Thursday, June 25, 2009

You could not live among such people - George Eliot runs circles around me

Adam Bede, the novel that precedes The Mill on the Floss, suffers from a strange apologetic interlude that almost derails the novel. Eliot feels, or pretends like she feels, that she has to justify the behavior of an Anglican minister who does not seem especially religious. Weirdly, that character then almost disappears from the book.

Did Eliot not have the novel planned out? Did she really worry about the disapproval of some theoretical group of readers? Did she lack confidence in her characters? The passage also includes some theorizing about realism and some curious hints about where the novel actually does go. I remember that in the discussion at The Valve last summer, no one was exactly happy with this chapter, although like me, most of the readers made their peace with it. First novel jitters, maybe.

But almost exactly halfway through The Mill and the Floss, Eliot does the same thing, or virtually so. The previous section concluded with a defeated Mr. Tulliver urging, convincing, his son to inscribe a curse on his enemies in the family Bible. Daughter Maggie instinctively recognized the act as sacrilege.

Maggie's moral sense is not sufficient, it seems. The next chapter is another apology for the sacrilegious behavior of Eliot's characters. That's just how these people are, she says. "Journeying down the Rhone on a summer's day" (why are we suddenly in France?), the narrator sees ruined villages, destroyed by a flood, that make her think "that human life - very much of it- is a narrow, ugly, grovelling existence, which even calamity does not elevate."

These sorts of people "will be swept into the same oblivion with the generations of ants and beavers." (IV. I.) "If... their Bibles opened more easily at some parts than others, it was because of dried tulip-petals, which had been distributed quite impartially." This is getting kind of mean. "[I]t was of equal necessity to have the proper pall-bearers and well-cured hams at one's funeral." Now wait, that just good hospitality. "You could not live among such people." What, me? Hey, who is this joke on, anyway?

This withering attack on received religion is in a chapter titled "A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet," an intrusion even more perplexing than that of Sir Charles Grandison in a description of a print of a Bible story. I've read one work of the 17th century French bishop Bossuet, one of his Funeral Orations. Eliot has something else in mind - the Discourses on Universal History, maybe? He's not mentioned anywhere besides the chapter title.

I think he's one more link in the chain that leads us, two chapters later, to a variation of Protestantism that he might recognize. Teenage Maggie by chance acquires a copy of The Imitation of Christ (ca. 1418), the classic pre-Protestant devotional work. Hungry for books (she's lost her library, the poor thing!), she reads a bit and has a conversion experience, "as if she had been wakened in the night by a strain of solemn music." (IV.III.) Eliot actually includes over a page of Thomas à Kempis, perhaps to allow the reader to have a spiritual transformation along with Maggie. It doesn't quite last, by the way - boys, and the novels of Walter Scott, are sore temptations.

I don't want to make too much fun - this section is an insightful description of teenage religious enthusiasm and self-denial, and anything that Maggie does is, it turns out, quite interesting - but Eliot certainly took me by surprise. So now I wonder if this particular intrusion by the didactic Eliot, apologizing for her characters' religious views while simultaneously mocking them, while simultaneously mocking me, is part of a more complicated game. I'm not sure what it is. It does not feel like the work of a writer who lacks confidence.


  1. "boys, and the novels of Walter Scott, are sore temptations" - for most of us, I suspect.

  2. Insightful stuff here. I think Eliot was more concerned with questions of religion and faith than many of her contemporaries. She was the daughter of a clergyman, yes? Her first book is Scenes of a Clerical Life or something like that.

    The mid-nineteenth century population was very concerned with questions of faith and the loss of faith. Have you read Olive by Dinal Craik? Gaskell looks at this issue as well in North and South.

    They were the century that first encountered Darwin afterall. Must have been quite an eyeopener.

  3. I wonder, indeed, if Eliot isn't sticking a bit of herself in Maggie's religious realizations, or a bit of the self she might have wanted. I'll need to reread "The Mill on the Floss" (which I thought was brilliant upon the first read, let's see how it holds up...) and figure out for myself all of this, but it's great stuff so far.

  4. I've actually become more convinced that religious concerns were central to almost all of the great Victorian novelists. Earlyish ones, at least. And that's aside from all of that amazing, 'orrible stuff The Little Professor reads.

    Perhaps I'm too easily blending ethical concerns with religious ones, though. Although that's actually Maggie Tulliver's path - her great conflict in the last part of the novel is in no way specifically religious.

    I have not read - had not heard of - Dinah Craik. Is she good?

    I have little doubt that Maggie Tulliver and George Eliot are closely related in a lot of ways. I'm not sure that gets me anywhere, though. Ideas very welcome.

  5. I read Mrs. Craik while working on my masters thesis on late Victorian lit. so I was in the right frame of mind for her. I can't say she's "good" but I did enjoy Olive. It's one of the best selling novels of the 19th century so it was very interesting to see what the general public was buying lots of in those times.

  6. Briefly researching Dinah Craik, at your suggestion, I found that the two most-requested books from the English lending libraries in 1859 were Adam Bede and A Life for a Life by Dinah Craik.

    And it turns out my local library, which apparently does not de-accession, has a dozen or so Dinah Craik titles. Poems, fairy tales, novels.

    I'm not in a hurry to read her, but I love knowing about this stuff. So thanks for the pointer.