February 16, 2014

Only connect: Virginia Woolf and George Eliot

When Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," what did she mean?  The observation was made in an essay that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement to mark the centenary of George Eliot's birth, in November 1919. Before writing it Woolf immersed herself in Cross's Life and in the novels -- 'in order to sum her up once and for all,' as she wrote to a friend, with a note of self-mockery.
      ... In the essay, she begins by describing the accomplishment of the early works, Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, which seem drawn from Eliot's own rural experiences and are peopled with characters so true to life that readers forget they are fictional. 'We move among them, now bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning acceptance of all that they say and do ...' Woolf writes. ...
      It is in contrast with this sure-handedness that Woolf makes reference to Middlemarch. Here is her full characterization:  'It is not that her power diminishes [after the early novels], for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.'
     'With all its imperfection.' What are these imperfections? Woolf gives few specifics, though she cites Eliot's unwillingness to let one sentence stand for many and contrasts it with the delicacy shown by Jane Austen in Emma. ('Whom are you going to dance with?' asked Mr, Knightley, at the Westons' ball. 'With you, if you will ask me,' said Emma; and she has said enough,' Woolf writes. "Mrs. Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.')

from My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead

{This didn't fit in with anything I wanted to say about this wonderful book yesterday, but I loved it, so here it is.}

{Illustration from an 1898 edition of Emma, found here.}

1 comment:

Frances said...

I had not intended on reading My Life in Middlemarch but every time you mention it, I get a little closer to picking up a copy. :)