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George Eliot's portrayal of rustic character

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This thesis, having been approved by the
special F a c u lty Committee, is accepted by
the Committee on Graduate Study o f the
University o f W yom ing,
in p a rtia l fu lfillm e n t o f the requirements
.
fo r the degree o f
Chairman o f the Commiltee on Graduate Study.
Secretary.
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Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
GEORGE ELIOT’S PORTRAYAL OF
RUSTIC
CHARACTER
by
Raymond Joseph Simonitsch
Thesis submitted to the Department of
English and the Committee on Graduate Study
at the University of Wyoming, in partial
fulfillment of the requirements for the de­
gree of Master of Arts
Laramie, Wyoming
1940
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U M I N um ber: E P 2 4 7 1 7
IN F O R M A T IO N T O U S E R S
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter
Page
Introduction............................
I. Descriptions, Details, Backgrounds
ii
. . . .
1
II. Eliot’s Matronly Characters.
6
III. Eliot’s Young Women Characters..............
IV. Eliot’s Young Men Characters
...............
V. Eliot’s Middle-Aged Men Characters
VI. Summary
18
. . . .
30
40
.
46
Bibliography ......................................
no
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56
INTRODUCTION
It would seem fortunate that George Eliot did not start to write
her novels earlier than she did.
By the time she began her first
novel, she was about thirty-seven years old.
tensively.
She had traveled ex­
She had read an extraordinary amount which ranged through
scientific subjects, philosophy, history, poetry and contemporary
novels.
She had written a considerable amount.
She had associated
with many classes of people, both English and Continental.
She had
suffered religious doubt and had finally summoned up sufficient courage
openly to declare herself an agnostic.
She had disregarded opinion by
openly living with a married man who was unable to divorce his wife,
in a day when divorce and re-marriage were far from common.
Very valuable were her early writing experiences.
Although I can­
not understand or share the enthusiasm of Mr. Blackwood for her first
prose tales, of which he was the publisher, I can see that they, to­
gether with her critical works, gave her a good schooling in the drudg­
ery of the mechanical side of writing.
At the same time, these tales,
with her own reviews on the novels of other writers, helped her to form
her concept of what a novel should be.
But even more important than her
mechanical training which made her habitually weigh her words, was the
fact that she was busy with congenial things until she had arrived at
an age where her judgment, her understanding of human beings and her
sympathies had matured, mellowed and clarified themselves.
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lii
When she finally began her actual work in novels, she had pretty
firmly in mind several principles which were to guide her writing.
It is for this rare, precious quality of truthful­
ness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which loftyminded people despise, I find a source of delicious sym­
pathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely
existence, which has been the fate of so many more among
my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute in­
digence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions.
I turn, without shrinking, from cloud-borne angels, from
prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending
over her flower-pot, or eating her solitary dinner, while
the noonday light, softened perhaps by a screen of leaves,
falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spin­
ning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap common
things which are the precious necessaries of life to her; —
or I turn to that village wedding, kept between four brown
walls, where an awkward bridegroom opens the dance with a
high-shouldered, broad-faced bride, while elderly and
middle-aged friends look on, with very irregular noses and
lips, and probably with quart-pots in their hands, but with
an expression of unmistakeable contentment and good-will.
Earlier, she had also voiced sympathy for the lowlier level of
life in one of her prose tales:
"I have all my life had a sympathy
for the mongrel ungainly dogs, who are nobody’s pets; and I would
rather surprise one of them by a pat and a pleasant morsel, than meet
the condescending advances of the loveliest Sky-terrier who has his
cushion by my lady’s chair.”2
Again, in the period of book-reviewing, she had written two
articles, "Lady Novelists" and "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" in
which "the chief rule for novel-writing laid down by George Eliot . . .
1.
George Eliot, Adam Bede, William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and
London, p. 153.
2.
George Eliot, The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, Harper,
18— .
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iv
is that the novel shall be the result of experience and true to
nature.”®
Her main purposes, then, were to portray actual experience ac­
curately and to make her characters convincingly life-like.
This in­
tention coincided with her conception of truthfulness as inspired by
the Dutch paintings, in opposition to the "Silly Novels” which she
had condemned in her book-reviews.
It was natural that she was interested chiefly in country and
small-town folk.
Until she was twenty-one, she had lived among such
people in a setting of tranquil, rural England, so that when she came
to the writing of novels, she was drawn irresistibly to people and
scenes which had early become part of her very self.
With such material
available, combined with so worthy a purpose, it was inevitable that
a faithful presentation of life should result.
Supplemented by Eliot's
inherent sympathy and more than ordinary intelligence, her hope to
show the ordinary life of obscure people was realized.
Let it be understood clearly that her characters were never mere
"types."
In the long list of her rustic characters, which constitute
the majority of her people, "no character is a failure," as Miss
Elizabeth Haldane says.4
In other words, each of her many rural char­
acters is a well-conceived and splendidly-portrayed individual, unmis­
takably a country person in viewpoint, manner, actions and appearance.
3.
George Willis Cooke, George Eliot, A Critical Study of Her Life,
Writings and Philosophy, Houghton Mifflin and Company,
1899, p. 139.
4.
Elizabeth S. Haldane, George Eliot and Her Times. D. Appleton and
Company, 1927, p. 150.
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V
Even the mental processes are worked out in detail and never do they
suggest anything but the laborious thinking of the peasant.
One method of Eliot in depicting the true rustic is the emphasis
upon conscience.
The character himself does not usually refer to this
force which motivates or controls his single acts or his general life.
Only a few characters, such as Mrs. Winthrop and Adam Bede, attempt
to analyze their feelings.
Mrs. Winthrop admonishes Silas Marner,
"to do the right thing as we know, and to trusten."
5
Mr. Albert E.
Hancock, editor of one edition of Silas Marner, says in a footnote,
regarding Mrs. Winthrop’s remark just quoted,
A curiously tender and sympathetic tribute to the
value of simple faith to come from one who could not
follow the advice. One of the chief sources of George
Eliot’s greatness was her ability to appreciate at
their real worth things which were alien to her tem­
perament. She was not a woman of religious belief, yet
she saw the full beauty and power and glory of it.®
Eliot’s own struggle with religious belief undoubtedly introduced
her to that thing, Conscience, so potent with well-meaning, ignorant
folk, which is almost as tangible with many of them as a hand or a
nose.
A contemporary reviewer stated well one difficulty in commenting
upon Eliot’s novels:
The temptation in a notice of such a book is to
transfer half of it in the shape of extract into one’s
own pages. To discuss its merits is like expatiating
5.
George Eliot, Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe. Scott, Foresman
and Company, Chicago, 1905, p. 236.
6.
Albert 1. Hancock, Ed., Ibid., Footnote, p. 236.
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vi
to a friend upon the curious flavor of a particular
vintage of which you are fortunate to possess a dozen
or two. You may have the consummate judgment of a con­
noisseur, and powers of description that might make
your fortune as a novelist; but you will give your
listener a much clearer notion of what the wine is like
by setting a bottle before him.7
And I, too, feel the same temptatitan to quote liberally —
haps too liberally —
to prove or illustrate points.
per­
Eliot’s two
greatest qualities were sympathy and truthfulness or accuracy.
How
well she concretely demonstrated these traits could best be proved by
simply saying to anyone iriio needed convincing, "Read her books."
The purpose of this thesis is to show that Eliot created many
true English rustic characters, not types, but individuals, and placed
them in a setting and in a social environment that was the essence of
English rural life.
Always, when writing, she kept in mind her beloved
Dutch paintings of plain, commonplace people before a full, almost
crowded background.
The characters considered as rustics are all those who lacked the
urban outlook on life and whose experiences precluded an understanding
of any level of society that was very far removed from their own.
7.
Anonymous review of Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot, in
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Vol. C, July 1866, p. 109.
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CHAPTER I
DESCRIPTIONS, DETAILS, BACKGROUNDS
That Eliot imitated the Dutch paintings of which she was so fond
and that she used the same technique as that of the Dutch masters is
plain when we read her descriptions of the dairy, the kitchen, the
mill and the fields; when we remember how definitely she shows even
the people in a crowd as individuals.
It must have taken as much time
and paint to achieve the backgrounds in the Dutch pictures as it took
for the main parts of the foreground.
Thus it is with Eliot’s back­
grounds and her minor characters.
What she admired in the pictures was a blending, rather than
sharp contrast, for she herself said in regard to Mrs. Gaskell’s novels:
"Mrs. Gaskell seems to me to be constantly misled by a love of sharp
contrasts, —
of ’dramatic* effects.
She is not contented with the
Q
subdued coloring, the half tints of real life."
In these Dutch
pictures we see that the backgrounds are not merely dark, shadowy patches
of color hastily filled in by the painter, but that they are remoter
parts of a room furnished with commonplace objects appropriate to the
person and room depicted.
attracted Eliot:
8.
Both content and technique of the pictures
simple, commonplace settings for simple, commonplace
George Eliot, criticism of Ruth by Mrs. Gaskell. Quoted by Wilbur
L. Cross, in The Development of the English Novel, The Mac­
millan Company, 1904, p. 238,
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2
people employed at every-day tasks.
What is more, Eliot realized that
humble people lead busier lives, more crowded with details of existence
and with implements of daily occupations.
this sort of living from childhood.
She had been familiar with
Therefore, in her novels, the
characters did not loom up against a barren, sparsely-filled background,
but blended with a full, variegated setting such as she knew to be
correct.
Her descriptions of interiors and of the out-doors are noteworthy.
They are written in great detail, as has been said, but in so natural
a manner that they never become tiresome even upon repeated readings.
They were obviously written by a person who was thoroughly familiar
with such scenes and who ever retains a clear, unclouded picture of
them in her mind.
There is never the slightest hint that the descrip­
tions could have been produced by some observant person who had visited
these places for the purpose of acquiring "atmosphere.”
The actions of characters in their customary tasks are given in
such a natural way that they seem like a necessary accompaniment to
a song rather than an interruption to the action of the story.
Some­
how, as we read the long, full account of a house, a person, a field
or an event, we almost see the author seated in a comfortable chair,
writing in leisurely fashion.
her narration.
There is little suggestion of labor in
It is with something of a shock that we learn that
Eliot herself said her books "ploughed into her."
One reviewer, in discussing Eliot’s description of the dairy in
Adam Bede, apparently even noted " . . .
a concentrated cool smell of
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3
all that is nourishing and sweet.
Eliot managed to convey to readers
not only the appearance of places and objects, but even the sound, smell
and texture thereof.
