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Tuesday, October 31st, 2006
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Middlemarch (Penguin Classics)

by George Eliot

A Classic Review from Atlantic Monthly,1873

A review by Arthur George Sedgwick

The verdict which public opinion has pronounced, or, rather, is from time to time pronouncing, on the writings of George Eliot is certainly a very complicated one. That she is an acute delineator of character, a subtle humorist, a master of English, a universal observer and a comprehensive student, a profound moralist, — all this is part of her established reputation. That she is, besides this, a poet of great force and originality would, if we took as the test the most widely published criticism, be also established. That she has also succeeded, — in an age in which the public has been satiated with novels, and critics have begun even to doubt whether novel-writing were not a thing of the past, — if not in founding a new school of novel-writing, at least in proving that this literary form could be adapted, in skilful hands, to purposes which her predecessors had never dreamed of. Thackeray, Dickens, Bulwer, Disraeli, — between them and George Eliot there is no relationship; and yet George Eliot, in the hold which she maintains upon the public interest, is certainly their successor. But is this all? Does not everyone who reads generalizations like these involuntarily say to himself, this is nothing? To say of an author like George Eliot that she is distinguishable by this or that abstract quality is very much like trying to revive the effect produced upon our imaginations by a broad and majestic river by describing the general direction of a body of flowing water, the height of the banks between which it flows, the measurements of its soundings taken by the latest hydrographical survey. When we think of all the immense variety of her books, from the Scenes of Clerical Life to Middlemarch, of the range of feeling and thought that they cover, and the wonderful manner in which the work has been done, one is tempted to give up the task of studying this student, of observing this author who has devoted her life to observation, or of analyzing this professor of analysis.

Several critics have agreed, and it is almost becoming the fashion to say, that the leading trait in all of George Eliot's works is the constant presence of the idea of Fate or Destiny, of the helplessness of man in his pitiful attempt to struggle with the eternal forces of nature; and no one will dispute that both The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch have given undue reason for this opinion. But the idea of fate is very different in different minds, and it seems to us by no means clear that the fate of George Eliot is of a sort of which has hitherto been known to literature. The conception of destiny with which we are most familiar is that of the Grecian tragedies and myths, — an individual fate, or at most a family fate, which attends, during a long succession of years, a particular man or family. They are born into the world together; they move through life together; perhaps even, they struggle for the mastery: at last the fate is accomplished, whether for good or evil. In the Arabian Nights we find a conception of somewhat the same kind in the story of the young prince who is fated to die on coming of age, and whom his father, the king, sends out of the kingdom to an island, where he is to live in a subterranean palace until the fatal moment is past; but to the same island comes by accident a traveller who discovers the prince's retreat, and lives with him on terms of great intimacy and affection, consoling him for his solitude. At last the prince's birthday — the last of his imprisonment — arrives, and the king's vessel is descried above the horizon coming to take his son home in safety. The moment, however, has come; the prince, reclining on a sofa, asks his friend for a knife from a shelf above; there is a misstep, and the king arrives to find the fate fulfilled.

Perhaps the destiny which appears in Scott's novel — in the Bride of Lammermoor, for instance, or Guy Mannering — is of the same essential kind as that of the Greeks, but the coloring is totally different; while the Mohammedan, with his "will of God be done," has given to the idea a religious character, again of a quite opposite kind. The idea takes a thousand different forms, which a scientific treatment of the subject would no doubt show in their real order and historical sequence.

The fate of George Eliot is not one of them. Hers is a more modern and truer conception. The destiny which surrounds her characters, which leads to their several allotted ends the lives of Tito, Maggie Tulliver, Tom, Hetty, Romola, Lydgate, the Vincys, or the poor drunkard whose last agonies are described with such minuteness in Middlemarch, is the compounded destiny of natural laws, character, and accident which we call life. It leaves nothing out of view; neither the material nor the moral forces; neither the immutable fixity of physical succession, nor the will. Man is, in these novels, neither a creature who controls us and who controls nor who is controlled by nature; he is himself part of nature.

