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Posts Tagged ‘George Eliot’

11 FEBRUARY, 2014

Beauty, Aging, and the Expansion of Our Sympathies: What George Eliot Teaches Us About the Rewards of Middle Age

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“The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.”

At twenty-six, Henry James was a handsome young man, well-dressed, hair brushed and polished with a straight part down the middle. In 1869 he left New York in what would become a permanent relocation to England, and his first order of business was to meet the greatest writers of his adopted country. In a letter to his father, he described a meeting with George Eliot, who would begin that year to write a novel of life in an average country town she called Middlemarch:

She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous… She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth…

In My Life in Middlemarch (public library), Rebecca Mead writes that for visitors to Eliot’s’ home, a consideration of the writer’s famously ungainly looks was compulsory and often the basis for the most backhanded of compliments. James continued:

Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her… Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.

Youth and beauty hadn’t rewarded George Eliot with their typical pleasures, nor did she expect them to. Eliot was fifty-one years old when she began Middlemarch, having only begun to write novels under her pen-name in her early forties. “What would at first appear to be a book about youth turns out to be a book about middle age,” explained Mead at a recent talk at the New York Public Library. Yet middle age for Eliot was the most expansive period of her life, which allowed her to create the most expansive novel of her career. The year she turned thirty-eight, Eliot wrote in her diary:

Few women, I fear have had such reason as I have to think the long sad years of youth were worth living for the sake of middle age.

Painting of Mary Ann Evans in 1849 by Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade. Evans was living with the painter’s family in Switzerland when she turned thirty. The next year she moved to London and began to write.

In the Victorian era, middle age as a phase of life was not a thing to be celebrated — it was an age at which one simply lived, having passed the excitement and signposts of youth. It was an age in which one was lucky to be alive, let alone fortunate enough to look to a future. Mead writes:

The notion of middle age as a distinct stage of life was a relatively recent concept; its onset was earlier that would be reckoned today, and much more of middle life would fall within it.

She goes on to note that an American writer in 1828 placed middle age as existing somewhere between 26 and 60. Middle age for Mary Ann Evans, who adopted the pseudonym George Eliot in her late thirties and began writing fiction nearing forty, therefore becomes life itself — not a decline or a thing to be borne wearily. It’s a time in which our actions and our memory are in balance, and each informs the other. In The Mill on the Floss, Eliot writes:

The middle aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair.

It took a peculiar life to recognize this new phase, a life that George Eliot was not reluctant to embrace. The uses of age would not be dictated to her, even in youth. At twenty-five, Mary Ann Evans, as she was still known, considered herself merely at the beginning of what would be an expansive emotional life:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science.

For the entirety of her twenties, a segment of the Victorian biographical timeline in which much of her life plot should have been enacted and resolved, Evans took care of her father. He died in 1849, the year she turned thirty. Evans left her childhood home, traveled to Switzerland, and decided that she would move to London to become a journalist. Happiness, she suspected, would only grow with age.

And so it did. A successful and well-known magazine writer at thirty-eight, Evans met critic George Henry Lewes, a married man with three children who had been separated from an unfaithful wife for years. They lived together for twenty-four years until his death, and their mutual love and support was considered by those around them as a true modern marriage built on a union of character and intellect. From him she took the pen name of George, and began to write her first novels as she approached forty.

Photograph of Mary Ann Evans in 1858. Well-known as a journalist, she had yet to publish under her pen name. She turned thirty-eight this year. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

In her beautiful and compassionate exploration of the creation of Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead, in her early forties, found herself in a similar position as Eliot, realizing that she had a capacity to find joy in a life in which you could “no longer see the endless possibilities of the person you might become.”

This is where Eliot began to build her novel. In the closing off of infinite space, one’s sympathies are enlarged for those around. This, Mead explains, is the essence of Middlemarch — a book which begins where many novels of the time ended, with marriage. But it is the drama that spins out after the milestones of youth that fascinate Eliot:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.

Expanded sympathy is the essence of middle age and the center of Middlemarch, argues Mead — a novel about “the necessity of growing out of self-centeredness.” Middlemarch could only have been written by an author whose sympathies were expansive, who allowed herself to feel deeply even what was painful. For much of her youth, George Eliot threw herself into loving men who did not love her back (“I suppose no woman ever before wrote a letter such as this—but I am not ashamed of it.”), but she also recognized early on when a young man who offered her marriage was not worthy of her respect and “would involve too great a sacrifice of her mind and pursuits.”

Drawing of George Eliot in 1864 by Frederick Burton. She turned forty-four this year and had just published Romola.

