On the Heights

Selections from George Eliot’s Letters

edited by Gordon S. Haight
Yale University Press, 567 pp., $25.00

Even taken in its derivative meaning of outline, what is form but the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another?—a limit determined partly by the intrinsic relations or composition of the object, & partly by the extrinsic action of other bodies upon it. This is true whether the object is a rock or a man.”

—George Eliot, “Notes on Form in Art”


A generation before Freud, George Eliot taught the unhappy truth to her contemporaries that character is fate. If character is fate, then in a harsh sense there can be no accidents. Personalities suffer accidents; characters endure fate. George Eliot herself is a grand instance of the pattern she created for all of her personages; her own character eminently proved to be her fate. If we seek major personalities among the great novelists, we find many competitors: Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, Henry James, even the enigmatic Conrad. By general agreement, the supreme example of a moral character would be George Eliot. She has a nearly unique spiritual authority, best characterized by the English critic Walter Allen about twenty years ago:

George Eliot is the first novelist in the world in some things, and they are the things that come within the scope of her moral interpretation of life. Circumscribed though it was, it was certainly not narrow; nor did she ever forget the difficulty attendant upon the moral life and the complexity that goes to its making.1

Her peculiar gift, almost unique despite the place of her work in a tradition of displaced Protestantism that includes Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Wordsworth’s poetry, is to dramatize her interpretations in such a way as to abolish the demarcations between aesthetic pleasure and moral renunciation, the rule of compensation generally exemplified by her own work, as in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss. The demarcations become ghostlier because we learn to take aesthetic pleasure when Adam Bede and Maggie Tulliver manifest the heroism of their moral renunciation. We ourselves cannot quite be like that, we say to ourselves, but we are augmented by their strength of character so that, for some moments, we have the illusion of seeing human reality as the immensely strong George Eliot wants us to see it. Doubtless, in Middlemarch George Eliot intended Dorothea Brooke to be the grand exception to this formula, since Dorothea does secure her supposed equal in Will Ladislaw, who represented for her the resolution that George Henry Lewes had constituted for George Eliot herself. Whether Lewes was wholly the fulfillment her spirit required, we are free to doubt.

Richardson’s heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, and Wordsworth in his best poems share in a compensatory formula: the experience of loss can be transformed into imaginative gain. George Eliot’s imagination, despite its Wordsworthian antecedents, and despite the ways in which Clarissa Harlowe is the authentic precursor of Dorothea Brooke, is too severe in Middlemarch to accept the formula of compensation, Wordsworth’s “abundant recompense,” with respect to Dorothea and Casaubon. The beauty of renunciation, for ourselves as readers of George Eliot’s fiction, does not result from a transformation of loss, but rather from a strength that is in no way dependent upon exchange or gain. George Eliot presents us with morality as an end in itself.

To her contemporaries, this was no puzzle. F.W.H. Myers, remembered now as a “psychic researcher” (a marvelous metaphor that we oddly use as a title for those who quest after spooks) and as the father of L.H. Myers, author of the novel The Near and the Far, wrote a famous description of Eliot’s 1873 visit to Cambridge:

I remember how at Cambridge I walked with her once in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which had been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-call of men—the words God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced with terrible earnestness how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable was the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never, perhaps, have sterner accents confirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned towards me like a sybil’s in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates. And when we stood at length and parted, amid that columnar circuit of forest trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls—on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left empty of God.2

However this may sound now, Myers intended no ironies. As the sybil of “unrecompensing Law,” George Eliot joined the austere company of nineteenth-century prose prophets: Carlyle, Ruskin, Newman, and Arnold in England; Emerson in America; Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and finally Freud on the Continent. But none of these nine, though storytellers of a sort, wrote novels. Eliot’s deepest affinities scarcely were with Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. But since she was a novelist, we are required to read her as we read them.

This causes difficulties, since Eliot was not a great stylist, and was far more immersed in philosophical than in narrative tradition. Yet her frequent clumsiness in authorial asides, and her hesitations in storytelling, matter not at all. We do not even regret her lack of a comic sense, which never dares take revenge upon her anyway. Wordsworth at his strongest, as in “Resolution and Independence,” still can be unintentionally funny (which inspired the splendid parodies of the poem’s leech gatherer and its solipsistic bard in Lewis Carroll’s “White Knight’s Ballad,” and Edward Lear’s “Incidents in the Life of my Uncle Arly”). But I have also seen no effective parodies of George Eliot, and doubt their possibility. It is usually unwise to be witty concerning our desperate need not only to decide upon right action, but also to will such action, against pleasure and against what we take to be self-interest. Like Freud, Eliot ultimately is an inescapable moralist, precisely delineating our discomfort with culture, and remorselessly weighing the economics of the psyche’s civil wars.


