Tag Archives: George Eliot

Gwendolen as St. Cecilia: Some Beginning Thoughts on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

I am so happy to be occupying, once again, a world that George Eliot has created with her novel Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen, like many of the heroines in Eliot’s novels, is willful, independent, and a fierce presence from the very start. When we first meet her she is gambling and completely believes in the force of her luck at the roulette table and the impact of her elegant figure on her male admirers. Upon entering the home that she will occupy with her mother and four sisters, Gwendolen makes a grand entrance fitting for a young woman so confidant and headstrong; she poses at the piano and remarks to her family and the servants—her audience—that she would make the perfect figure for a portrait of Saint Cecilia:

‘Mamma, mamma, pray come here!’ said Gwendolen, Mrs. Davilow having followed slowly in talk with the housekeeper. ‘Here is an organ. I will be Saint Cecilia: someone shall paint me as Saint Cecilia. Jocosa (that was her name for Miss Merry), let down my hair. See, mamma!’

She had thrown off her hat and gloves, and seated herself before the organ in an admirable pose, looking upward; while the submissive and sad Jocosa took out the one comb which fastened the coil of hair and then shook out the mass till it fell in a smooth light-brown stream far below its owner’s slim waist.

Mrs. Davilow smiled and said, ‘A charming picture, my dear!’ not indifferent to the display of her pet, even in the presence of the housekeeper. Gwendolen rose and laughed with delight. All this seemed quite to the purpose on entering a new house which was so excellent a background.

Like the martyr Saint Cecilia, Gwendolen has an interest in music and she is a strong willed woman who demands the attention of those around her. Saint Cecilia wished to remain a Virgin but her parents married her off to a pagan nobleman named Valerian. But Cecilia convinces her husband to convert to Christianity and they are both killed for their faith. In the first few chapters of this novel, my mind kept wandering back to this image of Gwendolen as Saint Cecilia. Eliot especially makes it a point to highlight Gwendolen’s talent, for which she is rather proud, as a singer and musician; and we are made very aware of the fact that Gwendolen has no real interest in marriage but views it as a means to an end—if she marries a wealthy man then her importance in life will be greatly elevated.

I suspect in this scene I’ve highlighted that, not only are we are getting a glimpse at Gwendolen’s spirit, but we are also meant to see her hubris on full display. I have no doubt that Eliot’s use of this Saint is rather deliberate and symbolic and I look forward to occupying Gwendolen’s world for a while and seeing where Eliot takes us with his image.

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading Daniel Deronda, a few fellow readers responded that this was their favorite Eliot novel. I would say that my favorites in order are Middlemarch, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner. (I have yet to read Romola, Felix Holt or Scenes of a Clerical Life.) It will be interesting to see where Daniel Deronda falls on my hierarchy of Eliot novels. What is your favorite Eliot?


Filed under British Literature, Classics

Frail Vessels: Concluding Thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady

In an essay that explains his process and literary technique in The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James writes:

The novel is of its very nature an “ado,” an ado about something, and the larger the form it takes the greater of course the ado.  Therefore, consciously, that was what one was in for—for positively organizing an ado about Isabel Archer.

One looked it well in the face, I seem to remember, this extravagance; and with the effect precisely of recognizing the charm of the problem.  Challenge any such problem with any intelligence, and you immediately see how full it is of substance; the wonder being, all the while, as we look at the world, how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering.  George Eliot has admirably noted it—‘In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.’

As I have made my way through the second part of this novel, I could not quite figure out what about Isabel’s story affected me so deeply.  But James’s own words about his heroine, and similar characters in Eliot’s novels, provided me with an answer—she insists on mattering.  Isabel is a charming, beautiful young woman whose inheritance from her uncle gives her what she wants more than anything in the world, freedom and choice.  It is no wonder that she rejects one suitor after another, since marriage, to her, would mean giving up her liberty.  I did feel immensely sorry for her suitors, especially Lord Warburton, who genuinely loved Isabel and had a difficult time putting aside his love.  But reading about Isabel march headlong into a series of choices that make her life wretched was even more painful.

The most brilliant piece of writing in the book is an occasion during which Isabel, late in the night, reflects on the horrible mistake she has made that puts her in the very cage which she was so desperately trying to avoid.  She is duped into making this mistake, but her loved ones try to make her see her error in judgment before she acts.  Unfortunately for Isabel she is naïve and trusts the wrong people.  Once she is plunged into an unhappy life she accepts it with a great deal of stoicism and refuses to do anything to make a better, or at least a more comfortable, existence for herself.  She views her solitude, her fear and her entrapment as a type of penance for her poor choices.  James, himself, acknowledges that Isabel’s inner dialogue is some of best writing in the story and he says about these lines, “Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward than twenty ‘incidents’ might have done.”  Isabel’s thoughts during her vigil go on for several pages, but I offer here one of the best, and most chilling, passages:

It was not her fault—she had practiced no deception; she had only admired and believed.  She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of the multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end.  Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and where it served to deepen the feeling of failure.

