Sunday, March 14, 2010


Picking a favorite author feels like picking a favorite child -- you feel a little slighting toward the others, but in your heart of hearts, there is the one. For me, that is George Eliot. While it used to be the case that Silas Marner was assigned in high school English classes, it was not in mine. (Our novels junior and senior year were instead The Scarlet Letter and Animal Farm. It was a less savage age when we had not yet completely given up on and betrayed our youth by assigning Dean Koontz and Anne Rice, as if the origins of those authors had never existed. But I digress.)

I didn't encounter Eliot until my college course on the Rise of the Novel, in which we read many books of formidable length, including Middlemarch. In fact, this is the same course in which I was supposed to have read Bleak House, and as recorded in this blog, finally finished it a mere 25 years later! As word-addled as I was between the Fielding, Eliot, Dickens, James, Sterne, et al. (confession: I never finished Tristram Shandy either; yes, it's on the repair list), I was engaged by Middlemarch. It wasn't just that I liked it, I admired it; it was so grand, so serious, and instead of being weighed down by its own substance, it was a fascinating, romantic story. I don't think anyone has ever taken such an intense look into the moral lives of her characters. And George Eliot was very concerned with moral decisions. She herself struggled with and ultimately rejected Anglicanism, and as a religious skeptic, she investigated the impulses that drove men and women to the acts that would either destroy them or settle them in an enlightened, useful, and happy life.

Since my first introduction, I've read through most of the Eliot oeuvre, including some of the short fiction, poetry, and her letters. Of the novels, only two remain for me -- Felix Holt and Romola, and I've just begun the latter, which is set in Florence, Italy in 1492. It is a departure for her; her other novels are set in her own Victorian time period, in England. This novel is an expression of her ambition and classical learning, a foray into historical fiction that most critics have numbered among her less successful attempts. Having just started, I can say only that it is awe-inspiring in its erudition. Oh, she delights in throwing around the Latin and Italian phrases, as well as her knowledge of classical literature, including Greek. This may not make for an engrossing novel on the level of Adam Bede, but it has its own charms.

Here, she describes the slow, moral descent of one of the novel's main characters in her wonderfully meticulous dissection of human frailty:

When, the next morning, Tito put this determination into act he had chosen his colour in the game, and had given an inevitable bent to his wishes. He had made it impossible that he should not from henceforth desire it to be the truth that his father was dead; impossible that he should not be tempted to baseness rather than that the precise facts of his conduct should not remain for ever concealed.

Under every guilty secret there is hidden a brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness. The contaminating effect of deeds often lies less in the commission than in the consequent adjustment of our desires -- the enlistment of our self interest on the side of falsity; as on the other hand, the purifying influence of public confession springs from the fact, that by it the hope in lies is for ever swept away, and the soul recovers the noble attitude of simplicity.


TheBob said...

I'm just in the very beginning of the book (first tenth?). Eliot's scholarship is rather staggering -- she has so much at her fingertips! Her prose, though, has a very light quality -- in other words, she's not nearly as ponderous as the weight of her references might suggest. It does seem to me that she's enjoying some play with using Shakespearean idiom -- the opening characters could easily be the "rude mechanicals" from a Shakespearean work.

TheBob said...

I just passed the part of the book you quoted above -- I think that's a lovely summation (toward the end of the quote) of why confession can have power.

I'm pretty sure I work with Monna Brigida.

Her description of Tito's slow fall makes me squirm sometimes -- how similar it is to the justifications I've made to myself sometimes, when I knew I was in the wrong.

TheBob said...

I'm about 2/3 through the book now. I've been trying not to read ahead in your blog to avoid spoilers, so I could end up sounding redundant.

One thing that occurs to me is that, to a degree, Tito prefigures the moral lives of westerners in the 20th / 21st century -- we could almost call it Tito's Dilemma. Tito is a perfectly "nice" person -- he doesn't like to see suffering in person, and does his reasonable share in limiting it in his immediate area. However, he has knowledge of something bad happening far away, something he has the theoretical power to alleviate. To exercise this power, however, requires extra-ordinary effort, whereas not exercising this power merely requires that he do nothing. Granted, in Tito's case, the knowledge is more personal.

As the book progresses, Tito becomes more and more odious, but to a certain degree, he does seem very American.