On the Heights

Selections from George Eliot's Letters

edited by Gordon S. Haight
Yale University Press, 567 pp., $25.00
George Eliot
George Eliot; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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