|Trade paperback, 505 pages|
Published 1990 (contents: 1846-79)
Acquired August 2015
Read May 2017
edited by A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren
Wit, acumen, imagination, feeling as distinguished from sensation, reason as a subjective faculty, – all these so-called powers of the soul, are powers of humanity, not of man as an individual; they are products of culture, products of human society. [...] To ask a question and to answer, are the first acts of thought. Thought originally demands two. It is not until man has reached an advanced stage of culture that he can double himself, so as to play the part of another within himself. (462)This volume collects a variety of writing by George Eliot, from across four decades: her journals, reviews of a diverse range of books, letters, poems, and translations. The editors, A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren, seem to have a particular interest in areas where Eliot expresses her opinions on the importance/function of art, and on the role of women. Eliot was a smart, witty woman, and so of course, her essays make for smart, witty reading. Some of what's collected here, the most famous stuff, I'd already read in Nathan Sheppard's The Essays of "George Eliot", so I skipped over that material, but that still left a lot of good stuff.
Parts of particular interest include her 1866-70 correspondence with Frederic Harrison, which may have inspired Middlemarch (1871-72); he asked her to write about a utopian village run by scientist to demonstrate the power of Positivism, and she replied that "æsthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity. But if it ceases to be purely æsthetic – if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram – it becomes the most offensive of all teaching" (248). If Middlemarch is anything, it is anti-utopian, but it definitely deals with "life in its highest complexity," as indeed do all of her works-- yet they still all engage in "æsthetic teaching" too.
Review-wise, I particularly got something out of those of R. W. Mackay's The Progress of Intellect (1851),* where she sifts out some of what there is to like about Positivism; of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (1855), where she argues under what circumstances a book depicting immorality can still promote morality, concluding that in overtly moral novels, "The emotion of satisfaction which a reader feels when the villain of the book dies of some hideous disease, or is crushed by a railway train, is no more essentially moral than the satisfaction which used to be felt in whipping culprits at the cart-tail" (308); of Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! (1855), where she decries how Kinglsey lets his fiction be taken over by his shoddy moralizing; and of John Ruskin's Modern Painters (1856), where you can see some of her own theory of art emerge, being developed (one presumes) on its way to its fullest statement in Adam Bede (1859).
The translations (I've quoted from her 1854 translation of Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity above) are also worthy inclusions; they come from early in her career, and you can see how they would influence both her theories of art and knowledge and her fiction, especially (as always) Middlemarch.
* All dates given are those of her review, not the reviewed book's publication.