We would not, however, overlook the fact, — which is of the first importance, — that George Eliot's fate is a moral fate, or, to put what we mean in other words, that the moral lessons enforced by life are the most important lessons for her. It is not the strangeness and awfulness of life, it is not the joy of life, it is not the misery of life, nor the absurdity of life, that is first with her: all these she understands and feels; but what she most keenly understands and most keenly feels are the lessons which all this strangeness, awfulness, joy, misery, and absurdity bring for those who will read them aright, as well as the obligation that she herself is under to help others to read them aright. This is not merely saying over again that she is a moralist. There have been many moralists in literature, particularly English literature, who would have been quite at a loss to understand the meaning of this morality; moralists to whom the bare idea of fate or destiny was anathema, and who could not have even imagined the connection between it and duty.

That fate should, in English hands, assume a moral color is natural enough; but if we compare the novels of George Eliot with those of a Continental writer whose novels have a distinctly fatalistic turn, we shall begin to doubt perhaps whether this view of life is the growth of any one soil. Turgenieff's character, or at least some of his characters, are the playthings of fate quite as much as any of his English contemporary. And Turgenieff, too, is impressed with the moral side of his subject. His Liza, if it were not for the pervading sadness of the book, might be distributed as a tract among refined people. Yet, after all, the sadness is more fundamental than the morality, and perhaps it would be fairer to say that there is a general way of looking at life, peculiar to modern men, which Turgenieff happened to take in Liza, although he certainly did not very distinctly grasp it, as George Eliot always does.

And what is this modern view of life, which is different from all others, — so sad, and so moral, so ironical, and so didactic, yet so undogmatically didactic? M. Taine, in his English Literature, after speaking of Byron's unhappy career, and that of the poets whom he calls "romantic," answers this question in a way that, whatever may be thought of the criticism in other respects, is complete: "So lived and so ended this unhappy great man; the malady of the age had no more distinguished prey; around him, like a hecatomb, lie the rest, wounded also by the greatness of their faculties, and their immoderate desires, — some extinguished in stupor or drunkenness, others worn out by pleasure or work; these driven to madness or suicide; those beaten down by impotence, or lying on a sick-bed; all agitated by their acute or aching nerves; the strongest carrying their bleeding wound to old age, the happiest having suffered as much as the rest, and preserving their scars, though healed. The concert of their lamentations has filled their age, and we have stood around them, hearing in our hearts, the low echo of their cries. We were sad like them, and, like them, inclined to revolt. The institution of democracy excited our ambitions without satisfying them; the proclamation of philosophy kindled our curiosity without contenting it. In this wide-open career the plebeian suffered for his mediocrity, and the sceptic for his doubt. The plebeian, like the sceptic, attacked by a precocious melancholy, and withered by a premature experience, delivered his sympathies and his conduct to the poets, who declared happiness impossible, truth unattainable, society ill-arranged, man abortive or marred. From this unison of voices an idea sprang, — the center of the literature, the arts, the religion of the age, — that there is, namely, a monstrous disproportion between the different parts of our social structure, and that human destiny is vitiated by this disagreement. "What advice have they given us for its remedy? They were great: were they wise? 'Let deep and strong sensations rain upon you; if your machine breaks, so much the worse!....Cultivate your garden, busy yourself in a little circle; reenter the flock, be a beast of burden..... Turn believer again, take holy water, abandon your mind to dogmas, and your conduct to hand-books.... Make your way; aspire to power, honors, wealth.' Such are the various replies of artists and citizens, Christians and men of the world. Are they replies? And what do they propose but to satiate one's self, to become beasts, to turn out of the way, to forget? There is another and a deeper answer, which Goethe was the first to give, which we begin to conceive, in which issue all the labor and experience of the age, and which may perhaps be the subject matter of future literature. 'Try to understand yourself and things in general.' A strange reply, seeming barely new, whose scope we shall only hereafter discover. For a long time yet, men will feel their sympathies thrill at the sound of the sobs of their great poets. For a long time they will rage against a destiny which opens to their aspirations the career of limitless space, to shatter them, within two steps of the goal, against a wretched post which they had not seen. For a long time they will bear, like fetters, the necessities which they must embrace as laws. Our generation, like the preceding, has been tainted by a malady of the age, and will never more than half be quit of it. We shall arrive at truth, not at calm. All we can heal at present is our intellect; we have no hold upon our sentiments. But we have a right to conceive for others the hopes which we no longer entertain for ourselves, and to prepare for our descendants the happiness which we shall never enjoy."

