Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross) (18191880)
[Marian Evans, who assumed the non de plume of George Eliot, was born in Warwickshire in 1819. After much varied literary work, she wrote the Scenes of Clerical Life, her first work of fiction, in 1857 and 1858. This was followed in 1859 by Adam Bede, which placed her in the first rank of writers of fiction of the day. The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860; and Silas Marner in 1861. Romola, a work of an entirely different class, appeared in 1863; Felix Holt in 1866; and her two poetical works, The Spanish Gypsy and the Legend of Jubal in 1868 and 1869. Her later works, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, were completed in 1872 and 1876. She died 22nd December 1880.]
THE TIME has scarcely yet arrived when an estimate can be formed of the permanent position of George Eliot in literature. Perhaps during her lifetime there was a tendency to rate her genius too high; but it may equally be true that the reaction has been too strong, and that her fame has in recent years suffered from undue disparagement. This at least seems indisputable, that early in her literary career she attained to an excellence of work which she never surpassed, and from which her later works present a distinct retrogression. The recognition of this fact need not imply any desire to derogate from her genius; but it is undoubtedly a misfortune for her as an author that she should have so far wandered from the sphere in which her special genius did its best work, and should have entered upon other regions in which that genius worked with less freedom. This is not the place to discuss her literary work, except in relation to its qualities of style; but the same process which, in the judgment of many, injuriously affected her work on the whole, did exercise its most baneful effect in the special sphere of style.
The work of George Eliot which first arrested attention and compelled admiration were the Scenes of Clerical Life. There the quality most conspicuous is the intensity of emotion, the concentration of tragic feeling within the sphere of commonplace life. The canvas is small; the incident is uneventful; there is no complexity of plot, and no august dramatic picture. But what impresses us most is, nevertheless, the intense depth of tragic feeling. There is none of the delicate monotone of Jane Austens novels, with their smoothness of movement, their subtle delicacy of description, their avoidance of any touch of tragedy. But in George Eliot the depth of feeling is portrayed with restless effort and certainty of hand, and no elaboration is spared that may heighten the effect. The commonplace, the humorous, the restful picture of everyday life, is skilfully worked in; but we never for one moment are allowed to forget that all the side touches are mere contributions to one special aimthat of increasing the intensity of the tragic chord that is to be struck. The style corresponds exactly to this central aim. Not a sentence is other than elaborately framed. Each antithesis of feeling is carefully pressed home. Each incident that is to heighten the effect is told with almost painful care. Each touch of humour is so expressed as to heighten the note of tragedy and contrast. In the very narrowing of the scene, and in the concentration with which it is focussed, we have another proof of the determination with which the authors purpose is kept in view.
With Silas Marner and with Adam Bede these qualities are still supreme. The movement of each story is more complete; its dramatic effect is more highly wrought; the canvas is enlarged, and the artists hand works with greater boldness. But the incidents and the characters are still sought in a limited spherethat of rural and provincial English life, every detail and characteristic of which she has studied with restless and surpassing care, and from which she has drawn all the humour, all the variety, all the range of tragedy and comedy which she has depicted with such elaborate truthfulness. There is still the same impression of highly-wrought sentences which are meant to arrest the readers attention, and warn him what he is to look for of tragedy, of humour, of philosophy. But the ground is so familiar to the author, she works in it with such ease, she achieves her effect with such certaintythat this elaboration of style seems fitting and suitable, and is so entirely consistent with the intense emotion of the story, as to have a comparatively slight appearance of artificiality or strain. But with achieved success the author sought to extend her range, and in so doing lost her nicety of touch. In the Mill on the Floss the decadence becomes most clear. The earlier part of that novel equals, if it does not exceed in genius the works that preceded it. The whole picture of the life of the Tullivers is as full of humour, of pathos, and of tragedy, as anything that George Eliot ever wrote. But turn to Book vi., where she has passed from the familiar scenes of which she writes with absolute mastery, and has sought to add some of the variety which she fancied would enhance the value of her fiction, and we see how lamentable is the decadence at once of matter and of style. The work is no longer a native one; the labour is conscious and painfully in evidence, the incident is trivial, and the elaboration of style is only an echo of that care which had previously been one sign of her overmastering emotion.
Of Felix Holt it is difficult to speak. As there are incidents of tragic force, so there are passages of striking eloquence and most marvellous rhythm. But the story is artificial and painful in construction. The preacher is ever preponderating over the novelist, the purple patches of style, the philosophical and political disquisitions are foisted upon us to the detriment of the story, and not to the enhancement of the tragedy.
This tendency undoubtedly dominated more and more the later style of George Eliot. It would lead us beyond the sphere of mere style were we to appraise the value, or to gauge the undoubted genius of Romola and her later novels. It is sufficient to say that the elaboration of style increased with each new book, and so also did the mannerisms. Some of these in their earlier phases were not unpleasant. The expression of a humorous fancy in a pedantic phrase; the reminiscence of a classical idiom applied to some everyday triviality; the slight exaggeration of verbiage which is to accentuate an aphorismall these are quaint and not without their charm, especially when they stand in picturesque contrast with the simplicity of the theme. But when her plots became more elaborate, when her classical allusions became ever-recurrent mannerisms, when her aphorisms were no longer hewn out of the native rock of tragic emotion, but were moulded on the plaster casts of the schoolsthen the effect was lost, and the appetite is sated. The trick of fitting pedantic allusions to the ordinary commonplaces of life, or dressing these commonplaces in an affected guise of pedantry, is easily learned and infectious. When George Eliot wrote of a gardener, that he had the air of a Bacchus in a blue apron, who, in the present reduced circumstances of Olympus, had taken to the management of his own vines, the effect is quaint enough. But it becomes tedious by frequent repetition; and the mechanical humour of the comic opera has, by its imitation, shown us how it may be dragged lower still. Her aphorisms, at first deftly expressed, and pregnant with significance, created a taste which she laboured to satisfy by elaborate psychological maxims whose sounding verbiage scarcely cloaks a truism.
Her genius was certainly great, and her style was often eloquent, always elaborate and skilful, and, in its earlier phases, instinct with feeling and force. But as she left the simplicity of her earlier canvas, so her style lost its distinctive character, and was less closely allied to her genius. Its analytical precision wearies us; its elaboration seems to be studied in order to produce an impression upon that vague entitythe average reader; and what was at first the impulse of the eager student of human nature, seeking an outlet for emotion in delicacy and subtlety of expression, became a literary trick and an imposing pedantry. It was only the strength of her intellectual power that preserved her genius from being even more depressed by an acquired and unnatural habit.