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Tuesday, February 6, 2007

George and Jane

There is so much enthusiastic attention, in the circles in which I travel, paid Jane Austen, and yet no one ever seems to think of George Eliot.

I'm in the midst of The Mill on the Floss -- the first of hers I've read -- and, so far, she seems to have almost all of Austen's acuity of observation and facility with language, much of her wit, and if anything more greatness of spirit. Eliot is actually able to see those individuals -- children, servants, gypsies -- who were invisible to her great predecessor.

It is a particular delight to have children's inner lives described in something approaching Austenian vividness. The phrase "five dark minutes" occurs early in the wonderful BBC recording of The Mill on the Floss, and on hearing it I laughed so long and so loud that, as I handed him my dollar bill two or three minutes later, still in tears and giggles, the attendant at the toll plaza of the Dulles Acess Toll Road thought me very peculiar indeed.

Posted by benrosen at February 6, 2007 02:36 PM | Up to blog

Let me know when you get to Middlemarch. I read it in 11th grade, and it didn't do a whole lot for me. From my vague recollection of it, I'd say that Eliot's problem, in terms of Austen fan appeal, is that her protagonists aren't as vivid and their lives don't have the involving tension that Austen's do. On the other hand, in 11th grade I probably wouldn't have appreciated Austen either, so YMMV.

Also, don't underestimate Austen's first-mover advantage. Austen's the first English-language novelist anybody still reads. (Tom Jones fans exist, but are extremely rare even among English majors.) By the time we get to Eliot -- what, fifty years later? -- she's one of a crowd.

Posted by: David Moles at February 8, 2007 04:59 AM

Oh, I'm a big fan of Middlemarch. I first read it in my early twenties, and have reread it several times since. Eliot's characters are so individual, so nuanced. And she launches satiric authorial asides that make me laugh out loud--yet they don't interfere with her deep sympathy for even her most unlikable characters.

I'm an enthusiastic Austen reader as well.

Posted by: Deborah Roggie at February 12, 2007 02:18 PM

Hi Deborah!

Okay, so I finished The Mill on the Floss with extremely mixed feelings. The first third was brilliant, the second third was also brilliant but frustrating -- Maggie's indecision and fallibility was, on the one hand, sort of compellingly real, and on the other hand really irritating -- at times she makes you long for even Emma Woodhouse's or Marianne Dashwood's self-respect and internal honesty. And the last third was... missing, because the story ends abruptly and totally out of the blue. Um. Which sort of worked, actually. It left me moved and shell-shocked on one level, if extremely annoyed on another.

But, well... by the end I wasn't wondering any more why Janeites aren't all hailing Eliot as the Second Coming. Austen's books are satisfying on a stylistic level -- they are elegantly concluded, they fit in a certain conventional frame (the Happily Ever After that romance authors acronymize to HEA, for one thing) -- their content may sometimes be radical, but in form they are restrained as sonnets.

Eliot seems to me much more interested in the real, in jarring us out of convention. But then, maybe I'm totally misreading her because I'm not familiar with the conventions of her contemporaries. (In her interest in the rough edges of emotion and her sympathy for vulnerability to the passions, she recalls the Brontes...)

The end result, though, is that I found the book very frustrating... but I am grateful for having gotten to know Maggie Tulliver, for a little while, and I miss her. She leaves an ache. Austen's heroines are all a bit too well squared away at the end, to leave an ache.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 12, 2007 04:33 PM

I know what you mean about Austen's heriones seeming, well, too finished at the end of the book. Jane's done with them, and that's final. This far and no farther. HEA rules.

Eliot's characters, however, seem to continue on after the framework of the book. In Middlemarch she has a final (oh-so-Victorian) chapter telling what happens to each of the main characters after the story proper ends. It works.

(I haven't read any other Eliot, though I've started and put down Romola twice now, and I've got a copy of Daniel Deronda on my to-read pile.)

Dickens, Trollope, and Mrs. Gaskell have some wonderful characters, but I think Eliot goes deeper into the workings of the human heart. And she avoids the Victorian sentimentality of her peers in favor of three-dimensional heroines and villains.

Posted by: Deborah Roggie at February 13, 2007 10:36 AM

I'm with Deborah - I love Middlemarch! It's my favorite of George Eliot's books.

I'd argue with the idea that Jane Austen's heroines are finished at the end of each book, though. I came across a lovely tidbit in one of Austen's letters where she talks about going to an exhibition of fashionable paintings, mostly portraits of wealthy women and men from high society. She says she found the portrait of Jane Bingley (nee Bennet) straight away and at first was frustrated at not finding Elizabeth Darcy's portrait - but then she realized that of course, Mr Darcy would never want his wife's portrait exhibited publicly, and that Elizabeth's portrait was no doubt hanging privately, back home at Pemberley...

It was just a neat moment in the letter, realizing how real her characters felt to her and how their lives continued for her well after the books ended.

Posted by: Steph Burgis at February 17, 2007 01:33 PM

Wow, that's really cool -- ah, here it is! :-)

But it's not really that Austen's characters have vanished utterly (and Lord knows there is apparently a vast crop of "sequels" to P&P, including mystery series in which Elizabeth and Darcy do the Nick & Nora thing...!) but, still -- they're very squared away. Elizabeth's portrait hangs at Pemberly, Darcy too proud of her to allow it to be exhibited, she too content with him to mind. He has quite taken her out of our hands.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 17, 2007 08:45 PM

Mm, that is a good point. I guess when it comes down to it it's the difference between a romance and a literary novel (even one that might include a romantic subplot or two) - that sense of resolution, at least of one part of life. Like the Jenny Crusie quote about writing: "A great book is about the most important moment in a character’s life” - the characters in a romance novel will continue to have good lives but probably not equally important crisis points, at least not any time soon. (And I have to admit, I generally hate the sequels to Austen's novels, because they feel to me as if they're introducing artificial conflict into something that has already been neatly sorted.) I think it probably comes down to personal preference in the end, whether that feeling of neat resolution is more or less satisfying...

Posted by: Steph Burgis at February 19, 2007 09:36 AM
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