A novel allows us to experience deeply the lives of others, to grow out of self-centeredness as Mead says, and enlarge our sympathy. Perhaps Eliot’s plainness allowed her to transcend youth’s narcissism sooner than others, but it feels ungenerous to diagnose sympathetic genius from a face. (“No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Edith Wharton,” Jonathan Franzen wrote in in The New Yorker, enumerating her luxurious existence. “Edith Newbold Jones did have one potentially redeeming disadvantage: she wasn’t pretty.”) Eliot’s sympathies were instead the product of a life well-considered and fully lived. She wrote in an essay in 1856:

The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies… Art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

In an age when we grasp so tightly and so tragically at the idea of the beauty and pleasures of youth, George Eliot and Rebecca Mead have both extended it far beyond its natural boundaries to find a richer source of creative inspiration and pleasure in middle age.

Portrait of George Eliot by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project.

In Middlemarch, Eliot takes the necessary dramas of life — a marriage, a birth, an inheritance, a debt, a death — and uses them as a mere beginning, leading the reader along a path where a turn in sympathy, a changed mind, is far more powerful than a birth or death. When thinking about our own life, we strive to carve out its plot — a beginning, middle, and end; a conflict, a change, a resolution. In My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead found herself in the years between 26 and 60 living unmoored by the typical signposts of an adult life, returning to Middlemarch again and again to find herself among characters whose lives expand and contract, changing each day, each hour, unconsciously as breath itself. Mead reminds us that Eliot’s characters exist stubbornly in-between, their lives are the “home epic,” conjured by an inspired middle-aged mind. Unlike in her youth, Mead no longer sought instruction from her reading, but instead now saw her own expanded sympathies reflected there:

A book many not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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22 NOVEMBER, 2013

Charles Dickens’s Fan Letter to George Eliot

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“The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of.”

To avoid the Victorian era’s biases against women writers, Mary Ann Evans (November 22, 1819–December 22, 1880) began writing under the male pseudonym George Eliot, which went on to become one of the most revered names in literary history. Her first big break came at the age of 37, in 1857, when “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” — the first installment in her Scenes of Clerical Life (free download) — was published in Blackwood’s Magazine, then in book form in early 1858. Eliot made sure it got into the hands of all the right people — in the first week of 1858, she mailed copies to some of the era’s most influential luminaries, including Dickens, Thackeray, Faraday, Ruskin, Tennyson, and Carlyle. It was met with overwhelming acclaim — all 1,500 printed copies sold out and early reviewers praised the writer as “strong in his knowledge of the human heart,” which sparked speculation about the author’s identity. Rumors attributed the work to Joseph Liggins, who tried to deny the allegations, in vain, then resigned to accepting the misattributed celebrity.

Portrait of George Eliot by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for more.

But the most vibrant testament to Eliot’s talent came in a letter from none other than Charles Dickens himself, which he sent to Eliot’s publisher before her identity was revealed. Though he addressed it “Dear Sir,” Dickens — whom Eliot had met in 1852 and found “disappointing [and with] no benevolence in the face and I think little in the heart” — makes a point of his intuition that the writer, despite popular rumors, was a woman. The letter, found in George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (public library; public domain) — the altogether fascinating 1884 sort-of-biography edited by her husband, John Walter Cross — disarms Eliot’s first impressions of Dickens in the most direct and beautiful of ways. It is a pinnacle of praise, written with equal parts professional admiration, generosity of spirit, and the special kindness Dickens reserved for his kin:

January 18, 1858, London

My Dear Sir

I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me through Messrs. Blackwood, that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try.

In addressing these few words of thankfulness, to the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one; but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began.

You will not suppose that I have any vulgar wish to fathom your secret. I mention the point as one of great interest to me — not of mere curiosity. If it should ever suit your convenience and inclination, to shew me the face of the man or woman who has written so charmingly, it will be a very memorable occasion to me. If otherwise, I shall always hold that impalpable personage in loving attachment and respect, and shall yield myself up to all future utterances from the same source, with a perfect confidence in their making me wiser and better.

Your obliged and faithful Servant, and admirer

CHARLES DICKENS.

For a heart-warmer in the same spirit, complement this with Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, then see what George Eliot teaches us about happiness.

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29 OCTOBER, 2013

A Very Large Head: The Phrenology of George Eliot

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“She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.”

“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” Mary Ann Evans, better-known as George Eliot, wrote in a letter to a friend in 1844. Learning how to be happy, of course, is predicated on first learning how to be — a journey of self-knowledge and self-awareness that is sometimes disorienting, frequently uncertain, and always evolving. In our chronic discomfort with ambiguity and with the fluid nature of our character, we often yearn to anchor ourselves in something concretizing by seeking out answers from outside ourselves to tell us who we are. Eliot, despite her undeniable intellect, was no exception to this frailty of the human condition.