No writer could more effectively reproduce a
calm, cool evening in the English countryside than Eliot did for the
setting when Dinah Morris preaches on the village green.
In the riot described in Felix Holt, she vitalized members of the
mob briefly in a word of description or of conversation, but so effect­
ively that they became individuals.
A contemporary writer summed up
Eliot’s ability concisely and accurately:
Experience has been much to her: her men are men,
her women women, and long did English readers rack
their brains to discover the sex of George Eliot, We
do not aver that Mrs. Lewes has actually encountered
the characters so vividly portrayed by her. Genius looks
upon Nature and then creates. The scene in the pot-house
in "Silas Marner" is as perfect as a Dutch painting, yet
the author never entered a pot-house. Her strong physique
has enabled her to brush against the world, and in thus
brushing she has gathered up the dust, fine and coarse, out
of which human beings great and small are made.10
The doubt concerning Eliot’s sex, before her identity became
known, is something which I cannot understand.
Charles Dickens was
not entirely sure that George Eliot was a woman, although he had a
strong suspicion that she was, a suspicion which he indicated in a
letter to Eliot.H
9.
Dickens and Miss Field were not the only people of
Anonymous review of Adam Bede. Atlantic Monthly. Vol* IY, October
1859, p. 522.
10.
Kate Field, "English Authors in Florence," Atlantic Monthly. Vol.
XIV, December 1864, p. 666.
11.
Letter to George Eliot from Charles Dickens, January 18, 1858.
Quoted in George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and
Journals, arranged and edited by her husband, J« W. Cross,
Vol. II, Harper and Brothers, 1885, p. 3.
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4
the day who interested themselves in the question.
Someone went so
far as to have a cabinetmaker read the description of Adam Bede’s
carpenter shop in order to get the cabinetmaker's opinion, which was
that the carpenter shop had been described either by a man, or by a
woman who had been familiar with such shops all her life.
Personally,
I believe that such uncertainty regarding the sex of the author would
never have entered my mind no matter whether the book had appeared
anonymously or under an even more masculine-sounding name than "George
Eliot."
The description of the carpenter shop is a fine example of Eliot's
thoroughness in marking detail and of her ability to create vivid ef­
fects.
The reader almost hears the squeaking swish of the planes as
they travel over the boards.
So thoroughly was Eliot of the country, that her distrust of the
new railway betrayed itself in a letter to a friend as to the means
of returning a borrowed book.
Eliot wrote to the friend, Miss Lewis,
"Do you think a package would reach you by railway?"
For the person
who would ask such a question even in the early days of the new rail­
way, it was almost second nature to use the everyday little oddments of
country life and people when she was writing her stories:
"It was then
past nine by the clock, which was always in advance of the day."12
. . . she spread the clean cloth, and set on it the
potato pie, warmed up slowly in a safe Sunday fashion, by
being put into a dry pot over a slowly-dying fire, as the
best substitute for an oven. For Silas would not consent
12.
Eliot, Adam Bede, p. 35.
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5
to have a grate and oven added to his conveniences: he
loved the old brick hearth, • . . was it not there
where he had found Eppie?^-®
The reason that the author’s first novels, Adam Bede, The Mill
on the Floss and Silas Marner. will always be more popular with
readers is that she was attempting only to tell a tale; a tale natural,
homely and possible of occurrence.
When she became more interested
in solving "problems" of various kinds, there was less rapport between
the writer and her characters —
Dutch paintings.
a getting away from the themes of the
Her later stories are excellent and contain fine
examples of her powers of characterization, but the reader who had
first read her earlier novels would miss the lovable people and the
almost hypnotic charm therein.
If George Eliot loved faithful presentation of "homely" scenes,
she was eminently successful in at least the first three complete
novels in doing what the Dutch artists had done.
She could not fail
to know that the labor which "ploughed into her" resulted in books
worthy of her singularly high aspirations.
13.
George Eliot, Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe, Houghton Miff­
lin and Company, p. 231.
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CHAPTER
II
ELIOT’S MATRONLY CHARACTERS
We are told that Dickens’ original intention and expectation
were to make Sairey Gamp14 a minor character, a necessary part of the
background who was not to be especially prominent.
Apparently Mrs*
Gamp got out of hand, grew by what she fed on, and proceeded to usurp
the main interest in the book, for she is vividly remembered by read­
ers who have forgotten in which of Dickens’ books she appeared.
Like
circumstances attended the development of the character of George
Eliot's Mrs. Poyser, for Eliot wrote in her journal under date of
November 16th, 1858:
When I began to write it (Adam Bede), the only ele­
ments I had determined on, besides the character of Dinah,
were the character of Adam, his relation to Arthur Donnithorne, and their mutual relations to Hetty — i.e., to
the girl who commits child-murder — the scene in the prison
being, of course, the climax towards which I worked. Every­
thing else grew out of the characters and their mutual re­
lations.1^
Mrs. Poyser*s entrance into the gallery of literary personages
was almost as explosive as her weight in gunpowder might have been.
Reviewers of Adam Bede forgot to say whether the story itself was in­
teresting, tedious or simply mediocre.
They forgot to mention Dinah
14.
Sairey Gamp, a character in Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens.
15.
George Eliot’s Journal, November 16th, 1858, in George Eliot’s
Life, edited by J. W. Cross, op. cit., p. 49.
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7
Morris, Hetty Sorrel, Mrs. Bede, Mr. Poyser, Seth Bede.
the title-role character, Adam Bede.
One reviewer predicted " . . .
They forgot
They even forgot Bartle Massey.
this Mrs. Poyser .
.
. will
probably be the most popular individual in the book with the general
reader who takes it up chiefly in search of entertainment,"^6
He
gives particular reasons why the character runs small danger of be­
coming stale and monotonous:
A most delightful character is Mrs. Poyser; quite a
character, but with a merit for which the comic characters
of fiction are in general by no means remarkable, — that
she never conveys to the reader the least notion of ex­
aggeration, or wearies him by the perpetual recurrence of the
one note of facetiousness which is supposed to be character­
istic, and at which he is expected to laugh long after the
joke has become a melancholy nuisance. Not so Mrs. Poyser;
she comes out with a fund of droll remarks in the most un­
expected places, and possesses a vein of grotesque poetry,
which embraces all objects from the highest to the most
familiar. Yet she is natural as a photograph.^
This eschewing the repetition of a single phrase or expression
is indeed a new note in the characterization of a comedy character,
and one which Eliot herself did not always follow.
She gave Bartle
Massey, in the same novel, the habit of repeating the last few words
of a sentence, a trait which is natural enough and which is as ex­
asperating in real life as it is in a character in fiction.
So greatly did Mrs. Poyser impress contemporary critics that
eight years after her appearance someone reviewing the author’s newest
novel, Felix Holt, harked back to her with the words,
"By far the best
16.
Anonymous review of Adam Bede. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine,
Vol. LXXXV, April 1859, p. 490.
17.
Ibid.. p. 490.
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8
part of Adam Bede consists in the proverb-like sayings of Mrs. Poyser,
who has little or nothing to do with the plot,"18
It was perhaps this same reviewer who said in regard to The Mill
on the Floss:
" . . .
still unmatched —
One jewel alone Adam Bede contains which is
there is no character in this new work which even
aspires to a rivalry with Mrs. Poyser.”19
Eliot herself wrote to her publisher:
like my Mrs. Poyser.
”1 am delighted that you
I’m very sorry to part with her and some of my
other characters.”^8
That, however, does not mean that Eliot intended or considered
her to be a particularly pleasant or likable person.
In the novel
Mrs. Poyser is ushered into the story with the words:
No scene could have been more peaceful, if Mrs. Poyser,
who was ironing a few things that still remained from the
Monday’s wash, had not been making a frequent clinking
with her iron, and moving to and fro whenever she wanted
it to cool; carrying the keen glance of her blue-grey eye
from the kitchen to the dairy, where Hetty was making up
the butter, and from the dairy to the back-kitchen, where
Nancy was taking the pies out of the oven. Do not suppose,
however, that Mrs. Poyser was elderly or shrewish in her
appearance; she was a good-looking woman, not more than
eight and thirty, of fair complexion and sandy hair, wellshapen, light-footed.^1
Personally, I am quite willing to join the general opinion that
18.
Anonymous review of Felix Holt, the Radical, loc. cit.. p. 94.
19.
Anonymous review of The Mill on the Floss, Blackwood’s Edinburgh
Magazine, Vol. L X X m i , May 1860, p. 611.
20.
Letter to Mr. John Blackwood, December 28th, 1858, in Cross,
op. cit, p. 54.
21.
Eliot, Adam Bede, pp. 61-62.
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9
Mrs. Poyser is the best-rounded and most vivid character the writer
produced; definitely her best.
But by the longest stretch of imagina­
tion I could never bring myself to say she was "delightful,” Regard­
less, however, of what kind of disposition Eliot wished to endow Mrs.
Poyser with, she did succeed in developing a typical country woman.
Mrs, Poyser was one of those old-fashioned country housewives who con­
sider it the duty of a farm-wife to perform any task that can reason­
ably be included in the sphere of house-management and perform it per­
fectly.
Or, if need be, to see that servant-girls perform it perfectly.
Mrs. Poyser felt her duties a weighty responsibility, but responsibil­
ity in which she took boundless pleasure.
Doubtless she took more,
or at least as much, pleasure in Squire Donnithorne’s remarks about
her immaculate kitchen and her dairy-products,
Op
although these were
actually made by Hetty, than she took in Arthur’s pretended interest
in her adored Totty.23
Her view of everything that came to her notice was that of a
farm-wife.
Hetty’s desire to become a lady’s-maid was entirely in­
comprehensible to her.
Such creatures there must be, of course, since
the gentry were part of Mrs. Poyser’s articles of faith and naturally
must have ladies’-maids.
But that a young girl would prefer the life
of a lady’s-maid to that of a dairy-maid, —
by Mrs. Poyser, herself, —
22.
Ibid.. p. 298.
25.
Ibid., p. 72.
impossible!
and a dairy-maid trained
No, it was not to be thought
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10
of seriously,
Mrs, Poyser*s opinion of men was anything but a flattering one,
if she meant what she said to Bartle Massey.
But to do the woman
justice, she was completely respectful to her aged father-in-law, in
fact, almost tenderly solicitous, her softness of manner coming as a
great surprise to the reader.