James’s novel has shattered me and, despite the fact that there are several people in her life that love her and want to help her, I still came away with a negative view of the world.  I need to take a bit of a break from James’s novels and to think more about this one.  I have collections of his letters, diaries and essays that will keep me busy for a while.


Filed under Classics

Poised Above Pleasure or Pain: Some final thoughts on The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot’s novels usually affect me very deeply and The Mill on the Floss has been no exception. When I am in the midst of one of her books, I find myself steeling every free moment I can to read it and continually thinking about the characters and plots she so masterfully creates. The plight of Maggie Tulliver, as I mentioned in a previous post, has particularly captured my attention. Maggie is not like the other English women in St. Ogg’s; she is darker skinned, with dark eyes and dark, wild hair to match. Her personality is also quite different than other women as she experiences life with more passion and intensity than is appropriate for a proper, English young lady. She craves love, kindness and affection from her taciturn and stubborn family, especially her brother and her father.

When Maggie does finally experience an intense love that matches her own passion, it is for a self-confidant man from St. Ogg’s named Stephen Guest. But when they meet both she and the object of her love are tied to other people; Stephen is engaged to Maggie’s dear cousin, Lucy, and Maggie is bound to an old, childhood romance with Philip Wakem. The sexual tension and passion that Eliot builds into Maggie and Stephen’s encounters are the stuff of literary brilliance. The two are frequently thrown into social situations in which they take pleasure in one another’s company but try to resist the temptation of this passion. In the scene before their mutual feelings are revealed, Eliot writes about Maggie: “Even the coming pain could not seem bitter—she was ready to welcome it as a part of life, for life at this moment seemed a keen vibrating consciousness poised above pleasure or pain.”

In the culminating emotional scene between them, Stephen is trying to convince himself and Maggie that they should be together even though neither of them wants to cause what will be an inevitable pain to others in their lives. Stephen’s strongest argument, I think, is when he reminds Maggie that they will end up marrying their respective fiances under false pretenses and insincere feelings: “It is unnatural: we can only pretend to give ourselves to any one else. This is wrong in that too—there may be misery in it for them as well as for us. Maggie, you must see that—you do see that.” Maggie’s response will stand out in my mind as one of those great passages found in timeless literature:

O it is difficult—life is very difficult! It seems right to me sometimes that we should follow our strongest feeling;—but then, such feelings continually come across the ties that all our former life has made for us—the ties that have made others dependent on us—and could cut them in two. If love were quite easy and simple, as it might have been in paradise, and we could always see that one being first towards whom…I mean, if life did not make duties for us before love comes, love would be a sign that two people ought to belong to each other. But I see—I feel it is not so now: there are things we must renounce in life; some of us must resign love.”

It is so utterly tragic that when she finally feels the love she craves that Maggie must give it up. I keep thinking about that now clichéd Tennyson quote as I reread this paragraph: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Would Maggie really agree with this? Or would she rather have spared herself the pain that comes along with such a love?


Filed under British Literature, Classics

Review- The Honeymoon: A Novel About George Eliot by Dinitia Smith

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press.

My Review:
The HoneymoonThe most upsetting aspect of this fictional biography of George Eliot was the message forced upon her by her family that she was not a beautiful person and never would be.  From the time she was a five-year-old girl she was told that she was physically ugly and that no man would ever marry her.  Her mother favors her other two children over her; her father dotes on her but it seems that he pays her extra attention out of a sense of pity for his ugly child.  It was difficult and sad to read that from an early age the emphasis on her physical appearance greatly affected every aspect of her life.  Her father provided her with the best education because no man would marry her and she would have to be able to support herself.

When the book opens, Marian Evans, which is the famous author’s real name, is on her honeymoon in Venice;  she has just married a man twenty years her junior and it is evident that this is a platonic marriage which is void of any physical pleasures.  Marian and her husband Johnnie seem uneasy for a variety of reasons and most of the book is a flashback to earlier times in her life.  In her younger years, Marian has several affairs with married men which make her feel lonely and guilty.  Her low self esteem, due to what she perceives is her “ugly” exterior, makes her vulnerable to these men when they show her any type of attention.