George Eliot is not one of the great letter writers. Her letters matter because they are hers, and in some sense do tell part of her own story, but they do not yield to a continuous reading. On a scale of nineteenth-century letter writing by important literary figures, on which Keats would rank first and Walter Pater last (the Paterian prose style is never present in his letters), George Eliot would find a place about dead center. She is always herself in her letters, too much herself perhaps, but that self is rugged, honest, and formidably inspiring. Her letters, like her life, do present us with the enigma of her stern moral grandeur never having found a companion adequate to its intensity.

Contemporary feminist critics seem to me a touch uncomfortable with Eliot. Here she is on extending the franchise to women, in a letter to John Morley (May 14, 1867):

Thanks for your kind practical remembrance. Your attitude in relation to Female Enfranchisement seems to be very nearly mine. If I were called on to act in the matter, I would certainly not oppose any plan which held out any reasonable promise of tending to establish as far as possible an equivalence of advantages for the two sexes, as to education and the possibilities of free development. I fear you may have misunderstood something I said the other evening about nature. I never meant to urge the “intention of Nature” argument, which is to me a pitiable fallacy. I mean that as a fact of mere zoological evolution, woman seems to me to have the worse share in existence. But for that very reason I would the more contend that in the moral evolution we have “an art which does mend nature”—an art which “itself is nature.” It is the function of love in the largest sense, to mitigate the harshness of all fatalities. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerating tenderness in man.

However, I repeat that I do not trust very confidently to my own impressions on this subject. The peculiarities of my own lot may have caused me to have idiosyncracies rather than an average judgment. The one conviction on the matter which I hold with some tenacity is, that through all transitions the goal towards which we are proceeding is a more clearly discerned distinctness of function (allowing always for exceptional cases of individual organization) with as near an approach to equivalence of good for woman and for man as can be secured by the effort of growing moral force to lighten the pressure of hard non-moral outward conditions. It is rather superfluous, perhaps injudicious, to plunge into such deeps as these in a hasty note, but it is difficult to resist the desire to botch imperfect talk with a little imperfect writing.3

This is a strong insistence upon form in life as in art, upon the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another. I have heard feminist critics decry it as defeatism, though George Eliot speaks of “mere zoological evolution” as bringing about every woman’s “worse share in existence.” “A sublimer resignation in woman” is not exactly a popular goal these days, but Eliot never speaks of the “sublime” without profundity and an awareness of human loss.

In the Romantic period, the sublime, particularly in the poetry of Wordsworth, became a substitute for what in religion had been called the human experience of the glory of God. Wordsworth displaced the sublime of religion into aesthetic experience, and this had a profound influence upon later nineteenth-century writers, and upon none more than George Eliot, whose sense of the beauty of moral renunciation stems as much from Wordsworth as from any other literary source. When she praises Ruskin as a teacher “with the inspiration of a Hebrew prophet,” she also judges him to be “strongly akin to the sublimest part of Wordsworth,” a judgment clearly based upon the source in Wordsworth of Ruskin’s tropes for the sense of loss that dominates the sublime experience.

The harshness of being a woman, however mitigated by societal reform, will remain, Eliot reminds us, since we cannot mend nature and its unfairness. Her allusion to the Shakespearean “art / Which does mend Nature,” and which “itself is Nature” (The Winter’s Tale, IV.iv.95–97) subtly emends Shakespeare in the deliberately wistful hope for a moral evolution of love between the sexes. What dominates her letter to Morley is a harsh plangency, yet it is anything but defeatism. Perhaps she should have spoken of a “resigned sublimity” rather than a “sublimer resignation,” which would have meant that her own life would have resembled Maggie Tulliver’s rather than Dorothea Brooke’s. But her art, and life, gave the lie to any contemporary feminist demeaning of the author of Middlemarch, who shares with Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson the eminence of being the strongest women writers in the English language.