But it is Mrs. Poyser*s conversation whereby we see that the
author succeeded in creating a genuine rural character, and this was
responsible for the keenest bit of criticism of any that was written
about George Eliot's novels:
"Her epigrams are aromatic, and she is
strong in simile, but never ventures beyond her own depth into that
of her author."^
Of the many eulogies laid at the feet of the garrulous MTs.
Poyser, I think this statement is most indicative of the appreciation
of Eliot’s masterly handling of character.
Nowhere can we find that
Mrs. Poyser*s words are anything but those of a country woman.
Not
only the actual wording of her remarks, but also the thought expressed,
is of the very essence of the rustic character who voices them.
Not
once are the cosmopolitan, brilliant mind and vast learning of the
author even hinted at in the words or in the thought-processes of her
most perfectly conceived character.
Many reviews of Eliot’s novels neglected to mention more than
two or three of the characters and almost no reference was made to
24.
Anonymous review of Adam Bede, loc. cit., p. 522.
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11
Mrs* Bede.
I think that Mrs. Bede, and also Mrs. Tulliver, Mrs. Win­
throp, Mrs. Vincy and Mrs. Holt, suffer, in the eyes of the general
reader, in comparison with Mrs. Poyser.
oped or less plausible.
They are not less well devel­
But, perhaps, in the case of Mrs. Bede, it
would have been pointless to try to make her, in the same book with
Mrs. Poyser, equally prominent.
Nevertheless, analyzing the two characters, I would say that Mrs.
Bede had as many points in her favor, as a literary characterization,
as Mrs. Poyser.
In fact, though she was allotted less space, we
have as definite an impression of her as of Mrs. Poyser, and I would
say a more pleasant one.
She was, it is true, a lachrymose replica,
almost a twin sister, of Dickens’ morose and depressed Mrs. Gummidge.^®
She had, however, a bit more spirit than Mrs. Gummidge, though it was
at times no more than a persistent, tearful nagging.
But it seemed to me that Mrs. Bede had more kindliness than Mrs.
Poyser.
For instance, she still bore tender memories of her husband
as a fine and good young man before he became addicted to drink.
She
reminded Adam of all his father had taught him of his trade and tried
to soften Adam’s anger toward his f a t h e r . S h e was timid and rather
stupid; her outlook narrow and likely to be focussed on trivial things
of the moment.
She bragged that her husband was able as a young man
to walk sixty miles one day and walk the return trip the next day.
A
25.
Mrs. Gummidge, a character in David Oopperfield by Charles Dickens.
26.
Eliot, Adam Bede, p. 33.
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12
little later, when she had grown accustomed to Dinah and somewhat fond
of her, she was desolated when Dinah said she was going to her home at
Snowfield, twenty miles away.
So much a farm-woman did Mrs. Bede seem to me that I am never
reconciled to the fact that she didn’t keep a flock of chickens or
perhaps a cow to which she could tell her woes when Seth was "chapellin’"
or Adam was visiting Hetty Sorrel at Hall Farm.
One certainly ex­
pected to hear her lament because the butter had failed to churn well,
but, though so surely a country woman, she kept no farm animals.
It
is amusing to try to think what her personality would have been like
if she had employed herself with dairy-work, the very atmosphere of
which seemed to envelop her.
She was quite as good a housekeeper as Mrs. Poyser and, with the
foresight of a country woman, suspected that Adam’s marriage to Hetty
would result in extravagant and slovenly housekeeping; in too many
comforts being introduced into the house and the best dishes being
used daily instead of almost never.
It is true that she had not as
much to keep her busy as had Mrs. Poyser, but we feel that, if anything,
she regretted that there was not more for her to do which would show
her sons her willingness to make them comfortable, regardless of the
work Involved.
Her pride in her ability to "heel" a knit stocking
properly was a natural, rustic sense of the fitness of things that
such a necessary, everyday task must be done to perfection if the
knitter were to hold her head up.
In this one characteristic, her de­
sire for perfection in her daily work, did she tally with Mrs. Poyser.
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13
Mrs. Holt stands somewhere between Mrs. Bede and Mrs. Poyser.
Although not really a country character, her unintellectual chatter
and rather primitive mental processes make her fairly definitely pro­
vincial.
Her complete lack of awareness of anything humorous makes
her more of a comedy character than Mrs. Poyser or Mrs. Bede.
Mrs. Holt’s language was almost as picturesque as Mrs. Poyser’s,
although it did not denote as keen and alert a mind.
Her manner was,
however, not as bristling as Mrs. Poyser’s and her attitude toward her
son was that which anyone would adopt, hopelessly, against unbendable
obstinacy.
She did not, of course, even begin to understand Felix’s
position on the subject of the medicinal brews she mixed up.
They had
cured at least one man, at least he hadattributed his cure to the
Holt concoctions, so they must have been good for something.
Felix’s
analysis of them, which had disclosed that they were practically poison,
was beyond Mrs. Holt’s power to comprehend.
This matter of the potions was one which shows Mrs. Holt’s pro­
vincialism.
Her real interest in them, I suspect, was that they
gave her something to do.
Her second interest in them was a sort of
childish idea that she was dealing withan unknown quantity.
mixed together various ingredients.
She
If a sick person drank enough of
the mixture, or anyway not too much, he might get well.
One person
had survived this treatment.
At the Transome house, her modesty was jarred.
She was properly
scandalized, as she thought anyone ought to be, by the statue of the
nude Silenus holding in his arms the equally nude infant Bacchus.
Nevertheless, she was as much a lady as Mrs. Transome, and with the
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14
common rustic Idea that visitors must make themselves agreeable and
pay for hospitality by producing conversation, she concealed her feel­
ings and merely said, "It*s most pretty to see its little limbs, and
the gentleman holding it.
I should think he was amiable by his look;
but it was odd he should have his likeness took without any clothes.
Was he Transome by name?”
mild madness in the
(Mrs. Holt suspected that there might be a
family.)^
There may be no grounds for the supposition, but this incident
always makes me wonder whether Eliot did not have a scene from David
Copperfield in mind when she wrote it:
the scene in which Mrs. Micawber,
dashed by the sudden appearance of the formidable Littimer, "assumed
a genteel air and put on her gloves."
At any rate, the author did
realize that country people, if not struck dumb when out of their depth
in society, attempt to appear at ease by making agreeable talk.
The
only thing that occurred to Mrs. Holt to comment upon was the statue
which, in her inexperience, she took for granted the Transomes with
their wealth had been able to have made, to represent someone in the
family, instead of the more usual portrait in oils.
Mrs. Holt was one of those people who, though they live in a town
or village, have an indefinable something about them which proclaims
they belong in the country.
Mrs. Tincy in Middlemarch makes the reader think of the country
belle brought up to a life of uselessness and idleness by prosperous
27.
George Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical, Harper and Brothers, 1906,
pp. 467-468.
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15
farm parents* and, true to their hopes, married to a well-to-do man
who establishes her in town.
She was still pretty, was a bit coquet­
tish, not given to weighty or even consecutive thinking, and wore caps
such as would be the sinful envy of Mrs, Poyser*s niece, Hetty,
Mrs,
Vincy gave a good idea of what Hetty would be like if she had married
Arthur Donnithorne.
And oh, the small opinion Mrs. Poyserwould have
had of such a one as
Mrs, Vincy, and with what frigid eloquence would
that small opinion have been voiced.
Much of the impression we got
of Mrs, Vincy was from her relations with her son Fred,
He was the
typical, lazy country-gentleman’s son, a horsey Englishman who, some­
how, pervaded the whole house and family with a sort' of half-elegant
and half-rustic nonchalance.
If one compared
Middlemarch to a Dutch painting, Mrs.Yincy would
be one of the brightest tints in
the picture. She was not clever.
She
was rather silly for a woman of her age, the mother of the grown-up
Rosamond and Fred, but she had the bright freshness of morning in the
country and helped round out the picture which contained so many drab
and somber colors.
I can in no degree concur with Mr. Oscar Browning in his opinion,
"Dolly Winthrop (in Silas Marner) is a reflection of Mrs. Poyser, and
nothing is more graphic or more entertaining than her views on relig­
ious matters."28
She was as talkative as Mrs. Poyser, but all the author’s middle-
28.
Oscar Browning, Life of George Eliot. Walter Scott, London, 1890,
p. 79.
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16
aged women talked a great deal.
Mrs. Winthrop’s words were exclusively
about religion and the bringing up of children, with the exception of
one remark about the "troublesomeness" of men, made in a long-suffering
tone of voice.
She hadn’t Mrs. Poyser*s range of topics.
Mrs. Poyser’s intelligence and her absolutism of manner.
Nor had she
She was just
a plain, motherly woman who, if she had been a reflection of Mrs.
Poyser as Browning said, would have prided herself upon being, as Mrs.
Poyser might have stated it, ”a good neighbor as does for them as is
too shiftless to do for themselves.”
Being who she was, Mrs. Win-
throp performed the services of a good neighbor without giving her
actions much consideration:
**.
.
. Dolly, who, though feeling that
she was entirely in her place in encountering cold and snow on an
errand of mercy, was much concerned at a young gentleman’s getting
his feet wet under a like impulse.
Mrs. Winthrop’s worry over Godfrey Cass’s wet feet disclosed her
attitude toward the difference between their social levels.
common to all Eliot’s rustic characters —
this does not mean that
there was sameness in her presentation of that class —
recognized class distinctions.
One trait
was that they
Their attitude was not subservient:
it was only that they were conscious of the strata of society and ac­
cepted them as they accepted the weather.
Only Mrs. Poyser, of all
the rustics, when she had ”her say out” to Squire Donnithorne, violated
the natural attitude toward the upper classes.
To return to Mrs. Winthrop:
29.
her bucolic ignorance, her peasant’s
George Eliot, Silas Marner. the Weaver of Raveloe, Scott Foresraan
and Company, 1905, p. 199.
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17
suspicion of the unfamiliar was well brought out in her almost anxious
questioning of Marner:
that Master Marner —
country —
"And yourn's the same Bible, you’re sure o ’
the Bible as you brought wi’ you from that
it’s the same as what they’ve got at church, and what
Eppie’s a-learning to read in?"3^
In general, the author’s matronly or middle-aged women characters
of the rustic kind were molded with a sure hand, logically, fully and
with sufficient vitality and variety to make each a distinctive in­
dividual, never a mere type.
They were more or less shrewd about their
routine occupations, and possessed viewpoints gauged by the common­
place people and occurrences which made up their limited, daily life.
Their imaginations were bounded by their experience which had been
little varied.
I would say that, as a group, the author’s middle-aged women
reached the peak of her extraordinary powers of characterization.
