An Appreciation of George Eliot

Back in college, I startedbut put down that sprawling book after just a couple dozen pages. I guess I was too young and inexperienced to really appreciate a fictional work of that magnitude.
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I'm no George Eliot expert, but I know what I like and I like George Eliot. One of the best novelists ever? I think so.

It took me many years to come to the point of saying that. Back in college, I started Middlemarch but put down that sprawling book after just a couple dozen pages. I guess I was too young and inexperienced to really appreciate a fictional work of that magnitude. I moved on to many other authors, and Mary Ann Evans remained, for me, a literary colossus in name only.

Then, this past winter, I saw Eliot's work on my local library's shelves for the umpteenth time, and finally resolved to try her again. I figured shorter was better when re-inserting one's toe in the water, so I first grabbed the 200-something-page Silas Marner -- the supposed moralistic bane of high-school students everywhere.

Reader, I loved it! Such a moving tale of a man done wrong, and how that miserly weaver comes out of his shell after discovering an unexpected addition to his household. There wasn't a dry eye in the house (well, I was the only one home at the time) when Eppie remained loyal to Silas by saying no to a rich "benefactor."

Then I backtracked to Eliot's first novel, the book that immediately rocketed her to fame in 1859 England. Adam Bede -- set six decades earlier (Eliot tended to place her stories in the past) -- is the superb tale of a likable rural carpenter, his love for a woman undeserving of that love, her shocking downfall, and the events that ensue. While it's yet another Eliot novel with a male title character, ahead-of-her-time preacher Dinah is a major, complex character.

I eagerly moved on to Eliot's most autobiographical work, The Mill on the Floss -- in which Eliot (1819-1880) again spent part of a book exploring the strictures put on women in the hyper-patriarchal 19th century. Maggie is much smarter and infinitely more appealing than her older brother Tom, but he's the one given a better education and final say in the future of the bereft Tulliver family. A tragic, mesmerizing novel with a powerful ending that showed Eliot could have kept up with any male adventure writer if she had chosen that genre. Great fight scene in Adam Bede, too.

Then it was time to revisit Middlemarch. Now more capable of appreciating a long, leisurely novel, I found the book to be incredibly rich and deep. The ardent/admirable/initially naive Dorothea Brooke may be the "star," but many other major and secondary characters also draw our attention. Indeed, one mark of Eliot's writing is that she not only focuses on particular protagonists (who are as living and breathing as fictional characters can be), but also paints complete pictures of a community and society in general. In Middlemarch, that means a memorable supporting cast; plenty of talk about politics, political reform, religious faith, religious doubt, science, art, commerce, class, and "progress"; and plenty of allusions to morality, corruption, competitiveness, kindness, jealousy, and more. The town of Middlemarch has it all -- a world in microcosm.

Also, the enormously intelligent/learned Eliot doesn't pull punches about real life, and about hopes and dreams that often get deferred or dashed. Middlemarch's masterly dissections of the disastrous Dorothea/Edward Casaubon marriage (Edward turns out to be despicable) and the near-disastrous Dr. Lydgate/Rosamond marriage (Rosamond, you're so vain) are grim and almost unbearable, yet fascinating and psychologically astute. Indeed, few authors can match Eliot's psychological insights -- often revealed when she becomes the omniscient narrator waxing philosophical.

And Eliot's prose: as good as it gets! Her characters' dialogue: as believable as can be (including the author's uncanny use of rural dialect). Her sympathies? With the struggling and non-rich. Her humor? Eliot can be quite funny and satirical at times.

What's your opinion of Eliot's work? Your favorite novel of hers? If you haven't tried much of Eliot, is there an author who gives you just about everything you want out of a fiction writer? Eliot (like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and a few others) does that for me.


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