Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The make believe of a beginning - George Eliot bends time

George Eliot was a great formal innovator.  This is not the way I think about her, nor the way I usually see her described, yet it is true.  Much of the real clumsiness of her fiction comes from her struggle with received fictional form.  Like Dickens, she solves problems in her next novel.  Few writers would write a book as formally perfect as the fairy tale novella Silas Marner (1861) and then never try to write another book like it (until, in a way, Daniel Deronda).  Why do it again; what is the point?  Eliot is in that category of artist, whatever you call it.  The kind who has to write a book to know what book she is writing.

So when Eliot invents a form that seems perfectly suited for her strengths, the long eight part novel with branching plots  that is Middlemarch (1871-2), she keeps part of it but pushes against and perhaps even breaks other parts in her next book, Daniel Deronda (1876).  She would have repaired the damage, but created more problems, in her next novel, which sadly we do not have.

One of my struggles with Eliot is that I put a high value on formal perfection, a category of little interest to Eliot, even though temperamentally, as is obvious at Wuthering Expectations, I am much like her in this regard.  Of course I highly value what I am not, although if it were as simple as that I would attach a lot more value to Eliot’s wisdom.

Daniel Deronda is a sequel to Middlemarch in that it is another exploration of what a good, meaningful life looks like, with a shallow heroine replacing the preternaturally wise Dorothea Brooke – despite the difference they make not the same but analogous mistakes – and a hero paralyzed by doubts about his identity in place of the mistakenly confident Dr. Lydgate.  The eight volume novel is employed again, simplified from a triple plot to a double plot.  Where are the innovations?

First, the temporal structure of the book.  Daniel Deronda begins not in the middle, but close to it, with a flash-forward to the first time the protagonists, Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth, meet.  I did not know it was a scene out of place at first, even though Eliot specifically says it is in the baffling epigraph* at the beginning of Chapter 1, almost the first words of the book after a doom-laden poem (“vengeance…  slow death… pallid pestilence”) and Book One’s title (“The Spoiled Child,” who turns out to be an adult, and the heroine).  “Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning” – an odd way to begin a novel.  “No retrospect will take us to the true beginning.”  Eliot even uses the term “in media res,” which I did not notice or understand.

Soon, the novel moves into Harleth’s past, not just filling in the history as Trollope does when he introduces a character but working it out in scenes, with dialogue and description and all of the usual stuff, eventually taking me back to the opening scene, after which Eliot resets time again, going back even farther to cover Deronda’s childhood, education , and early flailing.

This was the history of Deronda, so far as he knew it, up to the time of that visit to Leubronn in which he saw Gwendolen Harleth at the gaming-table.  (end of Ch. 20)

If I were not so immersed in 19th century fiction, I would not have noticed how radical this is.  No one else was doing this, telling their story with the scenes out of order.  Even Wuthering Heights (1847) straightens out fast after a twisty start.  The device is so common now that I hardly notice it.  Everyone does it.  Unbroken, the Laura Hillenbrand bestseller, begins this way: three crashed American airmen are on a raft in the Pacific; a plane approaches; they are saved! – but no, the plane opens fire!  Then a jump way back to tell us who the men are and how they ended up on that raft.

Eliot uses her other temporal device, too, where the point of view suddenly leaps into the future for a sentence or two, a device that she was using as far back as Adam Bede (1859) and which I do not remember seeing anywhere else but Jane Eyre (1847 – see the tombstone of Helen Burns).

The monotony of time in pre-Modernist fiction can get old, but that was not a problem in Daniel Deronda.

OK, that was one big innovation.

*  These epigraphs are mostly a mystery to me, a layer of complexity that I have not tried to understand.  As Sir Thomas Browne wrote, or as Eliot claims he wrote, “Festina lente – celerity should be contempered with cunctation” (epigraph to Chapter 15).


  1. You say: "Why do it again; what is the point?" Well, as another example of an author whose every book seems to have been a conscious effort to be as different as possible from the previous book, Anthony Burgess is frequently cited as a notable example. I think that the goal of singularity with each new effort may be one mark of a great, writer; however, some writers seem to do quite well by writing what is nearly the same thing over and over again -- consider the prose fiction of Iris Murdoch, Flannery O'Connor, and Thomas Hardy. Of course popular writers like Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Agatha Christie and others rarely if ever have veered from the path of repetitions (and lucrative results). So, I wonder which is the better approach. Perhaps, though, I am asking an absurd and unimportant question. But I still wonder.

  2. Not absurd, but a question of high interest, I think.

    The only better approach is for the writer to follow her temperament rather than fight it. Both kinds of writers write good books; both kinds can be innovators.

    I should say that Eliot is not in the "as different as possible" category, but moves more gradually. The move from Silas Marner to Felix Holt is pretty dramatic, though.

  3. I love the way you can refer to something you neither noticed or understood! Are there parallel readers at work here?
    I usually find myself more attracted to an uncertain yet fresh idea than a much better idea that I've already drawn on. Like you said, it all comes down to temperament. Eliot is a writer I have to read again. I had never really thought of her as formally experimental, a problem when your experiments become the next generations scriptures.

  4. Well, I noticed and understood when I went back to the beginning. "How did I not know what Eliot was doing - she baldly told me!" Yet not so bald. Hidden in plain sight.

    "the next generation's scripture" - exactly right, so common it takes a wrenching change of perspective to see it as an innovation.