But we have not yet reached the fortunate isles. The future may have in store for those who are to come after us a thousand blessings of which we can only dream; for the present we live in a period of intellectual and moral tumult of revolt against the old, mixed with dread of the new, indeed, not half understanding the new, but half loving the old. Science has opened the portals of knowledge, and we are not scientific; science has revealed a new harmony of the feelings, and yet in our dull ears the old, incongruous, sentimental melodies go on ringing. Science offers us the key to the moral law which governs the world, yet we cannot bring ourselves to turn it. Is it any wonder that, amid this doubt, hesitation, and, it may be, despair, we find a wonderful zest in humor, in analysis, in irony, in the purely critical study of the world? Such a life as ours is too complicated, too revolutionary, too full of sudden surprises and absurdities, too sad, too merry, too horribly real, too shamefully false, to admit of that repose which furnishes the only sure foundation for happy art. Our business is not creation but criticism.

When we have said that George Eliot is almost an inspired critic, have we not said what is really the most important thing about her? No doubt at such an opinion thousands of her admirers would hold up their hands in horror. "Inspired critic!" they would exclaim; "how can an author of singular dramatic power, and of equally singular power of human delineation, be called a critic?" This, however, is the question. If George Eliot has real dramatic power, and has imagined real characters, there is no doubt that it is folly to say that she is primarily a critic. But we think she has not. What she has done has been to describe, with such wonderful minuteness and ironical force, the thoughts and feelings which, under given circumstances, a certain kind of person might have, that we are forced to admit the possibility of the picture, or, to speak more accurately, the reality of the report. Besides this, she has a wonderful power of reproducing scenes of every sort, with which she is familiar, or, rather, with which her audience is familiar, — a faculty which seems to us, at least, not a pictorial or imaginative one, but rather that faculty of description which comes of the observation and general power of statement. That this is true may be occasionally seen when George Eliot attempts remote studies, like that, for instance, of the mediaeval Italian barber shop in Romola, — a shop in which we feel too acutely sensible of the daylight of the English intellect of the nineteenth century, as well as the keenness of George Eliot's humor, to make ourselves quite at home. Even in the English scenes, as has been well said by a recent critic, we are from time to time oppressed by a sense that the village worthies who make reflections on life and on each other are, after all, only masks through which George Eliot is ventriloquizing.

To turn to the more noted and distinct characters, — are they characters? — no one, we suppose, except a woman would claim the actual existence for Adam Bede, or Felix Holt, or Will Ladislaw; but there are, besides such failures as these, remarkable successes in Maggie Tulliver, in Arthur Donnithorne, in Hetty, in Tom Tulliver, in Philip, in Tito, in Romola, in Lydgate, in Rosamond Vincy, Dorothea, and a very long list besides. But if an artist were to be asked to illustrate these books, would he not find considerable difficulty in drawing these characters, so that they would be recognized? Would he not find, for instance, a strange family likeness between Romola and Dorothea? Would not Rosamond Vincy with a few slight touches (an alteration of coloring or outline), change into Hetty? Would not any one of a dozen Englishmen do for Lydgate? And can the other characters we have mentioned by fastened upon, and their likeness really kept? Perhaps Maggie, Arthur, Philip, and Tito make more against our theory than the rest; but though their psychological situations are always interesting, they seem always to be doing the work of representation of man or woman, — not that they are types, but that their movements seem a trifle too much in the control of the wonderful exhibitor who is half concealed behind the show. Romola was once illustrated; but the illustrations were rather of the situations than of the people. Thackeray's characters and Dickens's caricatures live and move of their own accord. Compare Becky Sharp with Rosamond Vincy, — both women in whom selfishness is the moving principle, and whose married life is the principal subject of treatment. If we were to meet Becky we should know her at once; Rosamond we should be perfectly certain to mistake for some one else. The honest farcical countenances of the members of the Pickwick Club are as familiar to us as those of own acquaintances; but Mr. Brooke, who is really almost as farcical, would not have the slightest difficulty in proving an alibi at any time.

