George Eliot produced over 60 essays and reviews, the majority of which were published in the period 1854–56, immediately preceding her novel-writing career. During this time she published regularly in two radical journals: the quarterly Westminster Review and the weekly Leader. She also contributed a smaller number of essays to the Saturday Review and Fraser’s Magazine. The essays largely took the form of literary reviews, but the freedom of this genre allowed her to tackle issues beyond those of the literary as it is narrowly defined: for instance, she wrote a number of important essays on evangelism and religion (“Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming,” 1855), women’s rights (“Woman in France,” 1854; “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft,” 1855), and philosophy (“R.W.Mackay’s Progress of the Intellect,” 1851; “The Future of German Philosophy,” 1855).
Eliot returned to the essay form in 1865 when she was invited to contribute some pieces to the Pall Mall Gazette and the Fortnightly Review. These include a short piece on the importance of German philosophical culture, “A Word for the Germans,” and an essay on “The Logic of Servants,” an explanation of why the franchise should not be extended to the servant class, exposing her socially conservative political views. In 1868, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the journal which had published most of her fiction, invited her to write an essay on the 1867 Reform Bill in the persona of Felix Holt, the hero of her hugely successful novel of the previous year. An essay steeped in organic metaphors, the “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt” advises the newly enfranchised class of the gravity of their responsibility, and is a clear statement of the conservatism of her beliefs.
Eliot’s relationship with the Westminster Review began when she moved to London to seek an independent living after the death of her father. At this stage she had already published her translation of D.F. Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) and Spinoza’s Tractatus theologicopoliticus (Ethics). Later she translated Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christenthums (The Essence of Christianity). Her translation work is significant for its introduction of German historical criticism, or Higher Criticism, into British intellectual culture. Through her friends in the Midlands she was introduced to the publisher John Chapman, who bought the Westminster Review in 1851.
Eliot lodged with the Chapmans for a number of years, writing for the Review, and between 1852 and 1854 took over as managing editor, a position that gave her full editorial control.
Eliot’s essays from the 1854–56 period are noteworthy for their freshness and energy, the breadth of learning they display, their judiciousness, and also their wit and sometimes savage irony. The essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856) is characteristic of Eliot, the essayist, at her best and funniest. However, in critical opinion her achievement as an essayist is generally considered to pale beside that of her subsequent achievements as a novelist. When critical attention is focused on the essays, it is usually to consider them as precursors to her novels. Critics find in the essays the treatment of themes that dominate the novels (e.g. a critique of religious orthodoxies, the development of humanist notions of sympathy, and so on), and the development of stylistic qualities that come to characterize her mature novelistic techniques.
In the context of a literary history of the essay, however, Eliot is significant as one of the most intelligent and elegant practitioners of the genre in the mid-Victorian period.
Moreover, the authoritative and sympathetic voice that she was able to assume within the essay form contributed to the development of her distinctive narrative style in the novels.
Recent historicist and feminist critics have instigated a reassessment of the essays as works in their own right. In particular her essays on women have been analyzed as an expression of a formation of a distinctive feminist position—a conservative feminism that accepted women’s social inferiority but argued that women should share an equal moral and intellectual culture with men.
A number of essays from Eliot’s notebooks have also been published (e.g. “Notes on Form in Art,” wr. 1868; “How I Came to Write Fiction,” wr. 1857). These pieces deal with technical and aesthetic issues of writing fiction and, together with pieces from her published essays (such as “The Natural History of German Life,” 1856), have provided the basis for constructing Eliot’s literary theory. The emphasis is largely on realism within fiction.
Also noteworthy is Eliot’s last published work, The Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879). This is a work that has received very little critical attention, possibly on account of its unusual generic status, on the borders of fiction and the essay: it is a series of short sketches written in the persona of bachelor clergyman Theophrastus Such. The essays deal with a variety of issues of topical interest from science, philosophy, and economics.
Frequently obscure in their frames of reference and with little by way of a narrative to support them, they are a far cry from Eliot’s two late masterpieces, Middlemarch (1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876); critics have tended to dismiss them as a collection of unconnected essays. Nevertheless they share the intellectual preoccupations of the late works—broadly, a desire to write about the future—and it is significant that in the end it is the essay that provides Eliot with the formal flexibility she requires to consider this in some ways unwritable project.
Born Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans, 22 November 1819 in Arbury, Warwickshire.
Studied at Miss Lathom’s school, Attleborough; Miss Wallington’s school, Nuneaton, 1828–32; Misses Franklins’ school, Coventry, 1832–35. Responsible for the family household after her mother’s death, 1836; lived with her father in Foleshill, near Coventry, 1841–49; lived in Geneva, 1849–50; moved to London, 1851. Contributor, from 1851, and managing editor, 1852–54, the Westminster Review. Lived in Germany, 1854–55, Richmond, Surrey, 1855–60, and London, 1861–80. Lived with George Henry Lewes, from 1854 (died, 1878). Married John Walter Cross, 1880. Died (of pneumonia) in London, 22 December 1880.
Essays and Related Prose
The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, 1879; edited by Nancy Henry, 1994, and D.J.Enright, 1995
Essays and Leaves from a Note-Book, edited by Charles Lee Lewes, 1884
Early Essays, 1919
Essays, edited by Thomas Pinney, 1963
A Writer’s Notebook, 1854–1879, and Uncollected Writings (includes 16 essays and reviews), edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, 1981
Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings, edited by A.S.Byatt and Nicholas Warren, 1990
Selected Critical Writings, edited by Rosemary Ashton, 1992
Other writings: seven novels (Adam Bede, 1859; The Mill on the Floss, 1860; Silas Marner, 1861; Romola, 1863; Felix Holt, 1866; Middlemarch, 1872; Daniel Deronda, 1876), the collection of stories Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), short stories, some poetry, and correspondence (collected in The George Eliot Letters, edited by Gordon S.Haight, 9
vols., 1954–78). Also translated works from the German.
Collected works edition: The Works, 21 vols., 1878–85(?).
Fulmer, Constance M., George Eliot: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1977
Pangallo, Karen L., George Eliot: A Reference Guide, 1972–1987, Boston: Hall, 1990
Ashton, Rosemary, The German Idea: Four English Writers and the Reception of German Thought, 1800–1860, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980
Beer, Gillian, George Eliot, Brighton: Harvester, and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986
Carroll, David, editor, George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds, George Eliot, Boston: Twayne, 1985
Haight, Gordon S., George Eliot: A Biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968
Knoepflmacher, U.C., “George Eliot, Feuerbach and the Question of Criticism,” Victorian Studies 7, no. 3 (1964):306–09
Myers, William, “George Eliot’s Essays and Reviews,” Prose Studies 1, no. 2 (1978): 5– 20
Myers, William, The Teaching of George Eliot, Leicester: Leicester University Press, and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1984
Robbins, Bruce, The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986
Semmel, Bernard, George Eliot and the Politics of National Inheritance, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994
Shuttleworth, Sally, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984
Stang, G.Robert, “The Voices of the Essayist,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 35 (1980):312–30
Uglow, Jennifer, George Eliot, London: Virago, and New York: Pantheon, 1987
Vogeler, Martha S., “George Eliot and the Positivists,” Nineteenth Century Fiction 35 (1980):406–31
Welsh, Alexander, George Eliot and Blackmail, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985
Witemeyer, Hugh, George Eliot and the Visual Arts, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979
Wright, T.R., “George Eliot and Positivism: A Reassessment,” Modern Language Review 76 (1981):257–72
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