warehouse her for the rest of her days.

But Mary Ann Evans was too ambitious, too smart, and too independent to worry about custom. So her announcement to her father that she would no longer attend church caused what she referred to in her letters and journals as her "holy war."

For the next five months, her father threatened her in every way imaginable. He talked to lawyers about making sure not a red cent of an inheritance could ever come her way. He threatened to move to a smaller house, thereby forcing her into service, probably as a governess--although who would hire a governess who wouldn't take the kids to church? He rallied a bevy of local clergyman to come talk to her. (One can only imagine what this at times snarky, withering writer had to say to them.) He called in her brothers and sisters for family meetings.

They, too, threatened to cut her off. Her brother Isaac, particularly cruel, let her know that she would have no home with him when her elder days came. And everyone talked about her impending poverty. What man would have her?

That is, when they talked to her at all. Apparently her father stayed silent for weeks on end. In her desperate attempt to make him understand, she wrote him a long letter. From the next room! Amazingly, it has survived.

She began by making clear that she had not become a Unitarian. (Heavens!) She told him that she had also not rejected God. (That would come later and in a more unusual way.) She instead told him that she regarded the Bible as "a mingled truth and fiction"--and that while she admired the "moral teachings of Jesus," she believed that "the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life [were] . . . dishonourable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness."

Needless to say, her letter didn't help matters. But her father's confusion was understandable. His daughter had once been so religious as to appear a zealot, if not an outright fanatic. In her teens and even up until a year and a half before the holy war, she had been a committed evangelical low-churcher--not quite a dissenter as her Methodist aunt and uncle were, but certainly a pious, Bible-toting evangelical within the Church of England. As a young girl, she had even refused to read novels for fear they'd lead her down the wrong path. (Think about this: one of the great novelists of the English language began her life by believing that novels were intrinsically sinful, prone to leading people astray.)

Now, at the beginning of 1842, she had changed course. Rather dramatically. What had happened in the meantime? She had begun translating German philosophy for publication--always dangerous. She had also spent time with the Brays, a radical, arty, free-love family in a nearby town. Mr. Bray was known to keep both his wife and his mistress in the same house--and fathered children by both. In fact, his mistress had become the governess with his wife's permission, so it was all rather convenient. The Brays had a profound influence on Mary Ann Evans--although they themselves were actually an odd mix of radicalism and prudery, a common stance among the mid-Victorians. Years later, the Brays would cut Mary Ann off when she "eloped" with George Henry Lewes, despite their own rather non-traditional arrangements.

And yet. . . . As always with George Eliot, there's an "and yet." On May 15, 1842, her father records something that must have made him very happy: "Went to church. Mary Ann went with me today."

Had she reversed course? Not according to her journals and letters. Rather, she had come across an astounding discovery: that the martyr was motivated by the same egotism as the sycophant, that the only reason people climbed up on their crosses and crucified themselves was to be fawned over.

Mary Ann did stay with her father--to the end. She took care of him in his dying days in ways that exhausted her and pitched her into a long depression in her mid-twenties. And although she became increasingly committed to an agnostist's--or even an atheist's--path in her life, George Eliot continued to show up in church on Sundays, even when she was middle-aged and living in London.

I have a friend who calls himself a "hymnostic"--he has rejected the church but still goes on occasion for the hymns. I have a feeling George Eliot's reasons were more complex. Until the end of her days, she claimed to "believe in" the church, if not the God in the church. It is one of many Eliot conundrums that have driven academics and scholars mad over the years. She was the conservative radical--or the radical conservative.

It is one of the many reasons she is often dismissed by feminist scholars today. She was indeed a woman who stamped out her own path, who dared London and society in general by living with a man not her husband, not in the wilds of middle England or Wales (as many in similar arrangements did--like the Brays), but instead publically and openly. A woman who made her own living in the 1860s and 1870s. A woman who became one of the most revered figures of the age, despite her "sinful" life. And yet also a woman who did not stand up for women's suffrage, even argued against women getting the vote. A woman who shunned almost all of the women reformers of her own day. And a woman who insisted on being called "Mrs. Lewes" among her friends, as if craving the conventions while in an unconventional relationship.

Suffice it to say, she was no martyr. She got married at the end of her life to John Cross, a man she barely knew. She did it for many reasons, not the least of which was to make her family take her back into its fold, to reconcile with her brother Isaac.

In other words, Eliot did and did not. She was and was not. That deep ambiguity (or is it complexity?) informs every novel she ever wrote--but particularly MIDDLEMARCH.