Posted by: zhiv | April 24, 2009

Thoughts on a meme: Problems in reading George Eliot

Bibliographing has a nice post over at her site on Amos Barton, where I saw comments from pals Verbivore and Amateur Reader. It prompted quite a bit of spillage on my part, and I didn’t want to take over her comment section. I started like this:

“Hey, look–it’s all my pals!

The thing I was struck by in your post was the reference and focus on mediocrity… which predates Middlemarch by quite a bit. From the perspective of middle age, it’s fairly obvious that mediocrity is where it’s at, and that’s what puts Middlemarch in the starting five of all-time novels, at least for me. I wouldn’t have thought that GE was onto it right from the beginning, but it makes sense, because she held fire and didn’t publish fiction until she was well past 10,000 days.

It’s odd to see Amos Barton published separately. I read it in the Penguin “Scenes of Clerical Life,” which, pulling it down from the shelf, has a 1973 introduction from the then-young pup David Lodge, of all people.” And that’s where I bailed out, deleting this paragraph:

“Just about all of George Eliot is extremely good, if not magnificent, and quite worthwhile–her slugging percentage is much higher than most, though I can’t speak for The Spanish Gypsy, although our poetry reading friend AR might want to dip into that when he finishes up Empedocles and Clarel, and Felix Holt is no great shakes (no memory of it at all).”

On top of this, I was reading a meme going around that had a few questions that were bothering me. It asked Roth or Updike?, then (crucially) Austen or Eliot?, and then Shakespeare, Milton… and who was the third one? Marlowe? Ben Jonson? Spenser? Have to check on that. The last thing I would want to do is answer this type of question. Instead I would settle in and say, here’s what I know about Roth, my general impression and the sequence of my reading as I vaguely remember it, and then do the same for Updike. I might get sidetracked into discussing Updike’s posthumous review of Blake Bailey’s Life of Cheever. It’s not a simple either/or question, and there’s really no answer at all, only observations. Shakespeare, Milton, and third guy–okay, this is making me nuts, where did I see it again? So Many Books! (who has no idea of my existence) and now Verbivore — it’s Chaucer. Well, that’s a different story, but the same answer. It’s always going to be Shakespeare, 9 out 10 times, except for that one malcontent, who is like the rare person who has a strong dislike of the Beatles–although the Beatles are going to lose to the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, etc. a lot more often than Shakespeare is going down. French vs. Russians. (Team Chekhov votes Russians, today at least, but Flaubert and Balzac and Maupassant’s recent rally here complicates things.) Again, there’s no answer. Sedaris vs. Eggars. I’ve seen Sedaris, I love Sedaris, I read Sedaris’ new piece in The New Yorker last week, and Eggars I’ve managed to avoid, so that’s the one that just might have an actual answer.

But I want to talk about this Austen vs. Eliot thing. And just how does one come around to reading Amos Barton?

Everybody is going to say Austen. I would say Austen. Austen has perfection and infinite charm on her side. As I learned this week with the sad news of Eve Sedgwick’s premature death, in Mansfield Park she was able to write about masturbation and still be sweet and wry and wonderful. Again, you have to be kind of grouchy to jump in and say, “George Eliot! Austen’s a pipsqueak!” Who wants to be that guy?

But this is a classic, even profound case of “both.” The simple posing of the question, of putting them in the same league, gives GE proper credit, making her the Milton/Chaucer to Shakespere, the Stones to the Beatles, Russians to the French (that one may be more of a tossup–worth discussing).

It’s worth noting that Austen has had rabid fans for 150+ years now, people who would much rather live in her world than their own, and George Eliot would never inspire the same kind of zealotry. A new sequence of Jane Austen movies will be made with wonderful new actresses every 10-20 years, while Eliot’s books are no picnic for the filmmaker or the BBC longform.

