Marginalia: George Eliot

November 22 was George Eliot’s birthdate. She has been one of my early favorites and, maybe, only second to Virginia Woolf among my literary icons. What got me hooked from the start was how she packed so much into a single page about human nature and character that rereading certain bits still leaves me breathless.

Much has been written about her literary prowess by some of my other favorite writers like Virginia Woolf and A S Byatt. And, of course, there is the bibliomemoir by Rebecca Mead: ‘My Life in Middlemarch‘, which I had written about here a few years ago.

I completely agree with Byatt that:

One of the reasons I loved her work when I met it was that she both showed people thinking intensely — as well as feeling — and knew and understood herself what they were thinking about. . . When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work – as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise – not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world.

So it is difficult to pick a single favorite Eliot quote to share. Instead, here’s one from each of her novels.

Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult . . . Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings — much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth. ― Adam Bede

 

If you deliver an opinion at all, it is mere stupidity not to do it with an air of conviction and well-founded knowledge. You make it your own in uttering it, and naturally get fond of it. ― The Mill on the Floss

 

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward, and the hand may be a little child’s. ― Silas Marner

 

In those times, as now, there were human beings who never saw angels or heard perfectly clear messages. Such truth as came to them was brought confusedly in the voices and deeds of men, not at all like the seraphs of unfailing wing and piercing vision—men who believed falsities as well as truths, and did the wrong as well as the right. The helping hands stretched out to them were the hands of men who stumbled and often saw dimly, so that these beings unvisited by angels had no other choice than to grasp that stumbling guidance along the path of reliance and action which is the path of life, or else to pause in loneliness and disbelief, which is no path, but the arrest of inaction and death. ― Romola

 

But these things are often unknown to the world; for there is much pain that is quite noiseless; and vibrations that make human agonies are often a mere whisper in the roar of hurrying existence. There are glances of hatred that stab and raise no cry of murder; robberies that leave man or woman for ever beggared of peace and joy, yet kept secret by the sufferer – committed to no sound except that of low moans in the night, seen in no writing except that made on the face by the slow months of suppressed anguish and early morning tears. Many an inherited sorrow that has marred a life has been breathed in no human ear. ― Felix Holt, the Radical

 

You must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There’s this and there’s that—if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is—I wouldn’t give twopence for him’— here Caleb’s mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers— ‘whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn’t do well what he undertook to do. ― Middlemarch

 

It is a common sentence that knowledge is power; but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of ignorance? Knowledge slowly builds up what Ignorance in an hour pulls down. ― Daniel Deronda

In the Byatt piece linked above, she also mentions how Eliot wrote: “There are, believe it, passions of the mind.” when describing how one of the main Middlemarch characters, Lydgate, was drawn to the medical profession from an early age. While I have not found the exact line (it’s there somewhere in the humungous novel), this next bit is closely-related because it is about how we, as a society, find it so easy to focus on certain kinds of passion over ones that take way more effort, patience, and sacrifice. [On a similar note, it never ceases to amaze/sadden me how, culturally, we tend to focus so much on what we consume physically and hardly ever on what we consume intellectually — when the latter can have just as much, if not more, impact on our existence.]

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman’s “makdom and her fairnesse,” never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of “makdom and fairnesse” which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires? In the story of this passion, too, the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting. And not seldom the catastrophe is bound up with the other passion, sung by the Troubadours. For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman’s glance.

~ George Eliot in ‘Middlemarch

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