3°.
Ibid.. p. 233.
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CHAPTER III
ELIOT’S YOTJNG WOMEN CHARACTERS
Sometimes I feel that George Eliot was less interested in her
youthful characters than in her more mature people.
Then I reflect
that her many comments on children in real life as well as those in
the paintings of artists, her devotion to the sons of George Lewes
and her substantial assistance of them, would indicate a strong matern
al feeling which would naturally include not only children but young
men and young women.
Referring to some remarks the author had made,
apparently in letters to friends, about the children in Italy which
she saw on her travels, Miss Elizabeth Haldane says:
”No woman writer
ever had a deeper sense of motherhood than George Eliot, the childless
and we know well where the future Lillo (Romola) found his origin as
did all the beloved little immortals of whom she wrote."®!
The insinuation made by some contemporary reviewers that some of
Eliot’s young people were "too good" was aimed more or less directly
at Adam Bede and Dinah Morris,
It should be remembered that they
were to be the hero and heroine —
first novel.
the real romantic element —
in her
If she was too intense and fussy in depicting these
characters, it should be put down to her inexperience and soft heart.
However, less worthy writers than Eliot have sinned more deeply on
31.
Haldane, op. cit., p. 178.
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19
this score and hare been more readily condoned.
There has always been much wondering whether this or that person
in Eliot’s acquaintance was the prototype of a certain character in
her books.
There has been just as much positive assertion that the
acquaintance was surely the model for the character in question.
This
is particularly true of Adam Bede and Dinah Morris, the young Methodist
woman preacher.
Generally it is emphatically declared that Eliot’s
Aunt Elizabeth served as a model for Dinah.
I would say that Dinah
was rather a composite of several real people, the author herself and
Miss Lewis, a former teacher of the author, being the main contributors
to the character.
It was, indeed, her aunt who told the writer the
story of the young girl condemned to death for infanticide whom the
aunt had consoled during her last hours.
But there the connection be­
tween Eliot’s aunt and Dinah Morris definitely ends.
says:
Eliot herself
"The character of Dinah grew out of my recollections of my aunt,
but Dinah is not at all like my aunt, who was a very small, blackeyed
woman, and (as I was told, for I never heard her preach) very vehement
in her style of
p r e a c h i n g . ”32
Mesdames Cone and Gilder, who quote the above extract from a
letter of Eliot, tell us, regarding the author, that n,
(Eliot) was sent . . .
.
. she
in her eighth or ninth year, to Miss Welling­
ton’s (school) at Nuneaton, where Miss Lewis, the principal governess,
and ’an ardent Evangelical Church-woman,’ became her intimate friend,
32.
Helen Gray Cone and Jeanette L. Gilder, Pen-Portraits of Literary
Women, Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1887, Vol. II, p. 269.
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exercising great influence over her*"33
The author’s description of Dinah34 does not indicate Dinah’s
height as being greater than that of Eliot's aunt, but the rest of
the description of her appearance and of her pellucid voice could not
possibly have corresponded to the appearance and voice of the aunt.
If Dinah had "pale reddish hair," she could not have been "blackeyed"
like the aunt.
We know from countless descriptions of Eliot that she
had masses of light brown hair and that her voice, though of exception­
ally low pitch and not a "clear treble" like Dinah's, was the one
thing about her that people never forgot.
If the aunt was "very vehe­
ment" when preaching, she more than likely had a voice inclined to
be strident*
I would say that Miss Haldane’s interpretation of the conditions
existing in Eliot's girl- and young womanhood cast much light on the
genesis of Dinah’s character and personality.
Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) was only a type. In
hundreds of homes in England the same heartrending questions
(i.e., regarding religion, the reading of fiction, etc.)
were being asked. It may be a dreary and sterile outlook,
but we must remember that it gave a trend to the minds of
those who were not overwhelmed by it, that helped them all
their lives to care for the real things of life more than
the evanescent.33
We know further that Eliot was very religious in her younger
33.
Ibid., p. 245.
34.
Eliot, Adam Bede, pp. 16-17.
35.
Haldane,
0 £,
cit., p. 37.
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21
days and that later her own religious doubt caused her considerable
mental agitation.
Later on, her habit of meditating clarifiedmany
things for her and, as Miss Haldane says, led her to care forthe real
things of life.
In Eliot’s case, it resulted in her love of truth
and it was the love of truth which drew her away from what she considered
the mere ashes of religion that Christianity had beeome.
At the age
of nineteen, she wrote to Miss Lewis, her former governess at Miss
Wallington’s school:
I have just begun the "Life of Wilberforce," .
0 that I might be made as useful in my lowly and obscure
station as he was in the exalted one assigned to him!
. May the Lord give me such an insight into what
is truly good that I may not rest contented with making
Christianity a mere addendum to my pursuits, or with tak­
ing it as a fringe to my garments. May I seek to be sancti­
fied wholly!36
This letter, written when the author was still a farmer’s daughter
of nineteen, sounds so much like the words of Dinah Morris, and its
spirit so clearly indicates the spirit which animated Dinah, that to
me it seems impossible to doubt that Dinah was copied from Eliot.
Maggie Tulliver, in The Mill on the Floss, is supposed to be the only
instance of the writer’s using the events of her own life in her books,
but the letter to Miss Lewis convinces me that part of Dinah Morris
was really the author and the other part was what perhaps Eliot wished
she might have been, combined with memories of her former governess.
Dinah fits well into the category of rustics.
Physically, she
seems less robust than the rest of the peasants depicted by the author
36.
Letter from George Eliot to Miss Lewis, August 18th, 1838, in
George Eliot’s Life, edited by J. W. Cross, o£. cit.
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22
and her speech is not as crude as theirs.
On the other hand, she is
simple and unworldly; she is self-possessed when preaching because she
is with her own class of people.
Her visit to Mrs. Bede seems as much
rural neighborliness as Evangelism*
Her manner toward Mr. Irwine, the
Rector, is that of a well-bred, well-trained servant.
With unsophis­
ticated candor, she writes to Seth Bede that she had just received his
letter, not having had the money earlier to pay the postage which he
had neglected to pay.
Strangely enough, two such widely divergent characters as Mrs.
Poyser and Dinah were the ones who won the greatest number of comments
from reviewers and critics of the day.
This fact speaks well for the
convincing way in which Dinah was portrayed.
How different from Dinah in every respect was Hetty Sorrel.
Of
the shallowest nature, her vanity alone would have prevented her
profitting from a glimpse into the future that a keener mind might
open to her, which she was incapable of seeing by herself.
Her Aunt
Poyser summed up her whole nature with a succinct observation that
Hetty was like a cherry with a hard stone in the center.
Had her hopes concerning Arthur Donnithorne materialized, in a
few years her indolent life would have rendered her fat, blowsy,
coarsened in feature, pettishly nagging in disposition.
She was too
lazy, too vain and stupid to comprehend that, as Arthur’s wife, she
would have had a position to live up to, and that her looks, which she
would not realize were fading, were insufficient foundation for lasting
happiness.
Hers was the logical viewpoint of an illiterate country
girl, ignorant of any meaning of life —
even of the life to which she
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23
had been born; ambitious only in a cheap, shoddy way; neither vicious
nor courageous enough to make the most of her good points and the
present moment and be content to remain Arthur’s mistress without hope
or expectation of marrying him.
No one could have made her understand
that Arthur regarded their affair only as an interesting flirtation.
Her lack of character made her unable to face the situation at
home when her child was about to be born, and her ignorance led her
to seek Arthur, who was seemingly a prodigious distance away.
When
she decided to go to Arthur, she showed more than ever that she was
just an ignorant little country girl.
With courage that was almost
primitive, she, who had scarcely been out of sight of the farm on which
she lived, set out for London.
Sir Leslie Stephen remarks, regarding Hetty’s manner in prison:
’’Hetty is anything but a criminal who would make a point of ’dying
game,”*®7
The "sullen silence" which Eliot mentions in the prison
scene is not so much sullenness as it is daze;
Hetty can not believe
that all these dreadful things have happened to Hetty Sorrel, the
pretty dairy-maid at the Poyser farm.
Although the personality of Hetty must have been distasteful to
the creator thereof, it was done with a thoroughness and care for de­
tails of the physical and mental traits that showed the technique if
not the theme of a Dutch artist.
That Eliot could give such a pene­
trating exposition of such a person as Hetty, so completely foreign
to the author’s own sound character, is ample proof of her keen ob-
37.
Sir Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, The Macmillan Company, 1902,
p. 72.
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serration and deep understanding.
In the character of Priscilla Lammeter (Silas Marner) we find
that Iliot could paint a graphic picture without the amount of de­
tail she usually employed.
Priscilla was a minor character, appear­
ing in two or three episodes only, but she measured up well with the
people who played important parts.
Although only fire years older than
her sister, Nancy Lammeter-Cass, Priscilla’s comical assumption that
they were at least a complete generation apart in age makes it some­
what of a puzzle how to catalogue her, as a young woman or as a matron­
ly character.
On the other hand, her abundant ritality, her rigorous
management of her father’s farm and dairy made her seem more youthful
toward the close of the book than she seemed at the beginning.
Obriously possessed of an unlorely risage and a poor complexion,
she found such grotesque and yet genuine amusement in commenting upon
her own ugliness and ungainliness that the reader understood clearly
that she was not simply trying to console herself.
A congenital spin­
ster, although not the caricature typical of fiction, she was sincerely
grateful that her plain face had been sufficient weapon to keep men at
a distance.
Her conrersation was as spicy as Mrs. Poyser’s, but it
was mellow and not corrosire.
Her lore of a dairy amounted to the en-
slarement some people hare to drugs.
Hear what she said:
I’m as glad as anything at your husband’s . . .
ginning the dairy.
be­
It’s a thousand pities you didn’t do
it before; for it’ll gire you something to fill your mind.
There’s nothing like a dairy if folks want a bit o ’ worrit
to make the days pass. For as for rubbing furniture, when
you can once see your face in a table there’s nothing else
to look for; but there’s always something fresh with the
dairy, for eren in the depths o' winter there’s some pleasure
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25
in conquering the butter, and making it come whether or
no. My dear, . . • you’ll never be low when you’ve got
a dairy#®®
She managed her father’s farm and did a better job, we suspect,
than many of her male neighbors#
When her sister, Mrs. Godfrey Cass,
begged her father and Priscilla to stay to tea, Mr. Lammeter replied,
"You must ask Priscilla .
.