Jane Austen has the benefit of easy entry, and she never presents any untoward challenges. I did my time as a George Eliot zealot, and I own copies of both “The Spanish Gypsy and other poems” and “Strauss’ Life of Jesus” and I’ve never read a word of either of them. There’s just some hefty GE tomes that only a handful of people are going to read. And some of her best books, and her masterpiece, are extremely challenging. GE is no picnic. She’s funny but not especially fun. She’s smarter, better, deeper, and more complex than the “fellas,” Dickens and Thackeray, Trollope, and she and Middlemarch are probably the Brit you want to send to the 19th century Literary Olympics to go up against Tolstoy, Melville, Flaubert and the rest. Come to think of it, if you asked “Austen or Brontes?” you might not have any of these problems, but that’s a different discussion.

But the point I wanted to make is that it seems to me that it’s hard to get to GE, and it’s worth laying things out. The question began with what gets someone to read Amos Barton and Scenes of Clerical Life, and what should their expectations be going in? Once you’re hooked on a great author like GE, you’re hooked, although there will be books you’ll want to avoid or delay, and some writers are going to hit for a higher average than others. GE does very well. How much Tolstoy do you want to read, once you’ve gotten past W&P and Anna Karenina? And after you go through the second tier, which I’m sure is quite good, what about the third? What about Flaubert after MB and Sentimental Education–I can’t say that I remember ever opening up my copy of Salamnbo. The list goes on, and as I said above, GE does well, and she seems to have more readable books than most, perhaps more than anybody besides Dickens. This is a thorny topic, of course, because a writer like Trollope has a whole lot of readable books, so there’s a quality/quantity ratio. And page count is significant too–does War and Peace count extra because it’s longer?

Austen, of course, is flawless. You read your first, you read them all, you read them again. My daughter read all of Austen’s major novels when we were on a two week vacation in Hawaii when she was going into 8th grade. I started reading Austen when I was 17 and had read about 10 books in my whole life, and four of her books were in #s 10 to 25.

By contrast, Eliot is a disaster. First off, there’s the “Marian is George” thing, the ultimate entry-level, “don’t you know anything?” literary question. And what’s the very next item? It’s the fact that Silas Marner killed off two or three generations of young readers from 1925 to 1970. Picture James Dean trying to read Silas Marner over the course of a month in high school English and you’ll know what I mean. One of my massive pet peeves is just how long it takes classes to read things in middle school and high school. Perhaps I should be more sympathetic, because I wasn’t capable myself of reading anything when I was in school, but no one taught me how, no one explained how to make reading a habit, and limping through a book over the course of weeks and months is deadly. And take a highly moral, quaint tale that was antiquated in its own day, and you have literary kryptonite for any mid-century high school student.

But let’s put Silas Marner aside. So what happens is that most people read Middlemarch, probably in a Victorian Novel or Modern British Lit course. Even that is fairly challenging, and it’s a determined choice, because it takes at least a couple weeks of steady reading to get through it, probably more. It’s a lot to read Vanity Fair and Middlemarch in the same class, for instance. You would probably end up reading a shorter Dickens and scrape by from there. (I know, I should look around at some courses to figure this out.) GE does have a solid and popular default book, Mill on the Floss, while Thackeray does not–and that presents another GE problem. It could, however, be argued that MotF is a better GE entry book, a good warmup for moving on to Middlemarch. And here’s a more elaborate tossup: Vanity Fair/Middlemarch/shorter Dickens, Vanity Fair/Mill on the Floss/beefy Dickens, or Henry Esmond/Middlemarch/Dickens? The truth is that no one is ever going to do the last choice. No one needs to read Henry Esmond, while Vanity Fair is necessary, and MotF will serve. Thackeray is a completely separate topic, well worth a literary byways post, but he’s relevant here because of the way his work affects the reading of George Eliot.

So far I’ve mentioned three viable George Eliot texts, MM, MotF, and Silas Marner (SM). SM is “viable” because it is actually quite charming once you’ve got the GE bug, but it should be stressed, as above, that it can be quite deadly as a GE entry text. It’s not clear how anybody would fall in love GE’s writing and world just by reading SM, but stranger things have happened.