All seven novels by George Eliot were immensely popular in her own lifetime. Today there is common consent that The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch (1871–1872) are as vital as they were more than a century ago. Adam Bede (1859) is respected but not widely read or studied, while Romola (1862–1863) is rightly forgotten. Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) retains some current interest, but less perhaps than Adam Bede. Silas Marner (1861) remains extraordinary to read and probably is undervalued by most critics. Rereading it after decades away from it, I find astonishing mythological power throughout its apparently serene pastoralism.

The novel by George Eliot that presents the greatest difficulty is of course Daniel Deronda (1876), which has divided its readers and will go on confusing them. Dr. Leavis and others proposed the radical solution of quarrying a new novel, Gwendolyn Harleth, out of the book, thus creating an achievement for Eliot not unlike the Emma or Persuasion of Jane Austen. In this drastic operation, the hero, Daniel Deronda himself, was to be all but discarded, primarily on the grounds that his endless nobility was wearisome. Deronda is an incipient Zionist leader who is nine tenths a prig and only one tenth a passionate idealist. He simply is not a male Dorothea Brooke, as his scenes with Gwendolyn Harleth invariably show. She vaults off the page; he lacks personality, or else possesses so much character that he sinks with it, and in a few places into veritable bathos.

And yet, as many critics keep remarking, he is not quite so easily discarded, because the remarkable Gwendolyn is convincingly in love with him and also because the even more remarkable George Eliot is in love with him also. Her portrait of George Henry Lewes, her common-law husband, as Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch does not persuade us that he is a wholly fit partner, whether for George Eliot or for Dorothea Brooke. Deronda sometimes makes me think of a Jewish Caspar Goodwood, Isabel Archer’s suitor, just as Gwendolyn seems halfway between Isabel Archer and Elizabeth Bennet. Henry James, in his equivocal “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation” (1876), neatly gives his “Theodora” a positive judgment of Deronda, “Pulcheria” a rather more pungent negative one, and the judicious “Constantius” an ambiguous balance between the two:

Theodora. And the advice he gives Gwendolyn, the things he says to her, they are the very essence of wisdom, of warm human wisdom, knowing life and feeling it. “Keep your fear as a safeguard, it may make consequences passionately present to you.” What can be better than that?

Pulcheria. Nothing, perhaps. But what can be drearier than a novel in which the function of the hero—young, handsome, and brilliant—is to give didactic advice, in a proverbial form, to the young, beautiful, and brilliant heroine?

Constantius. That is not putting it quite fairly. The function of Deronda is to make Gwendolyn fall in love with him….4

Constantius adds, rather mordantly: “Poor Gwendolyn’s falling in love with Deronda is part of her own luckless history, not of his.”

The implied view of Deronda here is not too far from that of Robert Louis Stevenson, for whom the visionary Zionist was “the Prince of Prigs.” Against all this must be set the reaction of George Eliot herself, dismissing “the laudation of readers who cut the book into scraps and talk of nothing in it but Gwendolyn. I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there.” We can test this relatedness in one of the novel’s great moments, when Gwendolyn is compelled to recognize a rejection that she legitimately cannot be expected to understand:

That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolyn’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving. All the troubles of her wifehood and widowhood had still left her with the implicit impression which had accompanied her from childhood, that whatever surrounded her was somehow specially for her, and it was because of this that no personal jealousy had been roused in her in relation to Deronda: she could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all anger into self-humiliation.5

Perhaps this is George Eliot’s greatest power: to represent the falling away of a not ignoble self-centeredness as an involuntary movement toward the terror of a solitude that knows its loneliness, yet comforts itself by being free. Gwendolyn after all is losing not only her potential lover, but her virtual superego, though a superego very different from the Freudian model. The Freudian superego demands that the hapless ego surrender its aggressiveness, and then continues to torment the ego for being too aggressive still. But Deronda is the gravest and most gentlemanly of consciences, perhaps because he mysteriously associates his own shrouded origins with Gwendolyn’s undeveloped self.

This is the subtle surmise of Martin Price in his Forms of Life, a study of “Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel.”6 Price reads Gwendolyn as a character terrorized by her own empty strength of will, oppressed by the potential solitude to which her will may convey her. Ironically, that fear of the sublime attracts its own doom in the sadistic Grandcourt, who marries Gwendolyn, certainly the most dreadful of all mismatches even in George Eliot. Her strength blocked, her will thwarted, Gwendolyn seems condemned to perpetual death in life, until George Eliot rescues her heroine by one of her characteristic drownings, thus relieving Gwendolyn of her error but depriving the reader of a splendidly hateful object in Grandcourt, who is one of George Eliot’s negative triumphs.

