The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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March 10, 2013

Only connect: George Eliot and young Henry James

      It was at this point in 1869, on a Sunday afternoon in May, that the young Henry James was brought to the Priory by two American women, relatives of Charles Eliot Norton, promising to introduce him to George Eliot.  The visitors found Thornie [George Eliot's stepson, who was gravely ill] stretched out on the dining-room floor, contorted in agony, with Marian trying to soothe him. James was 'infinitely moved ... to see so great a celebrity quite humanly and familiarly agitated.' ... Following the visit, James sent his father in America his immortal description of the famous face:

magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.  She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw-bone qui n'en finissent pas ... Now in this vast ugliness reside a most powerful beauty which, in very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.
from George Eliot in Love, by Brenda Maddox
Oh, cruel, very young Henry {he was 26, she was 50}, and I can only forgive him because his admiration was apparently sincere, and because many other people made note of her strong, difficult physical appearance {much more visible when you see a photograph instead of a portrait}.  A few pages later, John Cross, first her financial advisor and later, her much-younger husband, presented her a little differently, still capturing her power, describing a Sunday afternoon a few months later ...
When the drawing-room door opened, a first glance revealed her always in the same low-armchair on the left-hand side of the fire.  On entering, a visitor's eye was at once arrested by the massive head. The abundant hair, streaked with gray now, was draped with lace, arranged mantilla-fashion, coming to a point at the top of her forehead. If she were engaged in conversation her body was usually bent forward with eager, anxious desire to get as close as possible to the person with whom she talked. She had a great dislike to raising her voice, and often became so wholly absorbed in conversation, that the announcement of an incoming visitor sometimes failed to attract her attention ... the moment they [her dull grey eyes?] recognised a friend, they smiled a rare welcome -- sincere, cordial, grace -- straight from the heart.
 Oh lucky, very young Henry. No wonder I find biographies (and simultaneous biography-novel reading) so irresistible. {George Eliot apparently hated them. Awkward, but honoring her wishes would have been such a loss. :)}

I've snuck away from Edith Wharton for a little while -- if not from Henry James, apparently -- to re-read this short, very readable book on George Eliot as I come to finally finish Middlemarch. While I was looking for pictures {these are from about six years before they met, the closest I could find}, I found a reference to how much HJ was influenced by George Eliot and Middlemarch, specifically; I don't remember knowing that, and now of course I need to know more. 

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