. She manages me and the farm, too."®^
Priscilla spoke up with Poyserly wisdom but with a gentler manner,
"And reason good as I should manage you, father, else
you'd be giving yourself your death with rheumatism. And
as for the farm, if anything turns out wrong, as it can’t
but do in these times, there’s nothing kills a man so soon
as having nobody to find fault with but himself. It’s a
deal the best way o' being master, to let somebody else do
the ordering, and keep the blaming in your own hands. It
*ud save many a man a stroke, 1_believe.
It was not her provincial speech which stamped her a rustic.
It
was her worship of her dairy, her legitimate excuse for manual employ­
ment, which proclaimed her as much a rustic as she was a spinster.
It
is to be regretted that no critic of the day seemed to notice her pres­
ence in the book.
Eppie, (Silas Marner) as a young woman, was just about what we
might expect her to be, considering her upbringing.
She was well-
mannered in a sort of quaint, countrified way, thanks mainly to the
vigilant eye of Mrs. Winthrop, although of course Silas, too, wished
her to grow up to be ladylike.
It was Eppie’s rusticity which prompted
her in her refusal to live with her real father, Godfrey Cass, and
38.
George Eliot, Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe, Scott, Fores
man and Company, 1899, p. 247.
39.
Ibid., p. 247.
40.
Ibid., p. 246.
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26
his second wife.
for Silas.
Her refusal was not entirely founded upon her love
Eppie was far more intelligent than Hetty Sorrel and she
promptly saw that life with her father and step-mother would necessi­
tate a complete change in her mode of living: a change which would
have included more tedious occupations, less freedom in her speech,
a curtailment of her intimacy with Mrs. Winthrop, not to mention a
cessation of her love affair with Aaron Winthrop.
to a change in diet.
She even objected
Her bringing up had been more pleasant and easy
in the past than it would be in the future in her father’s house.
Throughout this book, whether in the home of Marner, in that of
the Casses, or in the tap-room, there is a plain ruggedness which the
author must surely have copied from some Dutch painting.
The rugged­
ness, however, does not bespeak bareness: here, as in her other books,
the author furnished minute detail.
In beginning his discussion of Maggie Tulliver (The Mill on the
Floss), Mr. James Sully states that nobody who has read George Eliot
will fail to understand the seemingly paradoxical remark that she de­
lights in exposing the inconsistencies of character.41
Miss Mathilde
Blind would agree heartily with Mr. Sully, for she writes:
"Maggie
with all her palpable weaknesses and startling inconsistencies, is
the most adorable of George Eliot’s women.
41.
James Sully, "George Eliot's Art," Mind, Yol. VI, July 1881,
p. 382.
42.
Mathilde Blind, George Eliot, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1883,
p. 168,
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27
It is precisely this trait of exposing inconsistencies in a
character which makes this author’s characters such vital and real
individuals instead of conventional, fiction lay-figures.
It is to
he hoped that Sully did not believe that inconsistencies denote ab­
normality of the mind of the character, or a weakness in the powers
of the writer.
Victor Hugo more or less directly recognized the in­
consistencies of human nature when he wrote, "I feel two natures
struggling within me.”
Sully says further that Maggie Tulliver, one
of Eliot’s finest creations, as he thinks, was "nothing but a bundle
of inconsistencies to her brother."^®
That may well be, for at no
time was Tom imaginative or given to analysis.
As witness, his in­
ability to follow Maggie’s vivid imaginary tale of his rescuing her
from a lion if they had lived in Africa.
But what mainly calls for comment is Sully’s estimation that
Maggie was one of Eliot’s finest creations.
ly was.
The youthful Maggie certain­
In fact, she was not only the finest child character of this
particular writer, but she remains unequaled, surely not surpassed,
by any other child character in English literature.
The author pre­
sented a strong, healthy, imaginative child, hampered by her sex be­
cause of existing ideas on the bringing up of children.
The adult
Maggie continued to be hampered by her sex because of the straightlaced ideas on what the life of a woman should be.
It was no inconsistency on the part of the half-wild little Maggie
to forget to feed the rabbits of her adored Tom.
43.
Sully,
0 £.
Her overflowing
cit., p. 382.
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28
vitality and imagination made it quite logical for her ever to seek
something exciting to do, and forget the pleasant tasks that lay ready
at hand and which she enjoyed doing — when she remembered them.
The adult Maggie is less fascinating when the author places her
in town.
The rural aspects of her character show themselves more
plainly then than when she was a child roaming the fields.
No doubt
it seemed inconsistent to Tom that the headstrong Maggie should ap­
parently fall in love with two creatures like Philip Wakem, son of their
father’s enemy, and the superficial Stephen Guest.
loved neither of them.
Actually, Maggie
Her feeling toward Philip Wakem was only the
pity and motherly feeling of a physically and mentally strong woman
for any puny fellow-being.
Maggie’s inexperience and her rustic naiVet^ displayed themselves
when she allowed herself to be taken in by the sham gentility of
Stephen Guest, who was far more vulgar than genteel.
In her relations
to Stephen, she seemed almost an ignorant peasant.
It has always seemed regrettable to me that the author followed
Maggie and Tom through to adulthood.
Had she terminated the story be­
fore they grew up, she would still have written a fine story and I
believe that readers would have had no reason for impatience and loss
of interest in these characters.
Much of their stupidity and blindness,
their misery and unhappiness was caused by their removal to town from
what was their natural habitat, the country.
In closing the chapter on Eliot’s young women characters, it
might be well to say that, though they were not as picturesque, quaint
and mellow as to personality, naturally not as shrewd and observant as
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29
the author’s older women, they were nevertheless as real and natural.
One aspect of this writer’s many-sided greatness was that she could
see life with the eyes of the young as well as with the eyes of the
middle-aged and old.
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CHAPTER IV
ELIOT'S YOUNG MEN CHARACTERS
Tom Tulliver (The Mill on the Floss) was more likable and inter­
esting as a boy than he was after he grew up.
A rugged, freckled,
snub-nosed youth, we picture him, the bright alertness of whose face
often deceived his mother into believing that he had washed it, when
he had blissfully escaped from that harrowing task.
He was careless,
thoughtless or even selfish toward others, at times extremely domi­
neering toward Maggie.
He was, in short, one of the best boy char­
acters ever constructed by any writer.
If Tom bad been able to take over the mill when he grew up and
thus remain in an environment that was at least semi-rural, undoubt­
edly he would have remained more interesting.
contented and at ease.
was not of the city.
Surely, more happy,
Although he was a "success" in the city, he
His viewpoint was narrow just as his imagination
could never keep up with Maggie’s when they were children.
His atti­
tude toward Philip Wakem and Stephen Guest was caused not only by
personal dislike but by the fact that, especially with Stephen, he
felt a bit countrified and ill at ease.
Tom's father, when Tom was still a boy, said that Tom was "acute"
about "outdoor things" but added that he was not as clever at his
books as was "the little wench."
on the Floss.
Tom’s real element was the mill
There he could have puttered about the machinery, talked
to farmers who brought grain to the mill, and occasionally have sneaked
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31
away for a lazy afternoon of fishing.
As is the case when there are only two children in a family,
Iliot added a natural touch by having Tom his mother's favorite, and
Maggie her father's, the parents jealously comparing their favorites
and taking considerable trouble to spoil them.
Here Maggie, being
a girl, was terribly at a disadvantage, for Tom "took after" his
mother's people and was good-looking.
and when her hair —
Maggie was dark and gypsy-like
which was the bane of her existence and which
she once cut off with Tom's inexpert help —
was dishevelled, and
this was most of the time, she looked more like a Shetland pony than
a girl.
Seth Bede seemed a step-child to the critics.
temporary reviewers failed to mention him at all.
Most of the con­
He was extremely
commonplace, capable enough in his own trade, but slow, dull, apolo­
getic in manner and no doubt easily cowed by his superiors.
Certainly
he would never have stood up to Miss Lydia Donnithorne as Adam did on
the matter of the fire-screen.
But he was not an uncouth lout, and by right, his quiet, unassum­
ing manner ought to have been more welcome with the critics than that
of the vigorous, slightly self-righteous Adam.
It is far easier to
live with a sinner, or at least a weakling, than with a saint.
Although the author did not allot him as much space in the novel
as she did to Adam, she was eloquent in giving details about him:
"The
idle tramps always felt sure they could get a copper from Seth; they
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32
scarcely ever spoke to Adam."44
The vagrants who approached him may
even have thought he was one of them.
patient with him at tines:
Even his own mother grew im­
"Seth’s favourite text is, 'Take no
thought for the morroe,' which, as their mother Lisbeth says, ends
sometimes in Adam’s having to take thought for him."4®
This criticism
seems a little severe, for in the book the reader never got the idea
that Seth was entirely helpless.
His dog-like and humble devotion to Dinah was more admirable than
Adam's infatuation for the undeserving Hetty.
The only sign of dis­
appointment Seth showed when Dinah married Adam was that at the close
of the book he seemed rather subdued and apparently he had aged more
than he should have, considering the few years that had passed.
Commentaries upon Seth were not profuse, as has been intimated.
Critics found him uninteresting —
confess, bores me,"4®
Stephen says only, "Seth Bede, I
and therefore did not pause to consider whether
Eliot had painted her portrait well.
Miss Haldane, in speaking of the
Reverend Adolphus Irwine, the easy-going rector in the same story, de­
clared, "Not one character in the book is a failure."47
Obviously, her
meaning was from the standpoint of moral justification, but her state­
44.
Eliot, Adam Bede, p. 2.
45.
Anonymous review of Adam Bede. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.
loo, cit.
46.
Stephen, oja. cit.. p. 80,
47.
Haldane, op. cit., p. 150,
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33
ment applies from the standpoint of literary characterization, quite
as well.
Seth was consistently and thoroughly delineated, regardless
of the lack of interest critic and reader feel in him.
The author
may have had in mind a particularly dull and uninteresting-looking
fellow in some Dutch painting who had given balance to the picture
with his dull color.
Both the entire story and the title-character in Felix Holt were
something of a disappointment to critics.
They were lenient in their
judgment, presumably because they remembered the writer’s first three
novels, and hoped that she, not yet an elderly person, might write
other stories of equal calibre.
But the tale was uninteresting, com­
pared with others from the same pen, and the intricacies of the legal
phases, although authoritatively worked out for the author by a com­
petent lawyer friend, were too baffling to hold attention of readers
or even to be understood by any but one trained in law.
I think the dual-threaded story distracted attention from the
characters.
The Transome family part of the book was sinister and
much like one which Edgar Allan Poe or Charlotte Bronte might have de­
vised, and therefore sounded foreign to Eliot’s own public.