Eliot is masterly in never quite explaining precisely what draws Deronda to Gwendolyn. Absurd high-mindedness aside, it does seem that Deronda needs Gwendolyn’s well-developed sense of self, as Price suggests. Himself a kind of changeling, Deronda needs to enact rescue fantasies, with Gwendolyn taking the place of an absent mother. If that seems too close to Freud’s essay “Family Romances,” and too far from George Eliot’s fiction, then we ought to recall the yearnings of Dorothea Brooke and of Lydgate in Middlemarch, and Eliot’s own lifelong yearnings to “rescue” distinguished male intellectuals. Instilling a moral conscience in the charming Gwendolyn may seem a curious training for a future Zionist uplifter, but in George Eliot’s universe it is perhaps an inevitable induction for someone determined to be a prophet of his people’s moral regeneration.

Price sums up Gwendolyn by associating her with Estella in Great Expectations and with Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Like them, the even more charming and forceful Gwendolyn must be reduced in scope and intensity in order to become a better person, or perhaps only an imperfect solipsist. Price is very much in George Eliot’s mode when he counts and accepts the cost of assigning sublimity to moral energy: “There is a loss of scale as one dwindles to a moral being; yet it is also the emergence of a self from the welter of assertion and impulse that has often provided an impressive substitute.”7 Something in the reader, something not necessarily daemonic, wants to protest, wants to ask Eliot: “Must there always be a loss in scope? Must one dwindle to a moral being?”


George Eliot herself, in her letters, gives one answer theoretically, and it is consistent with the burden of Daniel Deronda, and a very different one pragmatically, since she palpably gains scale even as she gorgeously augments her self as a moral being. Whatever her letters may lack as narrative, or in Ruskinian madness, they continuously teach us the necessity of confronting our own moral evasions and self-disenchantments. Here she is in full strength, writing to Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe on October 29, 1876:

As to the Jewish element in “Deronda,” I expected from first to last in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance and even repulsion than it has actually met with. But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to. Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us. There is nothing I should care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs. But towards the Hebrews we western people who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? They hardly know that Christ was a Jew. And I find men educated at Rugby supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion. The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity, which is still the average mark of our culture.

Yes, I expected more aversion than I have found…. I sum up with the writer of the Book of Maccabees—“if I have done well, and as befits the subject, it is what I desired, but if I have done ill, it is what I could attain unto.”8

Confronted by that power of moral earnestness, the critic is properly disarmed. It hardly suffices to murmur that Deronda is the “Prince of Prigs,” or to lament that Gwendolyn’s imaginative force and human charm deserved something better than a dwindling down into moral coherence. George Eliot is too modest in summing up with the barely inspired writer of the Book of Maccabees. She is closer in moral grandeur to the author of Job, and to Tolstoy. Daniel Deronda may be a more vexed creation than The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch, but it carries their moral authority, biblical and Tolstoyan.

Unfortunately, it could be said against Daniel Deronda that it carries too much moral authority and too little of the persuasive human drama of Middlemarch in particular. Dorothea Brooke does not have the brilliance or vivacity of Gwendolyn Harleth, but at least her passage from the dreadful Dr. Casaubon to Will Ladislaw, the surrogate for George Henry Lewes, has about it the aura of the actual pragmatic choices that human beings are forced to make in their erotic lives. That erotic realism is sadly lacking in Daniel Deronda, which expends George Eliot’s exuberance almost exclusively in the moral sphere. Nevertheless, no one after George Eliot has achieved the peculiar and invaluable synthesis, in Middlemarch, between the moral and aesthetic, a synthesis attempted also, but without success, in Daniel Deronda.

  1. 1

    Walter E. Allen, George Eliot (CollierMacmillan, 1967), pp. 185–186.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Allen, pp. 13–14.

  3. 3

    Selections, Haight, ed., pp. 331–332.

  4. 4

    In George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, David Carroll, ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 426.

  5. 5

    Daniel Deronda, Barbara Hardy, ed. (Penguin, 1967), chapter 69, p. 876.

  6. 6

    Yale University Press, 1983.

  7. 7

    Price, Forms of Life, P. 174.

  8. 8

    Selections, Haight, ed., p. 476.