Saturday, 22 August 2015

Let's talk about George Eliot's harshness or unkindness

People often say that Jane Austen is detached and can be unkind, sometimes even cruel, and Charlotte Bronte's full of anger and bitterness. What about George Eliot? Her name's generally associated with phrases such as "kind", "large heart", "full of sympathy", "deep sensibilities", and she's compared to Tolstoy.
Is that always the case, though?
R. H. Hutton argues otherwise, in his series of reviews of Middlemarch.
"... It is the 1 and almost the only respect in which we prefer her poetry to her prose- that in her poetry she does not put forth, at least in her own person, the biting power of this acid criticism".
As Barbara Hardy puts it, George Eliot's works, unlike Anna Karenina, have a basic sheep and goats division and we can categorise characters with the fundamental test "Are they acting from self-interest or from love?". Hutton notes "George Eliot has favourites and aversions, and deals very hardly by the latter"- we have Dorothea and Mary Garth on 1 side, Celia and Rosamond on the other.
He says:
"Middlemarch is not only a sketch of country life, connected by a story, but a running fire of criticism as well. Sometimes the reader feels that the author is unfairly running down 1 of her own characters- that she has conceived in her imagination a much more pleasant character than her party-spirit, as it were, chooses to admit. For instance, it is quite clear that George Eliot decidedly dislikes the type of pretty, attractive, gentle, sensible, limited young ladies so common in modern life, and loses no opportunity of plunging the dissecting-knife into them. Celia Brooke and Rosamond Vincy are the 2 representations of this species in the upper and middle spheres of Middlemarch society, and Celia Brooke and Rosamond Vincy are, to use an expressive, though rude, schoolboy phrase, 'always catching it' from the authoress, till we feel decidedly disposed to take their sides."
This is not entirely true, because in Daniel Deronda, George Eliot does sympathise with the "pretty, attractive, gentle, sensible, limited" Gwendolen and even takes her side against Grandcourt, but within this context, Hutton has a good point. It is indeed clear that the author dislikes Celia and Rosamond (or it's the narrator that does, but there's no implication that the author and the narrator think differently).
Of course, that an author likes some characters and dislikes some others is normal, and acceptable. The question is whether it leads to impartiality and distortion.
Apparently in Middlemarch, it does. For instance, Hutton refers to these lines about Celia:
"Celia, whose mind had never been thought too powerful, saw the emptiness of other people's pretensions much more readily. To have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion."
He comments:
"... one is apt to set down that unkind hit at Celia to personal antipathy on the author's part. [...] Celia had not only been accused of want of feeling for seeing through Mr Casaubon, but her criticisms on her sister's blind idealism, which were in the main just, had been likened to those publicly passed as 'Murr the cat' on our human life; and this certainly looked like an animus against Celia, for which the reader was bound to allow. One knows perfectly well that practical girls of this far from dream type do often exhibit the warmest affections, and so one is not prepared to accept absolutely George Eliot's rationale of Celia's clear-sightedness as arising in coldness of heart, and is prepared to distrust even decidedly asserted facts which appear to be at all unreasonably depreciative of her."
Despite the narrator's stabs, we find Celia kind, more clear-sighted and honest to herself than her sister Dorothea, said to be intelligent and make plans and think of big things but naive, idealistic and imperceptive and in some ways a bit idiotic.
Another example is this sentence about Rosamond and her sadness when Lydgate's avoiding her:
"Poor Rosamond lost her appetite and felt as forlorn as Ariadne—as a charming stage Ariadne left behind with all her boxes full of costumes and no hope of a coach."
According to Hutton:
"Now, that is not an additional touch of the artist's; it is a malicious stab of the critic's, which makes us distrust our author's impartiality, and feel rather more disposed to take Rosamond's part than if the attack had not been made".
Hutton mentions this line again in another review of Middlemarch, and remarks:
"Now, that is palpably an unkind author's criticism not founded on truth. Rosamond is thin, and selfish, and self-occupied, but she is not stagey. Her grief, such as it was, though of a feeble and thready kind, was perfectly genuine. That prick of the needle was due to literary malice, a prick that only literary dislike would have given..."
Though he adds that such a tone makes us distrust the narrator, "until the immense force and power of the picture in the new number conquered us, and we gave in to the general fidelity of the picture", he still uses the word "literary malice" earlier and apparently suggests that those comments are unnecessary. The Ariadne line is also referred to in Kerry McSweeney's book about Middlemarch- Rosamond brings out the worst in the narrator. Sometimes George Eliot can just stop at description, but doesn't.
Think of Hetty Sorrel. Who can like her after reading chapter 15? In the later part of Adam Bede, her story is no longer the focus and we lose her point of view. The narrator's no longer with Hetty. 
And Gwendolen Harleth? I reckon that's the best response to Hutton, or is she still not enough to refute his point? George Eliot, when creating a charming but superficial and selfish woman, has to make it not possible to be charmed by her, or make us feel it wrong to do so. And when George Eliot finally creates a vivid character like Gwendolen, a much greater achievement than Dorothea, when she explores the consciousness of a shallow, egoistic, ignorant young lady and sympathises with her, she decidedly takes her side against Grandcourt and makes us wonder why we forgive Gwendolen but not Grandcourt when they have the same faults, apart from the fact that in the marriage Gwendolen's the victim. Conscience, you say, but how do we know that he doesn't have a conscience? We never have access to his thoughts. 
But that's another story.
The only point I'm trying to make here is that I'm reconsidering what people often say about George Eliot. 


  1. I do not know enough about Eliot to respond in any way sensibly to your impressive posting, but I can say this: your analytical abilities continue to impress me, and I wish I were so thoroughly well-read and critically nimble. Well done!

  2. Di,

    To be honest, I really don't look that closely at the author. I have never engaged in the type of analysis demonstrated above. It is not that I disapprove of it, but simply I've never been interested in it. I have enough problems struggling with the text.

  3. FYI . . . this might be something that interests you:
    v/r R.T.

  4. R.T., thank you.
    Fred, I generally don't. However, 1, George Eliot always stresses on the purpose of fiction (enlarging sympathy) and she's known for deep sensibilities, so it's interesting enough; and 2, I read Hutton's series of reviews and apparently he was very much bothered by the way George Eliot "stabbed" her own creations several times.