The events
were perfectly possible of occurrence: there are complications in the
most ordinary of actual existences, if less sinister; but it was not
a theme which lent itself well to Eliot’s own personality or style.
The characters were all, like the author’s other people, logical,
plausible and well rounded out, even the half-insane Mr, Transome.
Felix himself, with his medical education, his interest in poli­
tics and his speech-making, had many of the outward tokens of an urban
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34
character*
Still, there were mannerisms which he affected, or rather,
the impulses underlying these mannerisms, which bespoke a rustic view­
point.
Felix won little sympathy from one reviewer of the time:
Sympathy is perhaps less subtle than satirical intention,
for Felix Holt, though his conversation is manly, sensible,
and thoughtful, is a less masterly portrait than Tito Melema.
The virtue of wearing a cap instead of a hat, and of dispens­
ing with a neckcloth, is rather ostentatious than sublime.
If a man who has the power of earning a comfortable income
by the exercise of his knowledge and ability, prefers a
handicraft and weekly wages, his asceticism is as unprofit­
able as if it were practiced in a Trappist cell, and it in­
volves the non-monastic disadvantage of enforcing useless
hardships on the modern saint’s wife and children*4®
I think that the wearing of the cap and the absence of a neck­
cloth Felix meant to be anything but signs of asceticism.
They were
a sign of boorish and rather childish obstinacy in not conforming to
what he considered signs of an unjust and parasitic upper class.
His
rudeness, amounting almost to insult, toward Esther Lyon, displayed
the manners of a country churl*
If he had been a true urban, he would
have snubbed the young woman less crudely but more effectively.
At his best Felix was one of Eliot's most likable young men
characters.
He had none of the glitter of Tito Melema (Romola) and
had none of Tito’s ingratiating manner.
purposely so, it seemed.
He was too rough in manner,
For what is usually called "strength of char­
acter" he was between the Bede brothers, not as outwardly noble as
Adam, of whom he was strongly reminiscent, not as neutral or meek as
48.
Anonymous review of Felix Holt, the Radical, Blackwood’s Edin­
burgh Magazine, loc. cit.
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35
Seth: but more likable than either.
failure."49
Miss Haldane says, "He was a
In fact, he was doubly a failure in that he gave up his
medical profession to become a saviour of the oppressed, and then
accomplished nothing on that mission.
One strong point in his favor,
however, was that he saw his failure, was properly disappointed but
not discouraged*
He determined to adjust himself to his chosen envir­
onment, though no great adjustment was necessary.
By all odds, Felix
was of the working-class even though he was not as dull and unimagina­
tive as the average man of that level.
Aaron Winthrop (Silas Marner) was a character of medium importance,
but appeared only occasionally during the story.
Most of the impres­
sion we get of him was through a few things Eppie said to Marner.
We
suspect that his proposal of marriage to Eppie was phlegmatic, or any­
way unromantically matter-of-fact.
Eppie told Marner,
He said he should like to be married, because he was
a-going in four and twenty and had got a deal of gardening
work, now Mr. Mott’s given up; and he goes twice a week to
Mr. Cass’s, and once to Mr. Osgood’s, and they’re going to
take him on at the Rectory. . . .
Everybody’s married
sometime, Aaron says.^O
Supposedly, Aaron thought that the two ways to secure a beseeming
place in his level of society were to acquire as much work as one could
do well and to marry: a common rustic —
one might almost say bovine —
viewpoint, considering its lack of singularity.
49.
Haldane, op. cit.. p. 238.
50,
Eliot, Silas Marner; the Weaver of Raveloe. Scott, Foresman and
Company, p. 242.
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36
One may judge by what Eppie said that Aaron was likable, pre­
sentable enough to satisfy her standards of personal appearance; that
he was considered industrious and reliable by his patrons*
He had a
quaint attitude toward old age, expressed by his intention that Silas
should work ’’only what's your pleasure.”
Herein he displayed the
accepted country idea that even old age must have some manual work to
do in order to keep well and contented.
Eliot’s father was generally accepted as the prototype of M a m
Bede, but since he was forty-five years old when his daughter was born,
it is extremely unlikely that she could have modeled the twenty-sixyear-old Adam upon even her earliest memories of her father.
What we
read of her father shows that the similarity between him and Adam was
only such as would exist between any two men engaged in the same handi­
craft .
Adam is considered the best of the author's young men character­
izations.
I believe this opinion comes from the fact that he was more
important in the story in which he appeared than any of the others in
this group were in the other novels.
In Felix Holt, the Radical, there
were two plots of equal importance so that no single character was pre­
eminent.
For this reason, it is safe to say, critics considered Felix
Holt inferior to Adam Bede as a characterization.
Although he was a carpenter, a calling which was as much a town
business as it was a rural craft, Adam seemed closer to the soil than
any of the other young men portrayed.
sphere when he visited at Hall Farm.
He seemed in his rightful
He was better educated than the
other men with whom he worked, but his conscious pride in that fact
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37
served to emphasize his provincialism.
His education included little
that was not connected with his trade.
He wrote legibly.
read —
his favorite book being the Bible.
read only on Sundays —
He could
But even this Book he
out of respect.
He was not mentally as slow and foggy as Seth.
His "education"
and something of an aptitude for planning and arranging in connection
with his work had habituated him to think in an orderly manner, so
that he made an attempt at self-analysis.
He said to Arthur Donni-
thorne,
"It’s true what you say, sir: I’m hard — it’s in
my nature. I was too hard with my father, for doing
wrong. I’ve been a bit hard t’ everybody but her. . .
and when I thought the folks at the Farm were too hard with
her, I said I’d never be hard to anybody myself again.
. I’ve known what it is in my life to repent and feel
it’s too late: I felt I’d been too harsh to my father when
he wa3 gone from me — I feel it now, when I think of him.
I’ve no right to be hard towards them as have done wrong
and repent."51
This is a spontaneous enough situation and speech, but M a m ’s remarks
sound like the culmination of years of silent thought.
The author keeps Adam from being too perfect by having him fall
in love with the shallow but provocative Hetty instead of Mary Burge
who would have been an excellent match for him.
The Hetty episode in
Adam’s life was about equal to the proverbial wild oats period in the
life of a less noble young man —
Arthur Bonnithorne, for instance.
It also showed Adam's inexperience and his rustic sense of values.
To him, Hetty was delicate and beautiful.
In reality, she was just a
healthy country wench and had the prettiness, as George Eliot herself
51.
Eliot, M a m Bede, p. 409.
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38
says, of all young frisking things.
How much more comprehending were
the appraisals of Arthur and the Reverend Irwine.
It was in Adam Bede that the author halted her narrative to de­
clare her "delight in many Dutch paintings"5^ and it was while writing
this tale more than any of her others, with the possible exception of
Silas Marner, that she had the Dutch paintings most clearly before
her mind’s eye.
Adam Bede she made the handsomest and most stalwart
of her young men characters, but she also strove the hardest to make
him a real life-character.
Critics in general agree that she succeeded.
Perhaps the "awkward bridegroom"^ Qf the Dutch wedding picture gave
Adam more than the author’s father did.
Eliot’s young men, excepting Adam Bede, are usually considered
less successful than her other characterizations.
I believe that the
author, who had the conviction that conscience and circumstance play
important parts in any human life, made some of her young men char­
acters weak intentionally.
Felix Holt was guided by his conscience.
Seth Bede was overshadowed by Adam, who was older and better endowed
mentally and physically.
Granting that they were weak, I still main­
tain that they were consistently portrayed, showing no illogical traits.
I would say that it takes as much talent to create a weak person as
it does to create a vital personality, and that therefore Eliot showed
no lack of ability or insight into human nature.
If anything, her
weak characters should augment her reputation for characterization.
52.
Ibid., p. 153.
53.
Ibid.. p. 153.
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39
It has been said that this author seldom if ever created a hero or
a heroine, because her people did not overcome but were controlled by
circumstances.
If so, this does not make them very different from
people in real life, and real life is what Eliot endeavored to portray.
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CHAPTER V
ELIOT’S MIDDLE-AGED MEN CHARACTERS
The paternal type of character showed another phase of George
Eliot’s exceptional ability to put real people on the pages of a book.
There were more persons in this group than in any other:
Mr. Tulli-
ver, Mr. Vincy, Mr. Bulstrode, Silas Marner, Mr. Poyser, the Reverend
Irwine, the landlord of the "Rainbow," Will Maskery, the proprietor
of the Donnithorne Arms, Bartle Massey, to name only a few of them.
But no two, whether rustic or urban, were alike.
Perhaps, after all,
it was with the men of middle age that the author was most conspicuous­
ly successful, rather than with her matrons.
Even of the deceased ’Thias Bede there was an excellent portrayal.
It was brought out in the remarks of his wife and his sons and their
friends.
’Thias would perhaps be one of the author’s "weak" characters
according to the remarks some critics made about Seth Bede and Felix
Holt.
'Thias Bede was indeed a weak character but the characteriza­
tion of him, like that of Seth and Felix,was not.
It was, furthermore,
produced in an unobtrusive way, comments about Mr. Bede being made by
a number of characters, some of them above the rural level, through
several chapters.
Finally the picture was complete.
Perhaps another "weak" character was Mr. Tulliver, the owner of
the mill on the Floss.
pidity.
One could not help liking him despite his stu­
For stupid he was.
He loaned money to his brother-in-law, a
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41
nondescript person who could never be expected to return the three
hundred pounds.
Mr* Tulliver went to his brother-in-law to demand the
money, then almost fled in terror at the sight of his sister's povertyridden home.
He had borrowed an even larger sum himself from his
sister-in-law, Mrs. Glegg, and then, lacking sufficient urban suavity
to meet her meddling officiousness, lost his temper and swore at her
with bucolic heartiness.
Mr. Tulliver exhibited his inexperience and his rural simplicity
when he confided to Mr. Riley that by making Tom "a scholard"54 he
expected to make life easy for his son.
real lawyer —
Tulliver —
a "raskill" —
He didn't imnt Tom to be a
the names were synonymous with Mr.
just "a scholard" so that Tom could be "a bit nimble with
his tongue and his pen."55
The conversation of Mr. Tulliver seemed a most laborious and
painful "thinking aloud."
One could almost see his forehead knit into
deep wrinkles, his brain twist and quiver as he strove to make his
thoughts follow each other in proper order and to tell those thoughts
in a clear style.
At times his understanding of situations seemed
only half-civilized.