To be sure, it may be said that Thackeray has been educated as an artist, and that he illustrated his own books. But he was an artist because it was his disposition to see certain things picturesquely or pictorially, and this is not George Eliot's disposition. Thackeray used to say, in reply to people who complained of Esmond's "marriage with his mother-in-law," that he had done nothing to arrange the match; he could not prevent his characters doing what they chose. Nobody can conceive of George Eliot's being able to make such a reply as this; yet both Thackeray and George Eliot are moralists. Thackeray was a moralist of the old school, however, his vanitas vanitatum was but the echo, after all, of the vanitas vanitatum handed down to us by tradition, — a charming echo, but still an echo. George Eliot is a moralist because her epoch is a moralizing epoch: it is her profession, her life.

The author of these volumes is a critic. Her maxim — "Know thyself and things in general" — she has taken profoundly to heart, and as a result we have a body of what might be called sympathetic erudition such as no one else ever dreamed of. History, science, art, literature, language, she is mistress of. Upon all these fields she draws. Human life, however, is her interest; in this all her studies centre. Her observation is always beginning, never ending. Certainly if writers are divided as Goethe somewhere suggests into those who are born to say some one thing, to produce some single literary flower and die, and those whose life is one constant development, like that of Nature herself, in which education and production go on side by side to the end, George Eliot would be included in the latter class. Goethe himself belonged to it, and, as M. Taine says, Goethe was the first of modern men to appreciate the changed relations between man and nature which the new renaissance was to introduce.

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 success or a failure; whether it is a work which, judged by its own standard, reaches or falls short of that standard. This question, however, we must leave to others to answer, partly because it seems now a little too soon to make up our minds, and partly because we find great difficulty in knowing what the standard is. It is A Study of Provincial Life, but this is about as indicative of the character of the books as romans nationaux are in the case of Erckmann-Chatrian. It is, says one critic, the study of the effects of the narrow English provincial life of forty years ago on the characters of the story which interests the author, and therefore should interest the reader. If this is so, we say that, somehow or other, the effects of this narrow provincial life on the characters is the last thing in the world we should have supposed the central point of interest. In Cranford, this is undoubtedly the main thing, and we think we may with great safety ask any one who has ever lived in a village — a real village, we mean, not a "quarter section" of town lots — to say in which book the relation in question is brought out most distinctly. In Cranford, do we not feel in every line the remoteness of the world, the whimsical pettiness of the interests, the eccentricity of the characters, the village life, with the thrill of reality which real art always produces? Of course, Middlemarch is not Cranford: Middlemarch is a county, Cranford is a village; but ,after all, a county is a place, and there is, for some reason or other, no locality whatever for Middlemarch. Someone else says that it is Dorotheas' life which is the main thing; the struggle of an ardent, impassioned, and noble nature with surrounding obstacles; with a pedantic sham of a husband, with her own duty to this husband, with her love for Ladislaw, with her sense of duty to her family, and, in short ,with provincial life. But though there is certainly some reason for this opinion, there is just as much for the opinion that Lydgate is the central figure. Probably a good deal of difficulty of the same kind would be found in some of her other books, in Adam Bede, for instance, and The Mill on the Floss. Is Adam the principal figure in the first? If he is, it is in the same way that the figure-head of a ship is. What is the esoteric meaning of The Mill on the Floss? Certainly, compared with one or two of the former novels, Middlemarch is not a success. There is no such Satanic omniscience shown as we had in the analysis of Arthur Donnithorne's unhappy conscience. There is nothing here like Tito or the pathetic yet beautiful description of the gradual alterations in the relations between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Yet Middlemarch is certainly infinitely more interesting than Felix Holt.

And yet, — and yet these rambling suggestions seem only worth making that we may take them all back in the end. In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers. An author whose novels it has really been a liberal education to read, one is more tempted to admire silently than to criticise at all.

Arthur George Sedgwick, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1873.


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