Living with George Eliot

Moira Gatens, The University of Sydney

Rebecca Mead The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot, Melbourne, The Text Publishing Company, 2014 (293 pp). ISBN 9-781922079-329 (paperback) RRP $32.99.

Before Marian Evans adopted the nom de plume ‘George Eliot’ she was involved in editing and writing for a journal founded by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham: the Westminster Review. The journal aimed to disseminate progressive and challenging ideas and act as a spur for social, political and moral reform. Through her association with the journal and the social milieu of its London publisher, John Chapman, Evans entered the orbit of many of the luminaries of the Victorian period including J.S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, James and Harriet Martineau, Thomas Huxley and George Henry Lewes, who would become her partner-in-life. Evans came to fiction writing relatively late. She was 38 years old when she published her first short story, ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’. A good deal of her adult life was spent reading, translating and writing about, the intellectually influential works of her time. (See, for example, her translations of Stauss (1846); Feuerbach (1854) and Spinoza (1981); and a collection of her journalistic writing in Eliot (1991)). Evans’s intellectual context was eclectic but her principal interlocutors shared a great enthusiasm for knowledge based in observation and experiment. Many leading British philosophers of the time shunned metaphysics and a priori knowledge, and the Continental philosophers whom Evans especially praised were those who called for a sensual, embodied philosophy, such as Ludwig Feuerbach, and those who applied scientific methods to the study of morality and society, such as Auguste Comte. This is not to say that Evans adopted anyone’s philosophy without reserve. On the contrary, she was an independent thinker whose complex worldview found its most comprehensive expression in her novels, especially the novel many think of as her finest achievement, Middlemarch.

One of the marks of great literature is its apparent timelessness and its capacity to bear repeated readings and varied interpretations. Many writers have praised Middlemarch in terms that highlight its uniqueness. Virginia Woolf declared it the first novel written for grown-ups and A.S. Byatt described it as the greatest English novel. Rebecca Mead’s homage to Middlemarch—the frequently overlooked subtitle of which is ‘A Study of Provincial Life’—opens with an account of her first encounter with this great tome when she was an impressionable seventeen-year-old growing up in an English provincial seaside town. A fundamental premise of Mead’s meditation on Middlemarch is that our developing identities are shaped by what we read quite as much as by our family, friends and immediate social context. Mead claims ‘the book was reading me, as I was reading it’ (p. 5). This is not a claim made in retrospect about a past teenage self who is now a mature woman. More profoundly, Mead’s contention is that her life has been shaped, and her character disciplined, by her repeated readings throughout her life of this great English realist novel. What Mead calls the ‘self-fashioning’ power of novels is not confined to adolescence. Great novels warrant revisiting and continue to provide valuable insight, solace and guidance for each new circumstance in the course of a life: heartbreak, marriage, death and loss.

The question that animates Mead’s monograph is: ‘What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life’ through all its various ups and downs? (p. 10). Using chapter headings that exactly mirror those of Middlemarch, Mead proceeds to plait together three distinct strands composed firstly of her ruminations on the various characters and events in Middlemarch, secondly, the story of Eliot’s life, and finally, the various relationships and events that have punctuated Mead’s own life. Events in one of the three strands are suggestively juxtaposed with those in the other strands. Does this conceit of ‘reading you reading me’ breathe contemporary life into a novel that was published in the early 1870s? Does the presentation of events in Mead’s life alongside similar events in Eliot’s life amount to genuine parallels? Or rather do such comparisons amount to displays of the egoism that Eliot so brilliantly dissects in Middlemarch? One can find reasons to respond in the affirmative as well as in the negative to the last question. In favour of the negative case, the research undertaken for The Road to Middlemarch is professional and meticulous. Mead visits Eliot’s various places of residence, studies her original manuscripts, and reads her letters along with a great deal of high quality Eliot scholarship. All this material is impressively synthesised and seamlessly integrated with Mead’s dominant narrative strategy of doubled reading. One very much feels that her monograph is a labour of love and her enthusiasm for her task is infectious and makes for an engaging reading experience. However, here I am more interested in exploring the affirmative case because it promises to open a larger window onto Eliot’s fiction practices than the vista provided by Mead.

Evans came to fiction writing relatively late.

Mead’s primary identification is with the figure of Dorothea Brooke. But, more problematically, Mead also identifies with George Eliot herself as suggested by the subtitle of her book: ‘My Life with George Eliot’. Eliot, Dorothea and Mead are positioned in the book in such a way that author-character-reader become fused. Dorothea, the mature Mead says, ‘remains for me the embodiment of that unnameable, agonizing ache of adolescence, in which burgeoning hopes and ambitions and terrors and longings are all roiled together’ (p. 43). Although Dorothea is certainly the central character in Middlemarch she is not necessarily the only or the most obvious character with whom a reader could identify and to read Middlemarch from Dorothea’s point of view risks missing much that is of value. But perhaps more importantly, the trials and tribulations of the various characters in Middlemarch should not be allowed to eclipse some of the deeper philosophical questions that Eliot explores in its pages: the nature of true religion; the origin of biological life; freedom and determinism; and, to return to my theme here, egoism.

