The War of the Worlds
David Stuart Davies looks at H.G. Wells popular and influential Victorian Sci-Fi novel. ...
You wait for ages for a feature about George Eliot, and then a glut of them comes along – contemporary artist Gillian Wearing’s television essay, Everything is Connected; Radio 4 programmes at 9-45 am all this week, led by Eliot expert Kathryn Hughes, looking at five of her novels, and through them at the woman herself; and an adaptation of Middlemarch starting on Radio 4 this Saturday, November 23rd. There have also been numerous articles in the print media and online, including a reprint in the current Times Literary Supplement of Virginia Woolf’s centenary assessment of Eliot in 1919. [Links for all of these at the end of this blog]. The bicentenary of George Eliot/Marian Evans’ birth, which we celebrate today, has suddenly brought wide cultural notice across a range of media to a novelist who must be counted one of the greatest of the European tradition. I say European rather than English or British, because her novels are in a continuum with the great nineteenth-century realist works of Balzac, Hugo and Zola; and as I write this, I think too of Dostoievsky and Tolstoy. All of these novelists were grappling with understanding and representing the human condition in a social and historical context. Evans can be rightly placed in this company. And it is a company and culture with which she was well acquainted, being extraordinarily widely read in a number of languages. Just as one example, while her father was dying she tried to distract herself by translating Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologica-Philosophicus. It was apparently ‘such a rest to her mind’.
of the joys of Gillian Wearing’s film was the burst of colour and imagery she
used to express the release of Evans’ trip to Europe immediately after her
father’s death. Five days after his funeral in early June, 1849, she travelled
in the company of the free-thinking Brays, a husband and wife who seem to have
had the knack of being, both each and together, great friends to her. Initially
she was exhausted and still distressed from the long period of caring for her
father whilst also being in religious disagreement with him. But when her
friends were due to return to England, she stayed on alone in Geneva for the whole
winter. She spent her 30th birthday there; she was taking stock.
eight-month period alone in Geneva – at a time, remember, when the unrests of
1848 must still have been resonant – makes me think of Elizabeth Barrett,
escaping to Italy in 1846, newly married to Robert Browning, and then espousing
passionately the cause of Italian unification and independence. It also calls to
mind Charlotte Brontë’s time in Brussels (1842-3), reflected and refracted so
brilliantly and painfully in Villette. Evans was later to transmute such a
period of foreign reflection to Dorothea Brooke’s wedding journey to Rome with
Casaubon in Middlemarch (1871-72).
And here we have the nub of Evans’ writerly power. If her European trip had
freed her mentally from the ties to her late father and his religion that were
already loosed, she reverses this with Dorothea, making her trip to Rome (along
with the start of her marriage) a closing-in and a disillusionment rather than
the imagined fulfilment. The promise held by Rome makes Dorothea’s
disappointment all the more sharp:
Since they had
been in Rome, with all the depths of her emotion roused to tumultuous activity,
and with life made a new problem by new elements, she had been becoming more
and more aware, with a certain terror, that her mind was continually sliding
into inward fits of anger and repulsion, or else into forlorn weariness.
is an inevitable weakness in Evans’ treatment of these early weeks of marriage,
hinted at in that ‘repulsion’. As a woman, Evans flouted social convention, sharing
her life intellectually, emotionally and sexually with a married man. But as a
writer, she wasn’t able to break the conventions of the nineteenth-century
novel by investigating the sexual disappointments of Dorothea (or indeed the
sexual demands on the older Casaubon – ‘he had not found marriage a rapturous
state’). Dorothea’s desires are scarcely formed before they are disappointed,
and she is in no state of self-knowledge to be able to distinguish them from
her emotional disappointments. But in the novel’s terms, the two must be
conflated, just as Casaubon’s intellectual barrenness is left to stand also for
his sexual atrophy. Later writers, such as Thomas Hardy, would be able to explore
so, Evans allows us to understand Casaubon too, and she uses the same rather
terrifying noun ‘terror’ for his state of mind. If our sympathy is with the
youthful Dorothea, we feel too for him, to whom their distancing is ‘a new
pain, never having been on a wedding journey before, or found himself in that
close union which was more of a subjection than he had been able to imagine’.