Marian is depicted as an intelligent, curious, and kind woman.  She has learned several languages including German, Italian and Hebrew.  Whenever she is at a party and around a group of people, the most famous minds among them are attracted to her because of her sharp mind and intellect.  She first has an affair with a good family friend, Charles Bray,  but he casts her off for a young maid.  She is then seduced by the publisher John Chapman who owns the literary magazine she works for.  But when his wife and his other mistress get jealous he ends the affair.  After this string of empty affairs, Marian is dejected and feels that she is doomed to a life of loneliness without the love of a man.

Marian meets George Lewes through a mutual friend and their relationship is built on an appreciation for all things intellectual.  They read the same books, share their writing pieces and go to the theater together.  When they do become lovers George reassures her that, despite the fact that he is legally married, he has every intention of being with her for the rest of his life.  They do stay together and live together as man and wife for over twenty years.  Their deeply emotional and intimate relationship is the best aspect of the book; even though they never have any children together she treats George’s children as her own.  It is George who encourages her to start publishing her writings and he gives her valuable feedback on her manuscripts.

When George dies Marian is absolutely lost.  She begins to rely on Johnnie, a family friend, especially to sort out her finances.  At this point in the book she is a very rich woman because of the success of her novels and Johnnie protects her assets and watches over her like a doting son.  When Johnnie proposes marriage to Marian it is shocking because they have had no hint at any romantic feelings for one another.  It is subtly suggested in the book that Johnnie is gay and he is marrying Marian to try to act like a normal, British man.   He is emotionally struggling but we are never given the exact details of his inner turmoil.  During their honeymoon Johnnie starts to mentally unravel and he attempts suicide by jumping into the canal.

The Honeymoon is an interesting look at the life of this prolific, female, British writer.  I always knew that George Eliot lived with Lewes but were never legally married.  The details in the book about their arrangement were enlightening.  The book also provides an important message: beauty is much deeper than a person’s outward, physical appearance.

About the Author:
D SmithDinitia Smith is novelist, Emmy award-winning filmmaker, and journalist. She worked as a correspondent for The New York Times, specializing in literature and the arts, for 12 years. She has taught at many institutions, including Columbia University.


Filed under Historical Fiction

Review: Adam Bede by George Eliot

We are expecting a blizzard here in the Northeast, so I have the perfect, classic book for you to get snowed in with for the long duration!

My Review:

Adam BedeThe strength of this book lies in the sympathetic, well-rounded and moving characters which Eliot portrays in a 19th Century bucolic setting.  The centerpiece of the book, of course, is Adam Bede himself, a simple but hard-working carpenter who strives to be good at his craft and a dutiful son and brother.  His loyalty and strength of character are admired by all those around him, rich and poor and young and old alike.

In contrast to Adam is Arthur Donnithorne who is the heir to his grandfather’s estates.  As a member of the landed gentry he is held in high esteem simply by virtue of his position in society.  He is younger than Adam and more brash; as a consequence of his youth and perhaps his privileged upbringing he does not take into consideration the consequences of his actions.  And where Adam is always honest and forthright, Arthur will quickly make up lies to cover his indiscretions.

The dramatic juxtaposition of the female characters in the novel is equally fascinating.  Hetty Sorrel, a simple farm girl who spends her days working in her Aunt Poyser’s dairy, wants so desparately to escape her life of hard work and monotony.  Hetty’s life is consumed with thoughts of possessing pretty things, making the most of her outward appearance, and attracting a man who will adorn her with finery.

Dinah, Hetty’s cousin by marriage, is a woman who has adopted Methodist beliefs and actually seeks out others who are suffering; she gives comfort to the poor, sick and dying and cares nothing for earthly possessions.  Dinah also has no interest in marriage or children for fear that these things will be a distraction to her religious and spiritual calling.

Eliot’s minor characters are rich in detail and offer some comic relief. Mrs. Poyser, a wife of one of the tenant farmers, does not hold back from speaking her mind, even to old Mr. Donnithorne whose upkeep of their rented farm does not impress her.  Mrs. Poyser’s cherubic daughter Totty loves her family and is the happiest of little girls as she grows up amidst the animals, gardens and dairy on the Hall Farm.

This multi varied cast of characters are entangled in interesting plot twists that surprised me more than a few times.  Love triangles, lies, romance and even a shocking crime will keep you turning the pages of this book until the very end.  ADAM BEDE is a remarkable piece of 19th Century British literature and a great place to start of you are interested in reading George Eliot.

Many classic books such as Adam Bede are free to download on your Kindle.  Click here to go to Amazon and get this book free.


Filed under Classics