In a justly famous passage Eliot offers a compelling image to convey the distorting effects of egoism. If one holds a candle against a piece of polished steel that is ‘minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions’ one will experience an optical illusion:

the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement … These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent (Eliot 2003, ch. 27).

Is Mead’s rendering of her own life story in parallel to Dorothea’s story akin to holding a candle to the dazzling surface of Middlemarch? Does Mead read Eliot’s great novel through the prism of her own everyday preoccupations, family dramas and life crises in a way that produces a journalistic equivalent of those concentric circles? Mead’s significant life events—winning a place at Oxford, moving to New York City, being appointed journalist at The New Yorker, falling in and out of love, marrying, having a family, the experience of loss—are all placed in narrative parallel with similar events that define the lives of Eliot’s characters and, sometimes, Eliot herself. For example, when Mead becomes involved with a man who has children from a previous marriage she compares her experiences as stepmother to Eliot’s love for her stepsons by G.H. Lewes.

Mead’s monograph is a labour of love and her enthusiasm for her task is infectious.

The problem of egoism is laid bare in Middlemarch through the representation of the troubled marriage between Dorothea and Mr Casaubon. Described as a not unusual tragedy, their failed union is rooted in the egoism of each. Dorothea’s nature is ardent and she has ambitions and yearnings that her social and historical situation makes hard to realise. Her choice of the elderly scholar Casaubon as her husband stems in part from her belief that he will open up the world of masculine knowledge to her. She sees his ambitious project—discovering ‘the key to all mythologies’—as providing her with an opportunity to contribute to greatness, even if this is ‘only as a lamp-holder’. Her imagined future life as Mrs Casaubon includes the thought that it would be like being married to Pascal! But what does she really know about him? Her picture of him is almost entirely imaginary: she ‘had looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr Casaubon’s mind [and saw] reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought’ (Eliot 2003, ch. 3).

What do we know about Casaubon’s image of Dorothea? Casaubon is obsessed with his scholarly work but despite long years of study and research he is not making progress and does not enjoy recognition from his peers. Dorothea’s desire to learn is matched by his willingness to instruct an impressionable and enthusiastic young pupil. He ‘liked to draw forth her fresh interest in listening, as a means of encouragement to himself’ (Eliot 2003, ch. 10). Dorothea’s ignorance acts to affirm his status as scholar. The imaginary representations that Dorothea and Casaubon form of each other unravel over time. Casaubon’s enthusiasm for schooling Dorothea wanes. Far from playing the role of an enthusiastic disciple, his young bride’s increasingly pertinent queries oppress him: ‘instead of observing his abundant pen scratches and amplitude of paper with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary-bird, [Dorothea] seemed to present herself as a spy watching everything with a malign power of inference’. Rather than providing a buffer against the criticisms of other scholars, he now wonders whether, in marrying Dorothea, he had rather allowed them ‘a more substantial presence’ (Eliot 2003, ch. 20).

Although their situation appears hopeless it holds out the possibility for mutual moral and intellectual growth if only they could overcome the maze of mirrors that underpins their respective egoisms. If Casaubon could open himself to others then his marriage and his work would be much enhanced. But Casaubon remains dazzled by the concentric circles formed by his ‘little sun’. Rather, it is Dorothea who comes to understand ‘the egoistic illusion’. Her ability to distinguish her initial imaginative grasp of Casaubon from a felt understanding of his difference is presented as a significant achievement. The notion of a felt understanding should be not be confused with mere reflection or mere sentiment but rather must be understood in terms of ‘an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects’ that reveals the other as other, that is, as having ‘an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference’ (Eliot 2003, ch. 21). Mr Casaubon’s capacity for felt understanding is not robust. He dies of a degenerative heart condition—lonely, unfulfilled, alienated from his wife, and without finishing his magnum opus.

What kind of moral insight can this fictional representation of a failed marriage offer?

What kind of moral insight can this fictional representation of a failed marriage offer? Can Middlemarch be read as a kind of self-help manual where the lessons learned by its characters can be applied to the life of the reader? Mead is certainly aware of the temptations of the solipsistic reader, conceding that it is ‘hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself’. All the same, a few lines later she insists that ‘all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience’ (p. 172). This sounds a bit like she wants to have it both ways: to assert a mature self-awareness and at the same time preserve the self-satisfaction derived from remaking the book in her own mirror image. To approach Eliot’s fictional works in this way is to miss much that was important to her and to her vision of what good literature can achieve. It fails to take adequate account of her concern with the institutional settings in which people develop their identities and exercise their agency.

