George Eliot's portraiture passed through three major phases. In Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede, she was primarily concerned to show that looks do mirror personality, that there are, as G. H. Lewes put it, "subtle connections between physical and mental organisation." In these early works, phrenology helped her to create portraits that give reliable clues to temperament and behavior. With Romola and Felix Holt, however, the correlation between appearance and reality becomes more problematic. Influenced less by phrenology and more by Ruskin and Hawthorne, Eliot grew preoccupied with the portrayal of evil and with the discrepancy between innocent-looking portraits and corrupt sitters. Finally, the gap between static picture and changing person becomes normative in Eliot's portraiture, so that Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda abound with partial portraits, visual definitions of character that are qualified as soon as given. The knowledge afforded by portraiture grows more uncertain and more complex as Eliot's work progresses, and the significance of the English portrait tradition itself becomes ambiguous. Sometimes the tradition represents an admirable continuity of English history, but at other times it reflects only the vanity of an exclusive and dying aristocracy. The variety of meanings it can encompass, from the moral and psychological to the historical and sociological, makes Eliot's literary portraiture richer than that of any earlier novelist in English.
Last modified 20 February 2000