I should say at this point that I did all of this differently, and perhaps that’s why I took to GE so strongly. Just as I was really starting to figure out about literature and how to read it–probably somewhere around books 15-20–, I took a Philosophy and Literature course where we read two books, Middlemarch and Herbert Fingarette’s thin volume “Self-Deception.” I’ve discussed this before (see the post on Silas Latham); it was also my first seminar experience. But the point in this context is that I was able to spend a lot of time getting through Middlemarch, just as I learning how to get up a full head of steam as a reader. Looking back, I’d say it was fortuitous, just dumb luck.

I don’t remember the exact details of how I pushed ahead on GE, but I’m pretty sure that I read Adam Bede before Mill on the Floss. And my guess is that I read both of those before reading Scenes of Clerical Life, which has Amos Barton in it. This is where GE’s slugging percentage gets elevated. If anybody were to ask me to recommend a lesser-known, “secondary” Victorian novel, it would be another GE-Thackeray jumpball, between Adam Bede and Esmond. And I would give the nod to Adam Bede (AB) every time, I think. I’m not sure that it’s a better or more interesting book. But what’s important in this context is that reading it helps build a great affection for George Eliot, one that is perhaps purer and simpler than the takeaway from Mill on the Floss.

I’ll pause and consider the differences between AB and MotF for a moment. It’s easy for the reader to get very close to Maggie in MotF, and to understand Tom and her feelings towards him. The book is about feminine energy and yearning and it’s a great brother-and-sister book, but it gets messy and unsatisfying. Here during Hawthorne month, it’s necessary to add Maggie Tolliver to the drowning woman list that includes Margaret Fuller, Zenobia, and Virginia Woolf, though she isn’t quite on the heroine suicide rolls. It’s a bit strange, a little funky and sloppy, an odd ending, called unsatisfying easily and often. The ending of Adam Bede isn’t perfect–no easy trick to figure out what to do with those female characters, apparently–but it works well enough, at least from a moderate distance.

But the main appeal of Adam Bede, which has an even greater impact on me now, almost three decades and one college student daughter later, comes from it being something of a rarity in 19th century fiction, a father-daughter book. And it’s a specific, different kind (much less obvious than the similar theme in SM), where the daughter is the highly educated, intellectual narrator trying to capture the character and critical moral outlook of her father, describing an idealized, fictional version of him at the moment of his emotional conflicts and romantic decision. Given its setting and context and this particular construct, it generates an extraordinary emotional pull. The biographical background to it makes a fascinating contrast to To The Lighthouse, a much more complex father-daughter book with some similar issues, handled very differently. Adam Bede is GE’s first full-length novel, while To The Lighthouse is Woolf’s mature masterpiece, her Middlemarch, so there’s that.

It could just be my own memories as a young male reader, almost 30 years ago, but George Eliot sold Adam Bede just as hard and successfully as Jane Austen worked Darcy and Knightley, and in himn she offered a warm Wordsworthian alternative to the Brontes’ fevered Heathcliff and Rochester. Adam Bede (and it’s interesting that you would never say Mr. Bede the way that you say Mr. Knightley or Mr. Rochester) is the strong, silent type, Gary Cooper rather than Olivier, and things are pretty much going to work out in the book with his name on it.

Audiences liked everything about it, and AB made George Eliot a sensation. Perhaps this was because it is just as satisfying, to an astonishing degree and nearly at the perfection level of Austen, as MotF is unsatisfying. Its overwhelming success allowed GE to reveal her identity and enabled her to write as she wanted, and MotF is more innovative and experimental as a result, and there are a few more good books, significant, challenging efforts, on the way to Middlemarch, which seems to contain the best of Adam Bede and MotF within it and so much more.

This also gets into male and female readers and their differences, perhaps, which isn’t territory that I care much to explore. Women might find MotF better and more interesting, and AB less so, because perhaps AB makes assumptions about the prerogatives of male characters that don’t sit so well over time, and its women characters are more problematic. But it should be mentioned that Austen got away with the same thing, to a degree, although her heroines were always primary. I don’t know enough to talk about these kind of issues with any authority, so I’ll leave them be. (Do I sense a distinction between male and female readers of Blithedale or The Bostonians? No. So what am I blabbing about?) I liked Adam Bede. A lot. It made a strong impression on me, and somehow I developed a great affection for it. And you’ll find a lot of people who have read all of Austen and Middlemarch and MotF, but it takes some doing to get to AB.