He told Mr. Riley that as long as all the books
he had bought at the Partridge sale had the same kind of bindings, he
took for granted that the contents of all were equally good.
He was a loving and tender father, but his very love for his
"little wench" and his worry that she might be "too 'cute for a gel"
54.
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, Harper and Brothers, p. 15,
55.
Ibid.. p. 19.
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42
again showed his primitive cast of mind.
Even more rustic in some respects but far shrewder, Mr. Poyser
resembled Mr. Tulliver in the letter’s indulgent manner toward his
wife, his pride in his children and his ambition to do well for their
sake.
Mr. Poyser was far more likely to accomplish this ambition.
He was more intelligent than Mr. Tulliver, and anything he lacked in
foresight his wife could more than supply.
Mrs. Tulliver, on the other
hand, was no great help to a man when common sense was needed.
Mr. Poyser was a true man of the soil.
it, but felt himself to be its master.
He loved it and respected
This delineation gave as fine
a portrait of a successful faimer as any to be found.
Mr. Poyser was
fat, jovial, successful, happy in the life he was leading, proud of
the little honor paid him at the birthday feast of the young future
landlord.
When removal from the farm on which he and his father had
been b o m threatened because of his wife’s incautious remarks to the
old squire, it seemed almost like the end of the world.
Although Mr. Poyser had many of the traits of the ’’typical" farm­
er, the distinctive personality which the writer bestowed on him kept
him out of the class of the "average" farmer.
There was more power in the character of Silas Ma m e r than he is
usually credited with.
speechless.
He was subdued, he was queer, he was almost
Still, when his friend proved a traitor, when his fiancee
jilted him, he resolutely set about to create a new life for himself.
Being alone, he could follow the path he had laid out for himself un­
swervingly.
This was selfishness, but his selfishness vanished when
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43
a worthy demand was made upon him.
Silas, like the other rustics, considered each separate community
as a different world.
He spoke of his former home as his "country."
It was not so far away but what he and Eppie could walk there in less
than four days when he was a man nearly sixty and Eppie, a girl of
eighteen, and neither of them accustomed to great exertion.
His former
home had been "Lantern Yard," perhaps a "weavers’ quarter" of a large
town.
When his solitary life ended, with the advent of Eppie, he ad­
justed himself so completely to the life of the villagers, he so com­
pletely lost the marks of urban life which even workers of the city
bear, that the very villagers saw no difference between him and them­
selves.
It has always seemed to me that George Eliot's finest collection
of characters appeared in her first novel, Adam Bede, and that Bartle
Massey was almost the best in that collection.
pete with the loquacious Mrs. Poyser.
However, he had to com­
Critics and book-reviewers be­
came so interested in what she had to say and in what they had to say
about what she said, that they completely forgot most of the other
people in the story.
Therefore, Massey was never done justice ~
and
probably never will be.
The author knew, in real life, a schoolmaster of the same name as
the character in her novel.
No one has been able to show that the
similarity went further than the profession and the name, but the
author must have thought very well of the original Massey or she never
would have conceived her character as she did.
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44
He was, as everyone must know, a full-fledged and openly-declared
hater of women, individually and collectively.
Why, not even the
author definitely told, but after Bartle delivers a picturesque tirade
against womankind for the benefit of M a m Bede, the author says,
rather delicately, "Adam was used to hear him talk in this way, but
had never learned so much of Bartle's past life as to know whether
his view of married confort was founded on experience,"5®
In addition
to this one vehement peculiarity, Massey had other traits which offset
his seeming harshness.
He was extremely patient with his pupils.
When one of them, after working a week on a reading lesson had excessive
difficulty in remembering "what d, r, y, spells"5^ and complained that
"the letters were so uncommon alike, there was no tellin* 'em one from
another":5®
. . . it touched the tenderest fibre in Bartle Massey’s
nature, for such full-grown children as these were the only
pupils for whom he had no severe epithets, and no impatient
tones. He was not gifted with an imperturbable temper, • . .
but this evening, as he glances over his spectacles at Bill
Downes, the sawyer, who is turning his head on one side with
a desperate sense of blankness before the letters d, r, y,
his eyes shed their mildest and most encouraging light.59
Massey had a clearer view of education, its worth and its cost
than had some of his pupils, but bis sympathy with these grown men and
his understanding of what fearful labor it was for them, to learn any-
56.
Eliot, Adam Bede, p. 209.
57.
Ibid.. p. 201.
58.
Ibid., p. 202.
59.
Ibid., p. 203.
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45
thing, placed him practically beside them on a social level.
They, in
turn, understood his feelings toward them, which they would not have
done had Massey been noticeably different from them.
His scrupulous
house-keeping also made him one of the rustics, among whom the men as
well as the women required that any work must be done completely and
exactly.
The author introduces into the character a bit of tenderness
which Bartle zealously guarded from everyone.
When he enters his
house after the night-school, he anxiously asks Vixen how her pups
are.
The moment Adam enters, Bartle berates Vixen with convincing
viciousness.
Perhaps Eliot’s devotion to her own father, whose close companion
she was after the death of her mother, gave her especially keen in­
sight into the personality of the middle-aged man and assisted her in
portraying so many characters of this age slightly alike in a general
way and so completely unlike in particular! ways.
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CHAPTER
la
SUMMARY
Although George Eliot expatiated to the length of two pages on
her "delight in many Dutch paintings,"60 she did not declare in pre­
cise terms that it was her intention to do in literature what the
Dutch artists had done in painting.
Nevertheless, it must be obvious
to anyone who reads Adam Bede that such was her intention, and that,
in carrying it out she used English scenes and people which she had
known all her life.
Probably no other writer of fiction ever had so definite a
purpose and so clear a picture of what he intended to accomplish
before he started to write as did this author.
It must be admitted
that she wavered a little in her later books, but any of her three
first ones must have convinced her that she had succeeded in copying
the theme and content of the Dutch paintings and in making her tales
"the result of experience and true to nature."
If she had written
only Adam Bede, her fame would have been lasting and her contribution
to English literature substantial.
She herself despairingly said,
"I wonder whether I shall ever write another book as true as Adam
Bede!"
She said that Mrs. Gaskell was too fond of "dramatic effects and
60,
Eliot, Adam Bede, pp, 153-154.
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47
not contented with the subdued coloring, the half tints of real life."61
Although there were suspense and excitement in Eliots books at times,
they were never produced for the sake of sensation.
ways legitimate.
Their use was al­
Of her own book, The Mill on the Floss, Eliot said
that she regretted that she had not maintained the "epische Breite"
(the epic breadth) of the first part of the book through to the end.
It seems to me that she maintained it better than she herself thought.
This epic breadth is one characteristic of all her books, even of
Silas Marner. which is by far her shortest and most compact novel.
I believe that the author’s occupation with household and dairy
work until she was at least twenty-one had a marked influence upon
her writing.
Her many remarks in her books about the making of butter
and cheese reveal that these products require regular attention and
careful watching.
Being accustomed to details of this kind, she was
on the alert in her writing for opportunity to use detail which would
round out her stories and their backgrounds and make her people more
life-like.
In each novel there is a large number of characters.
Some of
them are of major importance, but in every book there are a great
many characters which serve only as "background” and which would be
entirely omitted by most writers, or, at best, given only a sketchy
outline.
Not so, with Eliot.
She gives the most minute character a
definite personality, no matter how brief is this character’s appear-
61.
Eliot, criticism of Ruth by Mrs. Gaskell, o£. cit., pp. 238-239.
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48
anee or how unimportant he may be in connection with the plot of the
novel or in his relations to the other characters.
One of these minor people is Molly, one of the Poysers' dairy­
maids.
Almost the only mention of her is when she plods across the
fields with the little Poyser boys on their way to church.
Even so,
the author gives us the impression of a great, thick country-girl
who is just intelligent enough to do her work passingly well and, in
this brief episode, to pretend she is interested in what the boys are
telling her and to say, "Lawks” when she is supposed to be surprised.
The author portrays two other servant girls who carry, carefully
wrapped in their handkerchiefs, their prayerbooks in which they could
make out only a few of the capital letters.
So brief was the encounter
with these two characters that I must confess I do not remember in
which of Eliot’s novels they appear.
But in this short episode was
disclosed their peasant’s attitude toward life, summed up in the
matter of the prayerbooks.
Most of the people attending church
carried and perhaps read prayerbooks:
therefore these girls carry
prayerbooks, perhaps cheap gifts from their mistress, which they care­
fully and respectfully wrap in their handkerchiefs almost as though
they were smuggling them into and out of the church.
Luke, the head miller in the mill on the Floss, is another master­
ly characterization, although he is of very minor consequence.
He
listens patiently to Maggie's chatter and his answers indicate that
he is in a fog of doubt as to what she is talking about.
His ignorance
and plebeian suspicion of learning are manifested in his relieved
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49
maimer when he tells Maggie that he is glad he can not read because
surely no great good can come from the ability to do so.
Still, he
is kind and gentle, and tries to console Maggie when she finds she
has let Tom's rabbits starve*
This attention to insignificant characters is not limited to
single persons.
There are instances where groups of very unimportant
characters appear.
The main story may be helped not in the slightest
degree by the scene or by the dialogue, yet the author presents such
a group as a collection of individuals, giving them each a trade, a
name, some personal peculiarity unlike any encountered in another
character.
Some of these seemingly trivial scenes are rated among
the best pages the author wrote.
The scene in the "Rainbow" (Silas Marner) is a particularly fine
example.
name —
It is, in part, a discussion —
if we can grant it that
of a cow that had been sold the previous day.
The caution
of one speaker in trying to learn the opinion of the purchaser of
the animal, and the equal caution of the second man to avoid a direct
answer —
each one confident that he is doing some subtle parrying ~
exhibit expertly the author's power to portray the fallow mind of the
rustic.
Later the conversation turns to the singing in the village
church, with particular reference to the voices of some of the singers,
one or two of whom are present.
The crudest frankness is displayed
by one speaker in giving his exceedingly poor opinion of the voice
of another in the company.
Throughout the scene, the landlord, un­
certain whether the speakers are joking or serious about the cow and
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50
the voice which are being discussed, works valiantly to prevent the
brewing of trouble.
He assures everyone again and again that he
agrees with each of them, regardless of what each may say.
The "Rainbow" incident (which puts the reader strongly in mind
of the Dutch pictures mentioned by Eliot) is cited by Stephen as the
best specimen of the author’s humor.
