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Title Menu: 8 More George Eliot Novels

By (June 1, 2014) 2 Comments

1Thanks to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch it seems we can’t get enough of George Eliot right now — matter for rejoicing, no question. But where should you turn next if you’ve already read not only Middlemarch but all of Eliot’s fiction, from the episodic and experimental Scenes of Clerical Life to the daunting and melodramatic Daniel Deronda?

You could of course keep reading your way through the novels of her contemporaries: even if you think you’re pretty caught up on the Victorians, you might have missed Elizabeth Gaskell’s wonderful Wives and Daughters, and I bet there are some of Trollope’s novels you haven’t gotten around to either — not to mention some of Thackeray’s (Henry Esmond, anyone?). And once you’re done with those, there are Margaret Oliphant’s ninety-eight titles. (There: I’ve proved her wrong. “No one even will mention me in the same breath as George Eliot,” she wrote in her poignant autobiography. “Should I have been better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of?” And yet for all her self-deprecation there is much pleasure to be found in Oliphant’s fiction — or at least in the tiny fraction of it that I’ve read.)

But what if you want books that bring you close to George Eliot in spirit, rather than in time? You’re in luck: intimidating as it must be to model yourself on someone who warned aspiring authors, “be not a baker if your head be made of butter,” many writers have taken their inspiration from both her life and her fiction.

Deborah Weisgall, The World Before Her

2If you want to meet George Eliot herself as a character in a novel, Deborah Weisgall’s The World Before Her is for you. It picks up Eliot’s story after her second (but only legal) marriage, to John Cross; on their honeymoon, she reflects on her earlier life, especially her long relationship with George Henry Lewes, for whom she is still grieving, and for whom poor Johnnie is proving a feeble replacement both intellectually and physically. “I worship you,” he tells her. “I do not ask to be worshiped,” is her despairing reply, but that’s all he has to offer: “he had promised to devote his life to her, as if she were a sibyl and he guarded her shrine.” Their melancholy story is interwoven with that of a 20th-century character, sculptor Caroline Springold, who is similarly struggling to retain her own identity within marriage. Through these women’s juxtaposed experiences, Weisgall explores in her own way some of Eliot’s most significant themes: art, love, vocation, renunciation.

Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers

3Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers — less a novel than a collection of linked stories, comic, surreal, erudite — is a series of biographical reports on eccentric New Yorker Ruth Puttermesser, who is, among other things (“lawyer, rationalist, ex-public official”) a devotee of George Eliot. In “Puttermesser Paired,” Puttermesser enters into a relationship with a young artist that plays out as a conscious attempt to duplicate the intellectual companionship of Eliot and Lewes, whom they study obsessively: “What Puttermesser and Rupert were studying was a pair of heroic boon companions. Boon companions! It was fellowship they were studying; it was nearness.” It is now, as it was then, an uncommon ideal: “People get stuck. Brains are no guarantee. Hope is slim.” And what if Rupert is not Lewes to her Marian but another Johnny Cross? Disappointment — another of Eliot’s recurrent themes — seems inevitable.

Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman

4The title of Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman acknowledges George Gissing’s 1890’s “New Woman” novel The Odd Women as its inspiration, but allusions to other Victorian novels permeate the story of English professor Jane Clifford. Jane has the English major’s habit of trying to sort her own experience into a shape familiar to her from her reading. Like Puttermesser, Clifford particularly idealizes Eliot’s relationship with Lewes: “They completed each other. . . . They were outrageously happy, and they were all in all to each other for twenty-five years.” Is such mutual bliss possible? No more so in Jane’s world than in Eliot’s novels, it turns out (that vexatious discrepancy between Eliot’s life and her fiction!). During her short-lived engagement to a young Englishman, Jane fantasizes about devoting herself to Eliot’s manuscripts, “studying this braver woman’s passage through the cold world while she herself sat in front of cozy fires, banked by a devoted and tender James.” But it is not to be. Later she finds herself in a furtive and ultimately futile long-distance relationship with the Casaubon-like Gabriel Weeks — the dissatisfactions of Middlemarch are once again reiterated, rather than resolved, in a modern context, and unlike Dorothea Brooke but like Gissing’s heroine Rhoda Nunn, Jane is ultimately left to figure out a path for her single self.