In George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections (public library), the famed British ribbon manufacturer and social reformer Charles Bray reflects on his nine years of close friendship with George Eliot, in whom he saw the same kind of generosity of spirit that Susan Sontag did in Borges. Bray writes:

I consider her the most delightful companion I have ever known: she knew everything. She had little self-assertion; her aim was always to show her friends off to the best advantage — not herself. She would polish up their witticisms, and give the credit to them.

But one particularly unusual thing brought Bray and Eliot together: Their shared interest in phrenology. Yes, phrenology — the same 19th-century pseudoscience that gave rise to the “high-brow” vs. “low-brow” mythology of popular culture and has since been relegated to fodder for pop-culture caricature and derision — the epitome of grasping for easy, tangible, and invariably misleading answers to the intangible complexity of the human soul. To know that even Eliot was susceptible to this is oddly assuring, as well as a testament to the fact that we’re all, at least to some degree, a product of our time with all its singular irrationalities and biases.

In 1844, Eliot went as far as having a cast taken of her head by the leading British phrenologist James De Ville, who had also cast the heads of such luminaries as William Blake, Richard Dale Owen, and Prince Albert. It was then used for the “diagnosis” of her character by the Scotsman George Combe, the leader of the phrenology movement. Bray recounts:

Miss Evans’s head is a very large one, 22¼ inches round; George Combe, on first seeing the cast, took it for a man’s.* The temperament, nervous lymphatic, that is, active without endurance, and her working hours were never more than from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. … In her brain development the Intellect greatly predominates; it is very large, more in length than in its peripheral surface. In the Feelings, the Animal and the Moral regions are about equal; the moral being quite sufficient to keep the animal in order and in due subservience, but would not be spontaneously active. The social feelings were very active, particularly the adhesiveness. She was of a most affectionate disposition, always requiring some one to lean upon, preferring what has hitherto been considered the stronger sex, to the other and more impressible. She was not fitted to stand alone. Her sense of Character — of men and things, is a predominantingly intellectual one, with which the Feelings have little to do, and the exceeding fairness for which she is noted, towards all parties, towards all sects of denominations, is probably owing to her little feeling on the subject, — at least not enough to interfere with her judgment. She saw all sides, and they are always many, clearly, and without prejudice.

To be sure, Eliot didn’t take it all without a grain of salt. Two years earlier, she had written in a letter:

I am pronounced to possess a large organ of “adhesiveness,” a still larger one of “firmness,” and a large of conscientiousness. Hence if I should turn out a very weather cock and a most pitiful truckler you will have data for the exercise of faith maugre [notwithstanding] common sense, common justice, and the testimony of your eyes and ears.

In August of 1851, Eliot and a small group of friends visited with George Combe himself — the reigning godfather of phrenology for more than twenty years, and a great admirer of Eliot’s work. The evening of the visit, he revisited the subject of her head in his journal, after remarking that she was “the most extraordinary person in the party.”** Peeking from underneath the pseudoscience, however, is a very real observation about what lent Eliot her mesmerism — and what makes a person compelling in general:

She has a very large brain, the anterior lobe is remarkable for length, breadth, & height, the coronal region is large, the front rather predominating; the base is broad at Destruct[iveness]: but moderate at Aliment[iveness] & the portion behind the ear is rather small in the regions of Comb[ativeness], Amat[iveness] & Philopro[gentiveness]. Love of approb. and Concentrativeness are large. Her tempera[ment] is nervous lymphatic. She is rather tall, near 40 apparently,*** pale & in delicate health. She is an excellent musician. … She [showed] great analytic power & an instinctive soundness of judgment. … She is extremely feminine & gentle; & the great strength of her intellect combined with this quality renders her very interesting.

George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections is full of such unexpected curiosities shedding light on one of the most enigmatic and enthralling personae in literary history. Complement it with what Eliot teaches us about the life-cycle of happiness.

* In another recollection from the book, a woman named Susanna Chapman, the wife of publisher John Chapman, describes meeting Eliot for the first time and remarks, with rather ungenerous anatomical bluntness, on her head size: “She had such fine eyes, and the upper part of her face was so good, that it quite redeemed the lower part, which was large for a woman, and heavy set. I remember being struck to find how short she was when she rose from the tea-table.”

** Even Combe was cognizant of the limitations of his “science.” Three years later, upon finding out that Eliot had eloped to Germany with the married George Henry Lewes, with whom she went on to live for 20 years, Combe’s high opinion of her sound judgment and gentleness crumbled, and he even revisited this journal entry to add the following note: “This was written from eye-observation. She has gone off as the mistress of Mr. Lewes, a married man with 6 children.”

*** She was 31.

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