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George Eliot. (1819–1880). The Mill on the Floss.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

III Criticisms and Interpretations

III. By Henry James

SHE accepted the great obligations which to her mind belonged to a person who had the ear of the public, and her whole effort thenceforth was highly to respond to them—to respond to them by teaching, by vivid moral illustration, and even by direct exhortation. It is striking that from the first her conception of the novelist’s task is never in the least as the game of art. The most interesting passage in Mr. Cross’s volume is, to my sense, a simple sentence in a short entry in her journal in the year 1859, just after she had finished the first volume of “The Mill on the Floss” (the original title of which, by the way, had been “Sister Maggie”): “We have just finished reading aloud Père Goriot, a hateful book.” That Balzac’s masterpiece should have elicited from her only this remark, at a time, too, when her mind might have been opened to it by her own activity of composition, is significant of so many things that the few words are, in the whole Life, those I should have been most sorry to lose. Of course they are not all George Eliot would have had to say about Balzac, if some other occasion than a simple jotting in a diary had presented itself. Still, what even a jotting may not have said after a first perusal of “Le Père Goriot” is eloquent; it illuminates the author’s general attitude with regard to the novel, which, for her, was not primarily a picture of life, capable of deriving a high value from its form, but a moralized fable, the last word of a philosophy endeavoring to teach by example.

This is a very noble and defensible view, and one must speak respectfully of any theory of work which would produce such fruit as “Romola” and “Middlemarch.” But it testifies to that side of George Eliot’s nature which was weakest—the absence of free æsthetic life (I venture this remark in the face of a passage quoted from one of her letters in Mr. Cross’s third volume); it gives the hand, as it were, to several other instances that may be found in the same pages. “My function is that of the æsthetic, not the doctrinal teacher; the rousing of the nobler emotions, which make mankind desire the social right, not the prescribing of special measures, concerning which the artistic mind, however strongly moved by social sympathy, is often not the best judge.” That is the passage referred to in my parenthetic allusion, and it is a good general description of the manner in which George Eliot may be said to have acted on her generation; but the “artistic mind,” the possession of which it implies, existed in her with limitations remarkable in a writer whose imagination was so rich. We feel in her, always, that she proceeds from the abstract to the concrete; that her figures and situations are evolved, as the phrase is, from her moral consciousness, and are only indirectly the products of observations. They are deeply studied and elaborately justified, but they are not seen in the irresponsible plastic way. The world was, first and foremost, for George Eliot, the moral, the intellectual world; the personal spectacle came after; and lovingly, humanly, as she regarded it, we constantly feel that she cares for the things she finds in it only so far as they are types. The philosophic door is always open, on her stage, and we are aware that the somewhat cooling draught of ethical purpose draws across it. This constitutes half the beauty of her work; the constant reference to ideas may be an excellent source of one kind of reality—for, after all, the secret of seeing a thing well is not necessarily that you see nothing else. Her preoccupation with the universe helped to make her characters strike you as also belonging to it; it raised the roof, widened the area, of her æsthetic structure. Nothing is finer, in her genius, than the combination of her love of general truth and love of the special case; without this, indeed, we should not have heard of her as a novelist, for the passion of the special case is surely the basis of the story-teller’s art. All the same, that little sign of all that Balzac failed to suggest to her showed at what perils the special case got itself considered.—From “George Eliot’s Life,” in the “Atlantic Monthly” (May, 1885).