In a letter Eliot referred to her novels as ‘simply a set of experiments in life’ and contrasted these putative experiments with ‘shifting theory’ (Eliot 1954–78, vol. 6, p. 216). The opening lines of Middlemarch echo this idea of the novel as laboratory for ‘experiments in life’ where knowledge of ‘the history of man’ consists in attending to how that ‘mysterious mixture [that is, a human being] behaves under the varying experiments of Time’. The complex relation between the historically situated individual and the social, religious and political institutions that determine permissible and impermissible action is always of principal concern in her novels. Yet Mead barely mentions social and political institutions and their differential effects on the capacities of individuals to realise their ambitions. Mead’s narcissism is not the simple solipsism of any reader enjoying the contemplation of self through the contemplation of a safely incorporated fictional other. Rather, it is a more serious narrowness of vision that neglects to note the play between the individual and the institutions that structure the scope for action. For example, she has little to say about the central historical framing device of Middlemarch, namely, the 1832 Great Reform Act that sought to remove rotten boroughs and extend the franchise. But this political context plays a crucial role in the satirical treatment of Dorothea’s uncle, Mr Brooke, in the force of the sometimes savage vignettes of the impoverished lives of Middlemarch’s tenant farmers, and in the characterisation of Will Ladislaw’s search for a meaningful aim in life.

Eliot rightly resisted being classified as a fiction writer.

Eliot’s philosophy advocates the reformation of the institutions in which we dwell quite as much as self-reformation or self-fashioning. Further, she urges that each reformative project should calibrate with the other and she conceives of these tasks as a matter of gradual reform rather than sudden revolution. As Eliot (1991, p. 337) put it in one of her essays: ‘there is a perpetual action and reaction between individuals and institutions; we must try and mend both by little and little—the only way in which human things can be mended’. Eliot endeavoured to contribute to this mending of human things through a close analysis of the interaction between individuals and the particular political, religious and social milieus in which they are embedded and then to offer a sober account of the possibilities for change given the relevant internal and external constraints. In the case of Dorothea, Eliot anticipates the disappointment some readers might feel about Dorothea’s fate—namely, to be ‘absorbed into the life of another’ and to be known only ‘as a wife and a mother’. In the Finale to Middlemarch Eliot insists that ‘no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she [Dorothea] ought rather to have done’. A page later, to underline the point, she writes: ‘there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it’.

Eliot rightly resisted being classified as a fiction writer, ‘pure and simple’ (Eliot 1954–78, vol. 3, p. 302). This is because she resisted what she called ‘the fictions of fancy’ and the temptations of ‘transient inclination’ when composing her narratives (Eliot 1994, p. 110). She always worked to calibrate the exercise of her own exceptional imaginative power with her commitment to realism. This means that she aimed to present her fictional persons, places and times with scrupulous attention to historical fact, renouncing those fictions of fancy that allow stories to conclude in accordance with a theory of just deserts. Eliot experiments with realistic possibilities for the reformation of historically situated characters. On her view the imagination grounds the human disposition to feel sympathy for our fellow human beings. It is this disposition that she sought to realise and refine as moral knowledge in her novels. By her lights, moral maturity always involves the ability to understand the causes that condition our contexts of action. Although such understanding involves judgment, Eliot was adamant that such judgment cannot be reduced to a utilitarian calculation, or to the application of a maxim, but rather must involve reflection and deliberation. Virtue requires the cultivation of good habits—a task that Eliot likened to the repeated exercise of a muscle in order to build strength. As I have argued elsewhere, Eliot’s novels can be understood as attempts to practice a new ‘science of man’ in an ‘experimental’ and embodied way (Gatens 2009).

Eliot’s fictional experiments were designed to provoke the reader to reflect on the ways in which political institutions and social and sexual mores help to determine the shape of human life. Her skeptical attitude towards the value of abstract philosophical theory motivated her preference for the genre of the experimental realist novel. Eliot insisted on the unique capacity of art to evoke sympathetic fellow feeling and moral reflection on those feelings. As Mead’s tribute to Middlemarch shows, art holds great potential to contribute to the enrichment of individual lives but that achievement should not be permitted to eclipse its capacity to also act as spur for social, sexual and political reform.


Eliot, G. 1954–78, The George Eliot Letters, ed. G.S. Haight, 9 volumes, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Eliot, G. 1991, Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, eds A.S. Byatt & N. Warren, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth.

Eliot, G. 1994, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, ed. N. Henry, Iowa University Press, Iowa City.

Eliot, G. 2003, Middlemarch, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth.

Feuerbach, L. 1854, The Essence of Christianity, trans. M. Evans, Chapman, London.

Gatens, M. 2009, ‘The curious empiricism of George Eliot’s literary experiments’, Philosophy Today, vol. 52, pp. 19–27.

Spinoza, B. 1981, Ethics, trans. M. Evans, ed. T. Deegan, Salzburg Studies in English Literature: Romantic Reassessment No. 102, Universität Salzburg, Salzburg. (Note that Evans translated this work in 1856, but it was not published until the date given.)

Strauss, D. 1846, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, trans. M. Evans, Chapman, London.

Moira Gatens is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at The University of Sydney. She has research interests in social and political philosophy, feminist philosophy, early modern philosophy, and philosophy and literature. Much of her most recent research focuses on Spinoza and George Eliot.