22 March 2018

Review: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings by George Eliot

Trade paperback, 505 pages
Published 1990 (contents: 1846-79)
Acquired August 2015

Read May 2017
Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings by George Eliot
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.


  1. Hm, this sounds relevant to an old article I need to go back and revise -- the bit about "her opinions on the importance/function of art, and on the role of women." Are there places where these overlap - as in, where she discusses the woman as artist? (Or genders artists in either direction?)

    1. Going back through my notes, it looks like this happens in her review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend, and Frederika Bremer’s Hertha. I copied out this quotation: "Women have not to prove that they can be emotional, and rhapsodic, and spiritualistic; every one believes that already. They have to prove they are capable of accurate thought, severe study, and continuous self-command." This is part of a critique that Hertha is overly sentimental.

    2. And it looks like they're excerpted from a longer review-essay you can see on Google Books in https://books.google.com/books?id=HUOgAAAAMAAJ