Wednesday, November 27, 2019

George Eliot: A Novelist for Now

From The Guardian:
Middlemarch, perhaps her masterpiece, has two central characters who make particular claims on the reader, the idealistic Dorothea Brooke and the talented doctor Tertius Lydgate. The novel’s grown-upness lies partly in the way that Eliot calmly offers the reader not fairytale endings but marriages beset by compromise and dissatisfaction, by talents left unfulfilled. This serious realism swerves earnestness through a skilled deployment of sly wit. Eliot’s first description of Dorothea – pious, verging on priggish, but brimming with an unacknowledged sexuality – is simply perfect. “Riding was an indulgence which she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it.” 
But at heart it is a novel of community. Middlemarch itself is the true hero – the fictional small town that gives the book its title. The name suggests a place that is geographically and metaphorically central (Middle-) and also peripheral (-march, as in marches or borderlands). It is a book that absolutely belongs to the English Midlands, but its author breathed into it all the sensibilities of a life marinated in European culture (an important section is set in Rome). Eliot was a European intellectual with a working knowledge of five ancient and modern languages, who translated important works of German theology; Middlemarch was compared to Sand, Balzac and Flaubert by 19th-century critics. 
Middlemarch – which is to be dramatised over two weeks on BBC Radio 4 from Saturday – may be her most celebrated work, but Eliot’s range was impressive. Felix Holt, drawing on the turbulent politics of the 1830s, grapples with the question of whether democracy can be relied upon to deliver a deeply divided society from the ills that beset it. Her early novel The Mill on The Floss brilliantly conveys the passion and rage of a girl whose life is narrowed by her gender. The anodyne title of her first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, belies its bold contents, including a tale of domestic abuse and alcoholism. (Read more.)

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