George Eliot Contribution to English Novel

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      Her Life : Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen-name of George Eliot (1819-1880), was the daughter of a Warwickshire land-agent. She was born near Nuneaton, and after being educated at Nuneaton and Coventry lived much at home. Her mind was well above the ordinary in its bent for religious and philosophical speculation. In 1846 she translated Strauss's Life of Jesus, and on the death of her father in 1849 she took entirely to literary work. She was appointed assistant editor of The Westminster Review (1851), and became a member of a literary circle. In later life she travelled extensively, and married (1880) J. W. Cross. She died at Chelsea in the same year.

George Eliot

       Her Works : George Eliot only discovered her bent for fiction when well into the middle years of her life. Her first works consisted of three short stories, published in Blackwood's Magazine during 1857, and reissued under the title of Scenes of Clerical Life in the following year. Like her later novels they deal with the tragedy or ordinary lives, unfolded with an intense sympathy and deep insight into the truth of character. Adam Bede (1859) was a full-length novel, which announced the arrival of a new writer of the highest calibre. It gives an excellent picture of English country life among the humbler classes. The story of Hetty and the murder of her child is movingly told, and the book is notable for its fine characters, outstanding among whom are Mrs Poyser, Hetty, and Adam Bede himself. Her next work, considered by many her best, was The Mill on the Floss (1860). The partly autobiographical story of Maggie and Tom Tulliver is a moving tragedy set in an authentic rural background, and the character of Maggie is probably her most profound study of the inner recesses of human personality. As yet her novel is not overloaded by the ethical interests which direct the course of her later works. In style it is simple, often almost poetical. Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe (1861) is a shorter novel, which again gives excellent pictures of village life; it is less earnest in tone, and has scenes of a rich humour, which are skilfully blended with the tragedy. Like The Mill on the Floss, it is somewhat marred by its melodramatic ending. With the publication of Romola (1863) begins a new phase of George Eliot's writing. The ethical interests which had underlain all her previous works now become more and more the dominating factor in her novels. The story, of Romola is set in medieval Florence, but, in spite of the thorough research which lay behind it, the historical setting never really lives. Indeed, the note of spontaneity is lacking in this novel, which is most memor able for its study of degeneracy in the character of Tito Melema. Felix Holt the Radical (1866), probably the least important of her novels, is set in the period of the Reform Bill. Next came Middle march, a Study of Provincial Life (1871-72), in which George Eliot built up, from the lives of a great number of deeply studied characters, the complex picture of the life of a small town. Her characters suffer through their own blindness and folly, and the theme is treated with a powerful and inexorable realism. Her last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), is still more strongly coloured by her preoccupation with moral problems: it is more of a dissertation than a novel. It is grimly earnest in tone and almost completely lacking in the lighter touches of her earlier work, though it has some fine scenes: In 1879 she published a collection of miscellaneous essays under the title of Impressions of Theophrastus Such.

      Features of her Novels : (a) Her Choice of Subject: George Eliot carries still further that preoccupation, with the individual personality which we have seen to be the prime concern of the Brontës. For her the development of the human soul, or the study of its relationship to the greater things beyond itself, is the all-important theme. There is relatively little striking incident in her novels, but her plots are skilfully managed. Behind all her writing there lies a sense of the tragedy of life, in which sin or folly brings its own retribution. Her preoccupation with this theme gives to her later work some of the features of the moral treatise.

      (b) Her characters: are usually drawn from the lower classes of society, and her studies of the English countryman show great understanding and insight. An adept at the development of character, she excels in the deep and minute analysis of the motives and reactions of ordinary folk. She brings to bear upon her study of the soul the knowledge of the student of psychology, and her characterization makes no concessions to sentiment. Her sinners, and she is particularly interested in self-deceivers and stupid people are portrayed with an unswerving truthfulness.

      (c) The tone of her novels is one of moral earnestness, and at times in her later work of an austere grimness. But almost always it is lightened by her humour. In the earlier novels this is rich and genial, though even there it has some of the irony which appears more frequently and more caustically in the later books.

      (d) George Eliot's style is lucid, and, to begin with, simple, but later, in reflective passages, it is often overweighted with abstractions. Her dialogue is excellent for the revelation of character, and her command of the idioms of ordinary speech enables her to achieve a fine naturalness. Only rarely does she rise to the impassioned poetical heights of the Brontës, but her earlier novels, particularly The Mill on the Floss, are full of fine descriptions of the English countryside, and her faculty for natural description she never lost entirely.

      Her Place in the History of the English Novel : She is of great importance in the history of fiction. Her serious concern with the problems of the human personality and its relationship with forces outside itself, her interest in detailed psychological analysis of the realms of the inner consciousness, did much to determine the future course of the English novel. The twentieth century has seen the rapid development of these interests, and it is significant that the reputation of George Eliot, which suffered a temporary eclipse after her death, has recovered during the last ten or twenty years to a surprising degree.

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