Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Get out of the way, will you?; or George Eliot vs some other writers

Page 193 of Middlemarch:
"These were actually Lydgate's first meditations as he walked away from Mr Vincy's, and on this ground I fear that many ladies will consider him hardly worthy of their attention..."
Page 195:
"Poor Lydgate! or shall I say, Poor Rosamond!"
Page 196:
"If you think it incredible that to imagine Lydgate as a man of family could cause thrills of satisfaction which had anything to do with the sense that she was in love with him, I will ask you to use your power of comparison a little more effectively, and consider whether red cloth and epaulets have never had an influence of that sort. Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common table and mess together, feeding out of the common store according to their appetite."
Then the narrative goes on, the author's presence is still felt on every page, but at least the "I" disappears or at least passes unnoticed. Then on page 224, chapter 20:
"Two hours later, Dorothea was seated in an inner room or boudoir of a handsome apartment in the Via Sistina.
I am sorry to add that she was sobbing bitterly, with such abandonment to this relief of an oppressed heart as a woman habitually controlled by pride on her own account and thoughtfulness for others will sometimes allow herself when she feels securely alone. And Mr. Casaubon was certain to remain away for some time at the Vatican."
Page 225:
"To those who have looked at Rome with the quickening power of a knowledge which breathes a growing soul into all historic shapes, and traces out the suppressed transitions which unite all contrasts, Rome may still be the spiritual centre and interpreter of the world. But let them conceive one more historical contrast: the gigantic broken revelations of that Imperial and Papal city thrust abruptly on the notions of a girl who had been brought up in English and Swiss Puritanism, fed on meagre Protestant histories and on art chiefly of the hand-screen sort; a girl whose ardent nature turned all her small allowance of knowledge into principles, fusing her actions into their mould, and whose quick emotions gave the most abstract things the quality of a pleasure or a pain; a girl who had lately become a wife, and from the enthusiastic acceptance of untried duty found herself plunged in tumultuous preoccupation with her personal lot..."
The narrator doesn't say "I", but she's addressing (some of) the readers.
Page 226:
"... Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze..."
On the same page:
"Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea's was anything very exceptional: many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to "find their feet" among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
However, Dorothea was crying, and if she had been required to state the cause, she could only have done so in some such general words as I have already used: to have been driven to be more particular would have been like trying to give a history of the lights and shadows, for that new real future which was replacing the imaginary drew its material from the endless minutiae by which her view of Mr. Casaubon and her wifely relation, now that she was married to him, was gradually changing with the secret motion of a watch-hand from what it had been in her maiden dream..."
She's still there. Yes, she's still there.
Page 228:
"... How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither? I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin."
Page 230:
"And by a sad contradiction Dorothea's ideas and resolves seemed like melting ice floating and lost in the warm flood of which they had been but another form. She was humiliated to find herself a mere victim of feeling, as if she could know nothing except through that medium: all her strength was scattered in fits of agitation, of struggle, of despondency, and then again in visions of more complete renunciation, transforming all hard conditions into duty. Poor Dorothea!..."
On page 232, George Eliot describes the 1st "argument" between Dorothea, now Mrs Casaubon, and her husband. He neglects her, noticing nothing. Dorothea feels useless, and betrays her feeling of anger. Here the intrusive narrator again speaks up:
"I fear there was a little temper in her reply."
I can't help thinking: Get out of the way, will you?
The problem is not so simple. It's not merely that the narrator constantly says "I" or addresses the readers or tries to evoke their sympathy by saying "we"/ "our"/ "us". It's not merely that the readers can see the author clearly on the page. Rather, it's the feeling that the whole book is a parable of sort, a story with a moral, told by George Eliot, an adult, to us children. Whilst telling the story, the adult comments on it, clarifies everything, keeps nothing subtle, lectures, moralises, directs our sympathy to the right people, explains for us who's good and who's bad and whom to like and whom to condemn, etc. George Eliot's description of what's going on in Mr Casaubon's mind doesn't create the impression (or illusion) of entering his mind; instead, it's still the voice of a person talking, talking to the readers.
"We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions—how much more by hearing in hard distinct syllables from the lips of a near observer, those confused murmurs which we try to call morbid, and strive against as if they were the oncoming of numbness!"
His thoughts and feelings are not presented for their own sake. They are there for a purpose:
"She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers; she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity."
I will not compare George Eliot to Flaubert. I've done that before. Tom at Wuthering Expectations has also done it.
Instead, I'll refer to another female writer: Jane Austen. People can think more highly of Jane Austen or George Eliot, depending not on enjoyment and preference but on their aesthetics. According to mine, Jane Austen is the superior artist, who has what Virginia Woolf calls an androgynous and incandescent mind which "consumes all impediments", who writes "without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching", who presents things as they are, who is serious but never moralistic, who doesn't let personal feelings interfere with her art. She's also the more serious artist, seen in the way she works with the form, innovates, makes fun of conventions, parodies certain kinds of novels (the sentimental novel and the Gothic novel), in later works reacts against what she has done in previous works, etc. whereas George Eliot seems to use fiction as a means to another (higher?) end. Jane Austen frequently uses the free indirect speech, which she perfects in Emma, but it's Mansfield Park that best shows her superiority. As Caroline wrote a while ago, if George Eliot had written Mansfield Park, she would have taken care to make Henry and Mary less fascinating and more shallow, she would have made sure that readers side with Fanny. Or she would have made Henry change into a better man, for Fanny, but that's another story. 
George Eliot might be compared to Gogol and Tolstoy, who are not invisible. I'm thinking specifically of Dead Souls and War and Peace. The difference is that Gogol is only there in some of his digressions, and Tolstoy only appears in the essays on history and philosophy that he incorporates into his novel; neither let their private feelings and personal opinions distort their art, neither try to make the readers react and respond in a certain way, despite their didacticism. George Eliot does. That ruins her writing. 
However, hopefully in the end I may, like Virginia Woolf, see Middlemarch as a great work in spite of its imperfections, a much better novel than Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda


  1. Harharhar. She does love to put herself in doesn't she? That is what most exasperates me about George Eliot. It's the ideological bias in her. I have a theory you can classify writers into two groups: the describer and the ideological writer. The describer describes things without any view or ideological bias. The Ideological writer writes for a reason and feel a need to explain things to the reader. This creates two different kinds of work. The describer may be truer to nature, but is vaguer and less focused - it is more picturesque than dramatic. The ideological writer tends to be focused on an issue and has a sense of purpose. It is, however, biased. Having an ideology isn't always bad though - it gives you a sense of purpose. It is too easily to drift here and there without a uniting factor. If you're not a supreme genius, that is, it is a useful crutch. And it has produced good novels. The ideological writer is good for the dystopian novel, for example. Political novels. Novels exposing the greed and tyranny of the government. For describers the greed and tyranny of the government is a sad part of the setting rather than the main focus.

    I'm naturally more of a describer than an ideological writer but I find myself trying to find an ideal to unify my story. Funny, that. But when I try to go ideological too long it often blocks my inspiration and flow. I try to adjust everything to fit some ideal and rarely it works. But describing is difficult unless you have a clear idea what you want to do.

    Also, you seem to remember what I write better than I do. I officially appoint you my literary executor after my death, to compile and analyse how my views changed over the years. Seriously, I often don't remember what I thought years ago, and have to read old things I've written to refresh my memory.

    1. And there are 2 kinds of readers too: Tolstoy people and Dostoyevsky people.
      I love Dostoyevsky too, but I'm on the other side.
      Having an ideology isn't necessarily bad, of course. There are good dystopian novels, political novels, philosophical novels... Dostoyevsky is great, for example. My aesthetics having partly shaped by Nabokov, Woolf, Tolstoy... I have trouble with Crime and Punishment, but I love Notes from Underground and do acknowledge his greatness- a different kind.
      And we've got George Orwell. He might not be a great artist, but he's a brilliant polemic writer. Animal Farm and 1984 are awesome. Of course there's some bias because I'm from a communist country, but they're still awesome.
      Literary executor? I'm honoured! Hahahahaa.