But there are plenty of people who get hooked on GE and read all of it, or what should count as all of it. I believe that people hold Middlemarch (and MotF) in high enough esteem that they reread it a fair amount, which shows a real commitment and affection. So the breakdown with GE would be to put MM and MotF on the first tier, and throw in SM for good measure (hey there, Ben Kingsley!). And now we reach another crossroads, because in the case of GE people are reading her hardest/harder book first, or early in their efforts. So those people want more. For the vast majority who admire Middlemarch, they’re going to begin the second tier with Daniel Deronda, and their interest will lead them to the more challenging books, like Romola or even Felix Holt. This makes sense and it’s completely supportable, although anybody who reads Felix Holt before reading Adam Bede and Scenes of Clerical Life is making a mistake in my view. Lovers of Italy and historical novels are welcome to read Romola at any time, and the Tale of Two Cities-Henry Esmond-Romola trifecta is a good one, though GE fares a bit poorly there. But Deronda is a really strong book, and the case to read it right after Middlemarch is easily made–and that’s just another literary celestial body pulling readers away from Adam Bede.

I don’t know that I have a conclusion. But I guess it’s obvious that I had a response of sorts to a nice post on Amos Barton, and that Austen-Eliot question. So there it is.


  1. Hilarious! Are you on speed? I love the way you career through GE’s work, bounce off a wall and find yourself with Jane, the wonderful Jane…bounce around a bit and then back to GE. – also wonderful. They’re different. That’s all. Why compare? They’re different women doing different things at different times. History compresses time and makes us draw comparisons but there’s little point; we enjoy them both. Don’t we?

    So, at the risk of closing down debate, when you want to open it up, I don’t really know what comparative statements like this one mean: Adam Bede is ‘nearly at the perfection level of Austen’. Isn’t that like comparing the sun and the moon? They perform similar functions but we need them both. Eliot asks more questions of her readers; Austen gives more answers. Simplistic? Reductive? Yes to both, but that’s what happens when you compare the sun and the moon, isn’t it?

  2. Oh, interesting. As a huge Eliot reader, I’m very interested in your Eliot history. I’ve read Middlemarch twice and wouldn’t mind reading it again, so there’s that, but I’ve also read Daniel Deronda twice, and wouldn’t mind reading it again. But I also think that feeling might be very personal, and I’m not sure everyone interested in Eliot would feel the same way. I need to re-read Mill on the Floss, because I read that last in High School and so didn’t really do the greatest job with it. I’ve read Adam Bede as an adult, but it didn’t make nearly the impression on me that DD did. And I think I’ve read Silas Marner twice, once in high school and once later, although I don’t think the high school reading was because of an assignment.

    I’m wondering if I should consider myself lucky never to have taken a Victorian novel course (I’ve had other courses in the period, but I’ve skipped that one); I did read Great Expectations for a Brit. Lit. survey, but that was it. So my discovery of Eliot has been purely my own, and I’m happy it’s that way. Perhaps I’ve enjoyed Eliot and the Victorian novel generally because it’s always been an area I’ve experienced outside the classroom? But I’ve come to love other authors by studying them in class (V. Woolf for example), so it comes down to the particular teacher, as always.

  3. I’ve just read Adam Bede, and that only because of last summer’s Valve event. So I have to defer on all of this. I’m going to read The Mill on the Floss soon, though, reduce my ignorance a bit. And I’m a curmudgeon who does not think Jane Austen is flawless, so I have to defer there as well.

    “Hadji Murad” and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” are not second-tier Tolstoy, I do know that.

  4. […] after all. This is also a thought-provoking meme — it inspired an interesting response from Zhiv, and I’m sure I’ll have some trouble answering the questions as I go along. We’ll […]

  5. KCJ–How’s it going, S&S? Brave girl, starting things off here. Sun and the Moon indeed. Like the way I threw Blake Bailey’s Life of Cheever in there–still waiting to see your review on KateonYates. Hope your work is going great and will check in soon.

