So admirers of her novels have always felt that they were in touch with its author — with her wisdom and her solace. Philip Davis, a notable scholar of Victorian literature, feels so, too.
Thus his peculiar title. They were the means by which Eliot invited the reader to share her life and what it had taught her.
Davis seizes on her experiences of suffering, delight or disillusion in passages of passionately appreciative close reading that are the meat of his book. As well as tackling all her novels in turn, he brilliantly analyses some of her early letters, which are as subtle and psychologically astute as her fiction. She took material from her life and from the memories of those she knew.
George Eliot's Intellectual Life
The prototypes of leading characters in her earliest fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life , were real people from the Nuneaton area of the West Midlands. Yet any reader expecting a conventional biographical narrative will be disappointed.
There are threads of intellectual biography, detailing her engagement with the religious scepticism of first Feuerbach, and then Spinoza, or with the nascent sociology of Auguste Comte. Her novels were created not just to display her knowledge of human nature, but also to test and stretch the sympathies of her readers. It is clear that, for her friends, the power of the fiction was due to a special facility in their author, shown as much in her dealings with people as her writing of novels.
The male pronoun is appropriate, as her irregular domestic affairs restricted the company to men of liberal principles.
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Her capacity for sympathy was that of her novels. Davis cites more than once the extraordinary moment in Book Three of Middlemarch when the narrator suddenly shifts her sympathy from Dorothea to Casaubon, the desiccated, self-regarding old scholar whom she has foolishly married.
Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? This turn involves the author drawing on her own observation of marital misunderstanding and her own experience of the vanities of scholarship. Casaubon is supposed to have been modelled on the Oxford academic Mark Pattison, who wrote a learned study of the Renaissance scholar Isaac Casaubon and married a woman 27 years younger than him.
She especially drew on her life for the characters we find hardest to admire. You know quite well that Adam was mistaken about her. Instead of asking how her writing might be illuminated by understanding her life, Davis interrogates the fiction, which is central throughout this densely written and original study, and asks what we can learn from her writing about how she saw the world and what she thought.
People who knew her dwelt on the arresting beauty of her eyes and her voice. The former, painted at different times of her life, appear on the cover, reminding us of the capacity for judgement and selection that shaped her work, exemplified in her famous use of the omniscient narrator. The great strength of this book is his practice of close reading.
Until you see this microscopic consideration of a text done well, you do not realise how small a part slow, reflective, thoughtful close reading plays in contemporary criticism, or how difficult it is to do. Davis is the slow and careful reader George Eliot desired.
Review of George Eliot's Intellectual Life by Avrom Fleishman · George Eliot Review Online
The results are a revelation. Each version of this relationship is closely examined in terms of the shifting movements of loyalty, love, betrayal and condemnation within it and also its connection to the others. This book is filled with echoes. Davis is well aware of the dissenting voices that can justly be raised against Eliot. His strategy is to marshal the objections raised by her contemporaries, in particular R H Hutton and the belligerent Nietzsche.
Hutton, editor of The Spectator , was an important contemporary reader, and she took his criticisms seriously.
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Eliot believed that we can find meaning in our sorrows and in human goodness. Yet oppression, pain and grief very rarely improve the moral character of the one who suffers. Did her fictions offer the fraudulent consolation to her readers that she denied herself? Eliot never ceased to doubt the value of her writing and the permanence of her legacy. Women writers and readers, then and now, have a good deal to gain and lose by championing the life and work of Eliot. The fact that Eliot herself eloped with the married G H Lewes but insisted on calling herself Mrs Lewes irritated the enemies of Victorian hypocrisy and compromise.