A wise man once told me that the introduction to my long-imagined book should represent “the passionate peroration you’d deliver verbally about ‘Why George Eliot?’ if it came up in intelligent company.” After drawing up my inventory of everything I’ve written about George Eliot over the years, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed by the particulars, and so I thought I’d get back to basics of that kind, without a lot of second guessing about what counts as a unifying idea or what I’d be able to make an appealing ‘pitch’ for.
For some reason, in my head the peroration is always in response to the question “Why do you like George Eliot so very much,” which is of course a modified version of Charlotte Brontë’s challenge to George Henry Lewes to explain his admiration of Jane Austen. Though I enjoy and admire Austen’s novels, this question still seems perfectly reasonable to me, though given the extraordinary heights of contemporary Austen-mania, it’s one that sounds more contrarian now than it would have in 1848! What I appreciate most about Brontë’s question is the interesting conversation it begins: the clarity of Brontë’s catalog of complaints about what she saw as Austen’s limitations, and Lewes’s intelligent acknowledgment of those limits even as he concluded that Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” Given her own very different experiences and sensibilities, it’s no wonder that Brontë could not see greatness in a writer who had, she thought, no poetry. And Lewes’s answer, and his more extensive commentary on Austen in his essay on “Lady Novelists” (included in this collection, if you’re interested!) both point us towards yet another standard of excellence — one realized in the novels of the woman who became Mrs. Lewes.
Conversations about authors we love should not be approached in a competitive spirit. After all, there’s no need to rank writers, or to pit them against each other; happily, literary greatness is not a zero-sum game. As Henry James says in “The Art of Fiction” (included in that same collection),
There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory.
“Nothing, of course,” James also observes, “will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it; the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.” But establishing the grounds of our admiration — clarifying them both for ourselves and for others — may contribute to appreciation, which is a more complex, or at least more self-conscious, response than that “primitive” liking. The process is inevitably self-revelatory, because our preferences convey, implicitly at least, something about the kinds of people we are — or aspire to be. But that, again, is no grounds for either discomfort or disagreement: if (James again) “the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” so too the community of readers can, happily, contain multitudes — those who, say, admire Flaubert above all others, and those who … don’t.
This has become rather a long preamble! My reluctance to launch willy-nilly into simplistic lists is one of the many, many reasons I’ll never be a contributor to BuzzFeed or BookRiot. But enough is enough: time to get on with it.
Here’s what I’ve come up with: the top ten reasons I like George Eliot so very much. These are not the only qualities I value in a novelist — not a definitive list of what I think makes a great novelist. Nor are they qualities I think she has exclusively – coincidentally (!), other novelists I greatly admire share many of them. They are simply an outline of the qualities of this novelist that make this reader so appreciative. They are, in point form, my “passionate peroration”!
- Her intellectual richness and breadth. Her novels are full of complex ideas about many aspects of human experience and society. I always learn from them, and they always give me a lot to think about. This is not to say that I always agree with what I think she’s saying, but it always seems worth trying to follow her thinking.
- Her emphasis on sympathy for our imperfect fellow humans. I find her vision of how we can make life better for each other both beautiful and morally valuable.
- Her insistence on the moral significance of art – her understanding of fiction as both an artistic and a philosophical form.
- The importance she places on historical and social contexts for people’s behavior. We can’t understand people unless we understand their circumstances, and understanding is a crucial part of sympathy. Understanding and sympathizing are not the same as excusing and forgiving, though.
- Her use of literary form to support as well as convey her ideas. Her books are profoundly artful, not just ‘philosophy teaching by examples.’ Reading them is an entire experience.
- The sophistication and beauty of her language. All this talk of philosophy and ideas should not be taken as indicating that she isn’t worth reading just for the quality of her prose. It’s also striking to me how varied its cadences are, both within and across books. She has her leaden moments, to be sure, but she is capable of both poetry and inspiration as well.
- Her humor, which ranges from sly wit to deft irony to outright comedy.
- Her tenderness and pathos. Though at times there is a certain ruthlessness to her, or at least to her narrators, at others she can, with the utmost delicacy (and sometimes with sheer Dickensian sentimentality) rend your heart.
- Her people. Amos Barton, Mrs. Poyser, Maggie Tulliver, Tito Melema, Dorothea Brooke, Gwendolen Harleth, Grandcourt: they are distinctly, memorably, themselves, complete with their own histories and families and, my favorite thing, voices. Sure, Adam Bede is a bit too upright, and Felix Holt is wooden in his virtue, but the number of her amazingly good characters (and characterizations) completely overwhelms the weaker ones. Her dialogue is every bit as sharp as Austen’s (and less confined to drawing rooms), and her psychological insights are often astonishing.
- Her emphasis on people as members of families and communities. Both her stories and her morals urge us to see ourselves as connected to others — to turn away from egotism and selfishness and to ask, as Dorothea eventually does, “Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” Though I sometimes think this principle has its dark side, I still find it truthful and inspiring.
Lists are artificial things, and 10 is an arbitrary number, but there’s actually a useful discipline in trying to isolate the things that really matter to me in this way. Some of these items certainly overlap, many of them are intricately connected, and there’s plenty more to be said about all of them, but looking over the list, I’m satisfied: imperfections of presentation aside, yes, these are the reasons I like her so very much. What do you think — did I miss any of your favorite things about her?