During the 1860s and 1870s, George Eliot and her consort George Henry Lewes (they never married, as Lewes refused to divorce his wife) hosted a Sunday salon that became legendary, with le tout intellectual London in attendance. Eliot showed “an almost pathetic anxiety to give of her best . . . to utter words which should remain as an active influence for good,” noted Frederick Myers, one of the guests. This is typical of how she was represented after her death, and perfectly in tune with the three-volume Life by her widowed husband, John Cross, issued in 1884. At its publication, though, William Hale White was moved to protest:
As I had the honour of living in the same house, 142, Strand, with George Eliot for about two years, between 1851 and 1854, I may perhaps be allowed to correct an impression which Mr Cross’s book may possibly produce on its readers. To put it very briefly, I think he has made her too “respectable”. She was really one of the most sceptical, unusual creatures I ever knew, and it was this side of her character which was to me the most attractive. She told me that it was worthwhile to undertake all the labour of learning French if it resulted in nothing more than reading one book—Rousseau’s Confessions.
So which is she: morally earnest author, or the woman with the glint of modernity in her eye (Rousseau talks of his sexual pleasure when beaten as a child)? She is both, of course. George Eliot, the pseudonym taken by Mary Ann Evans, was absolutely concerned with the moral, though never as a standard bearer of Victorian values; she was also a realist, intent on the empirical business of what went on in our complicated psyches. Above all, Eliot wanted her readers to attain a greater understanding of one another; and in our polarised times, her mission, so clearly promoted in her novels, makes Eliot seem ever more relevant.
Eliot’s psychological acuity means that her portrayals of women, at which she excelled, have a continued freshness. (Intriguingly, Eliot would not have called herself an advocate of change for women; yet her novels are brilliantly diagnostic of women’s situation.)
In The Mill on The Floss, written in 1860 when Eliot was becoming famous, the child Maggie adores and wants to please her older brother Tom. But she is cleverer than Tom, too, and in that fascinatingly simple, neat nucleus lies the seed of the book’s main conflict. As she grows up, Maggie’s wishes are out of step with her brother’s and the world’s; but even as she flouts them she is conflicted. Almost as much as she needs her own fulfilment, she needs her brother’s love and approval. The sexual politics underpinning Mill are clear, but that statement gives no feel or flavour of this passionate and quasi-autobiographical novel, where the feelings of Maggie as child and young woman are so vividly lived, and where the small-town world of St Ogg’s, with its array of disapproving, hilarious, and utterly convincing aunts and uncles, comes to life in pitch-perfect detail.
If in Mill Eliot inverts the received wisdom of the day, giving the brains to the girl and not the boy, in Daniel Deronda Eliot addresses the nature-nurture debate full on. Nature has endowed the heroine, Gwendolen, with beauty, brains and energy, but nurture is another story. Overindulged by her mother, flattered by everyone, admiration has become her source of happiness—she knows triumph when it is present, feels disturbed when it is not. Scarcely interested in love, she is an isolated narcissist. It is an original and modern portrait of female-as-object, whose pleasures and inclinations have been accordingly determined.
Middlemarch, though, remains many people’s favourite Eliot novel. A rich, humorous, moving portrait of provincial life, it begins with two protagonists, Dorothea and Lydgate, on the threshold of matrimony. Dorothea, who wants to be more than a wife and mother in life, mistakes marriage to the scholar Casaubon for a vocation that will open the divine doors of knowledge and culture to her. Lydgate opts for the pretty, mindless and ruthless Rosamund, and suffers the consequences. Both choose blindly, investing their prospective partners with non-existent attributes.
Perception—how we see each other— is one of Eliot’s key themes. Or rather, how we don’t see each other:
At present I have to make the new settler Lydgate better known to any one interested in him than he could possibly be even to those who had seen the most of him since his arrival in Middlemarch. For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and be lauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.
We are all a bit like Dorothea and Lydgate, Eliot argues: seeing others according to our preconceived ideas about them.Yet even though it is hard to see and know other people, there is an imperative to do so. Take the following famous passage from Middlemarch:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest . . .
Eliot the author is speaking directly to the reader, as she often did; insisting that we re-enter Dorothea’s marriage, but from the other door, so to speak. And why was this so important to Eliot? Why does it matter to understand another person’s experience? In Daniel Deronda Eliot’s intention was not just to write about the Jewish people’s homelessness; she wanted readers to overcome their anti-semitic prejudice, through the act of fictional identification with her noble Jewish characters. Through the magical proxy living offered by the story, we could understand what it was like to belong to this other race.
In our divided times, with nationalism on the rise, this could hardly be more relevant. Eliot’s mission is potentially radical, whether about race or simply another person. She detested the gossipy, indignant swell of righteous judgment—especially the collective judgments of society. She would have hated our feeding frenzies and trial by media.
As attitudes and beliefs increasingly divide us, Eliot’s case for heightened understanding is powerful. But it is worth remembering, too, her humanity in the simplest sense. She believed the better side of human nature could always be stirred with the right encouragement. Our comforted experience in reading Eliot is perhaps connected to this. As she says, unwittingly describing the effect of her own fiction on readers:
The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.