    DW–Fantastic. I wish you would pick up my “literary byways” approach and write out some of your reading excursions. Where do you come out on Scenes/Amos Barton and Romola? The doubling up on the Big Three (MM, DD, MotF) is impressive–it’s good to hear some one who finds GE rereadable (?), which is as it should be. I’m not much of a rereader myself, but I’m overdue on GE. And I should probably have framed things more like that, the Big Three. Thinking of you, I might have to read Leslie Stephen’s biography of GE, which makes a nice English Men of Letters companion to the Henry James’ biography of Hawthorne I’ve been looking at. Thanks!

    AR–Yeah, the Jane Austen flawless line might be overstated. As my Leslie Stephen Austen post quotes, “All critics agree to the unequalled fineness of her literary tact; no author ever lived, as GH Lewes told Miss Bronte, with a nicer sense of proportioning means to ends. Given the end, the lifelike portrature of the social aspects with which alone she was familiar, the execution is flawless.” I’ll leave it at that.

    Not 2nd tier–meaning that they’re 3rd tier? Maybe the 3rd tier is the 2nd tier? Or are you saying that “Hadji Murad” is at the same level as AK and W&P, which seems unlikely. Heading off to go read your Adam Bede/George Eliot posts.

  6. First tier, yes. “Hadji Murad” is first tier Tolstoy.

    I nervously want to modify the Stephens quotation. Just before the period I want to add “in her best books”.

  7. Zhiv, I love this post. I don’t have enough Eliot background to even begin to leave a real comment here (I’ll be reading Adam Bede this year) but I enjoyed your passionate march through Eliot territory.

    I will say this – I completely agree with the problem of those short answers to any question comparing sets of writers (Roth vs Updike and all that). It’s a throw away, like bad, awkward party conversation. It doesn’t say a thing about the real reading tastes of the person answering or, more importantly, it doesn’t reveal anything that an actual and in-depth comparison might reveal. You’ve made it wonderfully clear that a real conversation around the same questions is what we should be doing – Shakespeare/Milton/Chaucer…people write dissertations on this sort of stuff, so the question just seems ridiculous.

  8. No chance of a review of Bailey’s Cheever book since we’re so backward on this side of the pond that we don’t even get the book here until the Autumn….it’s a crying shame. Great post. Apologies for a simplistic reading; you don’t deserve that!

    I think Middlemarch changed my life. In a nutshell.

  9. I’ve had a few rants about Jane Austen, but even if I agree with you that the Bronte:Austen comparison is better, George Eliot wins the day each time around. Jane Austen, “flawless”? I’d say “polished”. Popular. I enjoyed her books reasonably enough (“Pride and Prejudice” most, the others were a little dryer… somehow…), but the “wit” of her writing doesn’t translate all that well nowadays and her books lack the clear intelligence that rings through Eliot’s novels.

    I started with “The Mill on the Floss”, discovered a brilliant writer, and continued onwards to “Silas Marner” and then “Daniel Deronda”. I’ve tried to start “Middlemarch” a few times now, but each time, withing the first chapter, something else distracts me. I think I’ll need to set aside a nice quiet month for it and just get straight into the story. The same thing happened to me at the start of “The Mill on the Floss” but that turned out pretty nicely.

    As for the rest of the really interesting things raised here… Tolstoy’s early works are actually not horrible. I read “Childhood Boyhood Youth” and rather enjoyed it. No, it isn’t as striking as “War and Peace” (I’m ashamed to admit I have yet to read “Anna Karenina”), but it’s striking in its own way. I agree that some of the questions in the survey are odd bordering on stupid and I don’t really see the point in such a survey. Your points about the male vs. female readership of “Adam Bede”, though, seems to me reason enough to read it and encourage those around me to do the same.

  10. […] a wonderful and interesting read. I’ll have much more to say as soon as I finish. Because of Zhiv’s great post on comparing Eliot and Austen, I’ve been reading with that thought in mind. Now if Austen had […]

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