Keith Oatley, A Natural History

5Keith Oatley takes his novel’s title from one of Eliot’s most famous essays, “The Natural History of German Life,” but the novel itself is an overt homage to Middlemarch, a reworking of central elements of its plot and theme. Oatley’s Dr. Leggate, a newcomer to the town of Middlethorpe, is intent on finding the causes of cholera. Like Eliot’s Dr. Lydgate, he falls in love with a musical local beauty, but his Marian Brooks is no Rosamond Vincy: while Rosamond’s music misleads Lydgate into thinking of her “as something exceptional,” rather than just an excellent mimic, Marian plays Chopin “with intonation full of meaning.” “If I were to marry,” Leggate writes in his diary, “it would be someone like that.” Many readers of Middlemarch thought that Dorothea Brooke should marry Lydgate; A Natural History carries out a version of that thought experiment only to suggest that a marriage of true minds admits its own impediments to happy tranquility. Leggate and Marian must also struggle, as Eliot’s characters do, with the petty entanglements of provincial society, though the idealism that finds so little room to flourish in Middlemarch has at least a better chance with this couple — especially after they emigrate to Canada.

Ahdaf Soueif, In The Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love

6The novels of Anglo-Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif take us far from the physical landscapes of the English midlands, but they spin multiple threads of connection between their mental geographies and Eliot’s. In the Eye of the Sun takes as its epigraph one of the most famous passages in Middlemarch:

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.

Like Middlemarch, In the Eye of the Sun recounts history ‘by indirection,’ through the personal experiences of its characters, though in Soueif’s novel the context is not England in the 1830s but Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Six Day War, Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel and subsequent assassination, and the rise of Islamic militancy. Like Dorothea Brooke, Soueif’s heroine, Asya al-Ulama, struggles with the moral obligations imposed by sympathy; for her, the tragedies on the other side of silence include the suffering of tortured prisoners as well as 7her own difficulty defining her identity and vocation on her own terms, whether at home in Cairo or on the streets of London or New York.

Soueif’s The Map of Love also makes explicit reference to Middlemarch: the epigraph to its first chapter, for instance, is drawn from Eliot’s novel, and Soueif’s 20th-century heroine, Isabel, comments that the 19th-century woman, Anna Winterbourne, whose life she is researching (and whose story is cross-cut with hers in the novel) “has become as real to me as Dorothea Brooke.” Struggling to help her husband, devastated by his role in England’s imperial endeavors in Egypt, Anna in her turn echoes Dorothea’s heartfelt plea: “tell me what I can do!” That yearning to be of use and to do good makes Anna Dorothea’s spiritual cousin, though she takes Dorothea’s defiance of convention to new levels when she leaves England for Egypt and then marries Sharif al-Baroudi, a leading nationalist. The interplay of different personal but also cultural and historical perspectives in The Map of Love puts an explicitly political and post-colonial spin on Eliot’s famous interjection “but why always Dorothea?”

Carol Shields, Unless

8Like In the Eye of the Sun, Carol Shields’s Unless uses the squirrel’s heartbeat passage from Middlemarch as its epigraph. The story of Ontario novelist Reta Winters, whose life is upended by her daughter Norah’s decision to drop out of school and sit on a downtown street corner holding a sign that says only “Goodness,” Unless initially seems as distant from Middlemarch in both form and content as Soueif’s fiction. But it too returns us to Eliot by circling around problems of sympathy and suffering — and it too emphasizes the political dimension of Eliot’s interest in alternative points of view, in this case by highlighting women’s marginalization in literary history, yet another dimension of the “roar on the other side of silence.” Shields pointed to Jane Austen’s influence on her work, noting Austen’s ability to show “how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” Like Middlemarch, Unless also addresses the relationship of scale to significance, which Shields, like Virginia Woolf, identifies as an intractably gendered question: “This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room,” Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own — “everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.” Shields and her heroine both write novels that resist such assumptions, finding their value in the “ordinary human life” Eliot’s masterpiece elegizes.

Edith Skom, The George Eliot Murders9

In Edith Skom’s The George Eliot Murders, English professor Beth Austin takes a much-needed vacation in Hawaii only to find her attempts to linger over Middlemarch by the pool interrupted by murder. Unexpectedly, she finds clues to the crimes and their motives in Eliot’s novel — which, let’s not forget, itself includes blackmail, a stabbing that only looks like an accident (“I meant to do it,” confides the perpetrator to her shocked admirer), and a death that may or may not be hastened by the actions of someone with murderous feelings towards the victim. Eliot understood the violence we are capable of — in thought or deed — when the secrets we believed were buried safely in our past threaten to rise up again.

So there you have it – a treasure-trove of further reading for anyone who has exhausted the riches of George Eliot’s own … oh, who am I kidding? Exhausted? Never mind any of these books: just read Middlemarch again. It’s the only one that’s sure not to disappoint.

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings; she also hosts the website Middlemarch for Book Clubs.