It is indeed an almost-photo-
graphie picture of a group of uncouth and dull-witted peasants, but
never, either in the "Rainbow" scene or in the presentation of any
other lowly person, is the writer’s attitude disdainful.
On the con­
trary, her manner is full of kindly and sympathetic understanding.
Several critics go so far as to say that only Shakespeare wrote any­
thing equal to this scene.
There is a scene in Felix Holt which shows the author’s powers
in another light.
The characterization for the most part is done by
means of dialogue, as in the "Rainbow."
But here there is a milling,
angry mob instead of a few men ponderously talking over their pots of
ale.
In the brief sentences shouted at Felix, Eliot produced indi­
vidual people as exactly as she has done in long, detailed passages
elsewhere.
Many critics and reviewers have quoted the passage in Adam Bede
which refers to the Dutch paintings, and also the novelist’s essays
about experience and truthfulness to nature being the foundation of
fiction.
None of them said definitely that the writer used the Dutch
paintings as models for her word-pictures or that she kept to exper­
ience and truthfulness to nature.
Nevertheless, what they said about
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51
her writings showed conclusively that they understood her motives and
considered that she had attained her aims.
Mr. George W. Cooke’s biography of Eliot contains these state­
ments:
Probably no novelist has created so many clearly cut,
positive, intensely personal characters as George Eliot,
and this individualism is depicted as acting within
social and hereditary limits; . . * George Eliot’s
manner is to describe, to minutely portray, and to dis­
sect to the last muscle and nerve. . . . She does not
caricature folly with Dickens, or laugh at weakness with
Thackeray; but she shows the limitations of life in such
a manner as to produce the finest humor. . . .
In all
her earlier novels George Eliot has shown the artistic
possibilities of the humblest lives and situations. . . .
Much the larger number of characters in this novel are of
the same unpromising quality. . . . This ignorant rus­
ticity is discovered to have charms and attractions of its
own.
Mathilde Blind is one of the critics who point out the importance
of circumstance upon the development of Eliot’s characters.
Herein,
without doubt, the author was using ”the result of experience,” that
is, as she had seen lives about her molded by circumstances.
Miss
Blind wrote:
Fate plays a very conspicuous part in this (The Mill
on the Floss) as in most of George Eliot’s novels. But it
is not the Fate of the Greeks, it is not a power that af­
fects human existence from without: it rather lies at the
root of it, more or less shaping that existence according
to obscure inherited tendencies, and in the collision be­
tween passion and law, potent only in proportion as the
individual finally issues conquered or a conqueror from the
struggle of life. This action of character on circumstance
and of circumstance on character is an ever-recurring
motif with George Eliot. We constantly see adverse circum­
stances modifying and moulding the lives of the actors
62.
Cooke,
0 £.
cit., pp. 108-109.
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52
in her stories. She has hardly, if ever, therefore,
drawn a hero or heroine, for these, instead of yielding,
make circumstances yield to them. . . . Maggie’s
troubles spring from the very fulness of her nature;
from the acuteness of an imagination which the manysidedness of life attracts by turns in the most oppo­
site directions.®3
Practically the identical things are said in an anonymous re­
view of Middlemareh in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine.®4
Like Thomas Hardy, Eliot was less successful in depicting town
life and urban characters.
Her most life-like characters are those
who are unmistakable rustics.
It cannot be doubted — there is every evidence of
the fact — that her girlish experiences in that prosaic
country district (Warwickshire) were so many hoarded
treasures in her retentive memory which, by means of her
marvellous wit and insight into character, served to en­
rich her first three novels and her "Scenes of Clerical
Life.”65
Haldane also agrees that the author was at her best in truly
rustic environment:
"When she deals with the relations of the broad,
ordinary life of the country people and relates its action to the
deep springs of the philosophy of experience, she reaches her highest
point."66
63.
Blind, oj>. cit., p. 167.
64.
Anonymous review of Middlemareh. Atlantic Monthly. Vol. XXXI,
April, 1873, pp. 490-494.
65.
Article, "George Eliot’s Early Life," (from a Correspondent),
Pall Mall Gazette, December 30, 1880, p. 10.
66.
Haldane, op. cit., p. 173.
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53
This excerpt, together with that from the brief biography in
the Pall Mall Gazette. might seem to some readers to insinuate that
Eliot's urban characters are inferior.
These two statements mean
only that Eliot was more familiar and at her best with rural people
and
the country. Her urban characters compare favorably with those
of any other author:
the case is just that Eliot's true element was
rustic life.
What Miss Woolson says, applies to any of Eliot's people:
Not only does she bring before us personages who have
the essential stamp of reality and substance, but she en­
dows them with the composite, many-sided nature which be­
longs to the human beings around us, and which mark the
people of Shakespeare's world. . . . Their natures are
revealed as presenting that tangled web of good and ill,
of strength and weakness, which forms the moral and intel­
lectual structure of every individual of our race .
we see the workings of thought and conscience, detect the
hopes that impel, the fear that restrains, . . . we wit­
ness the warfare within the soul, of which outward acts are
but the results.^
Sully®8 and Morley,69 to name only two, are among the many who
place George Eliot's characterizations on a par with those of Shakes­
peare.
Critics universally agree that no more life-like people ap­
pear anywhere in literature.
Sully also says an important thing about the necessity of a
proper environment such as Eliot is generally conceded to have sup­
plied:
67.
Abba Goold Woolson, George Eliot and Her Heroines. Harper and
Brothers, 1886, pp. 5-6.
68.
Sully, loc. cit., pp. 383-385.
69.
John Morley, "George Eliot's Novels," Macmillan's Magazine.
Vol. XEV, August, 1866, pp. 276-277.
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54
Another thing strikes us in the build of George Eliot’s
characters. A character divorced from its surroundings is
an abstraction. A personality is only a concrete living whole
when we attach it by a net-work of organic filaments to its
particular environment, physical and social. Our author
evidently chooses her surroundings with strict regard to her
characters. She paints nature, less in its own beauty and
less in its universal suggestiveness, than in its special
aspect and significance for those whom she sets in its midst.7®
Haldane corroborates Sully:
"Adam Bede has, like the ’Scenes,*
a special value of its own as a picture of English rural life, accur­
ate to the last degree.”7^The author herself admitted that the setting of Adam Bede was
northern Warwickshire where we know she lived until she was twentyone, in daily contact with such people and among such scenes as she
put in her first three novels.
George Eliot preferred the rural life of the Midlands
of England. Here she was thoroughly at home. The daughter
of a prosperous land-agent, whose daily life was not above
that of the plain country-folk who were his neighbors, she
was, throughout her youth, in daily contact with farmers and
their wives, country parsons and dissenting preachers, village
doctors and rural schoolmasters, while now and then her
father’s business connection with several of the wealthiest
estates in England gave her an opportunity to visit the most
aristocratic homes in the vicinity.
Nor was the natural environment lacking in inspiration,
for the great oaks and elms which lent their shade to the
place of her birth and to the home of her youth were once a
part of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, in the northern end of
Warwi ckshire.72
70.
Sully, loc. cit., p. 382.
71.
Haldane,
72.
Charles S. Olcott, George Eliot. Scenes and People in Her Novels.
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1910, pp. 4-5.
0 £.
cit., p. 143.
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55
Ihen the mass of comment about every phase of George Eliot’s
novels has been reviewed, one can have no doubt that the writer's
highest aspirations, those of emulating the Dutch paintings and of
relating experience and adhering to truthfulness to nature by por­
traying life-like characters in their natural setting, were attained
to a superlative degree.
Little reference has been made in this thesis to the author's
novel Middlemareh and none at all to her Romola and Daniel Deronda.
The reason for this is, that though Middlemareh contains rustic char­
acters, they are of the small-town type, rather than of villages and
the country.
Romola. a story of Renaissance Italy, contains a single
major character of the rural variety, Tessa, but the intention of
this thesis was to include Eliot’s English rustics, only.
Daniel
Deronda contains not one provincial character.
The ranking of Eliot’s novels has caused enormous discussion.
The author herself considered Middlemareh her greatest novel.
My re­
action, after studying the characters and the settings of her novels,
is that Adam Bede and Silas Marner of all Eliot’s novels, conform most
faithfully to the style of the Dutch paintings and to her own words
that fiction should be the result of experience and should be true to
nature.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY
Books
Blind, Mathilde.
George Eliot, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1883.
Brownell, William Crary. Victorian Prose Masters.
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Browning, Oscar.
Charles Scrib­
Life of George Eliot. Walter Scott, London, 1890.
Burton, Richard. Masters of the English Novel. Henry Holt and Com­
pany, New York, 1909.
Cone, Helen Gray, and Gilder, Jeanette L«, editors. Pen-Portraits
of Literary Women. Vol. II. Cassell and Company, Ltd.,
New York, 1887.
Cooke, George Willis. George Eliot. Houghton Mifflin and Company,
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1899,
Cross, J. W. George Sliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Jour­
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Brothers, New York, 1885.
Cross, Wilbur L. Development of the English Novel. The Macmillan
Company, New York, 1914.
Eliot, George. Adam Bede. William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh and
London, Stereotyped Edition.
----- -- --Daniel Deronda. Universal Publishing Company, New
York.
---------.—
Felix Holt, the Radical. Harper and Brothers, New
York, 1866.
------------
Middlemareh. Harper and Brothers, New York.
------------
Romola. Hurst and Company, New York.
-----------Scenes of Clerical Life. Harper and Brothers, New
York, 18— .
--- ,------Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe. Scott, Foresman
and Company, Chicago, 1905. Edited by Albert Elmer Hancock.
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57
Eliot, George. Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe. Houghton Mifflin
and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1899. Intro­
duction by Bliss Carman.
-----------Impressions of Theophrastus Such. Harper and Brothers,
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Gosse, Edmund William. Aspects and Impressions.
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Charles Scribner's
Gould, George Milbry. Biographic Clinics, Vol. II.
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Speare, Morris Edmund. The Political Novel; Its Development in Eng­
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Anonymous review of Adam Bede.
The Saturday Review of Literature,
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58
February 26, 1859.
Anonymous review of Adam Bede. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Vol.
LXXXV, April, 1859.
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------------Review of Daniel Deronda. Fortnightly Review, Vol.
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Atlantic Monthly. Vol.
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Pall Mall
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Kebbel, T. E. "Village Life According to George Eliot."
Vol. CXLVIII, February, 1881.
Morley, John. "George Eliot’s Novels."
XIV, August, 1866.
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Merry England, Vol. I, May, 1885.
Sully, James.
"George Eliot’s Art."
Mind, Vol. VI, July, 1881.
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