There is a superb turn around a third of the way through Middlemarch; Chapter 26 opens ‘One morning some weeks after her
arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea?’ Here Evans turns her
gaze fully on Casaubon. This is distinctive of her as a writer. The brilliance
of Middlemarch lies in its breadth
and diversity, its quiet corners and contemplations, its deferments and
uncertainties. There are no absolute heroes or heroines, and if certain
characters seem to be offered up as that, we are quickly disabused. All have
feet of clay.
are more clay-bound than others, and here I think Evans shows her greatest
quality as a novelist. Those who are not of the best – Fred Vincy, Casaubon
himself, Rosamond Vincy, even the dreadful Bulstrode – are all shown at some
point in a good light. No-one is entirely condemned in the light of this
novelist’s all-seeing eye. As a younger reader, I thought Evans was very hard
on Rosamond; she seemed to have created her deliberately as (knowingly) pretty
and charming, but also thus meretricious. There seemed some animus here.
Consider the following (which echoes ironically the earlier passages of
marriage between Dorothea and Casaubon). Rosamond has written secretly to her
husband Lydgate’s uncle to ask for financial help, and his angry reply is the
first Lydgate knows of her request. Lydgate turns his own anger on his wife:
It is a terrible
moment in young lives when the closeness of love’s bond has turned to this
power of galling. In spite of Rosamond’s self-control a tear fell silently and
rolled over her lips. She still said nothing; but under that quietude was
hidden an intense effect: she was in such entire disgust with her husband that
she wished she had never seen him. … In fact there was but one person in
Rosamund’s world whom she did not regard as blameworthy, and that was the
graceful creature with blond plaits and with little hands crossed before her, who
had never expressed herself unbecomingly, and had always acted for the best –
the best naturally being what she best liked. (Chapter 65)
Yet this is also a version of ‘but why always Dorothea?’ Why always Lydgate?
Why are those with good intentions the ones we should understand? Furthermore,
Lydgate is the very one who has been captivated by that ‘graceful creature’
with her ‘blond plaits’ and her ‘little hands’. Rosamond has been infantilised
before she ever gets to Lydgate; but he furthers the process. As I re-read
these passages I see a greater sympathy with Rosamond, if only in their wide
human understanding. What is so impressive about this passage is that it
refuses the expected: Rosamond’s tear is not one of remorse but of disgust.
the importance of this broad, non-judgemental, human sympathy is given
expression through Dorothea’s own thought processes. She has gone to see
Rosamond, intending to offer help with the difficulties of her marriage; she
finds Rosamond and Will Ladislaw apparently in intimate discourse. Lurking
below all this is her own desire for Will. But after a long night of distress
and struggle, she replays the encounter: ‘Was she alone in that scene? Was it
her event only? She forced herself to think of it as bound up with another
woman’s life.’ (Chapter 80) Dorothea reflects on her own part in that moment,
the way she has equated the ills of Rosamond’s and Lydgate’s marriage with her
own, the way she has ‘been representing to herself the trials of Lydgate’s lot’.
And ‘all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power … She
said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful,
instead of driving her back from effort.’ Dorothea is left thinking ‘“how
should I act now, this very day, if I could clutch my own pain, and compel it
question underlies all of George Eliot/Marian Evans’ novels, but in an infinitely
subtle and complex way. Here it is asked directly only by a fictional
character, one of many in Evans’ fictional world. Gillian Wearing’s documentary
got to the heart of these works by putting at its forefront the panoply of
ordinary people living or working in the places George Eliot/Marian Evans
inhabited. They voiced her extraordinary words, and implicitly asked themselves
the same question. After Dorothea’s long
night of the soul (still in Chapter 80), she comes to herself, but also to the
She opened her
curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields
beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle
on his back and a woman carrying a baby; in the field she could see figures
moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the
pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings
of men to labour and endurance. She was
a part of that involuntary, palpitating life.
And, as errant human beings, and as readers of these magnificent novels – so are we.
Image: Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Laurence, around 1860, when Eliot would have been 40.
my previous blog on The Mill on the Floss,
March 22 2019, for a discussion of Eliot’s/Evans’ name.
Wearing’s Everything is Connected
first showed on BBC Four as part of the Arena series. It is available on
iplayer for the next 21 days.
Eliot: A Life in Five Characters’, presented by Kathryn Hughes on BBC Radio 4
this week, is available at www.bbc.co.uk.
Middlemarch starts this Saturday, November 23rd on BBC Radio 4 at 14.45.
Hughes’ ‘What George Eliot’s “provincial” novels can teach a divided Britain’,
first published November 16, can be found online, www.theguardian.com
Virginia Woolf’s ‘Pride and Paragon’, November 20, 1919, reflecting on Eliot’s life and work, is reprinted in the TLS, November 15, 2019, and can also be found in a collection of Woolf’s pieces for the TLS across 30 years, Genius and Ink, published by TLS Books, out this week.