decorated initial 'G' eorge Eliot published her first work of fiction, Scenes From Clerical Life, in Blackwood's Magazine serially (1857-8). The Mill on the Floss (1860) reflects her break with her brother Isaac. Begun in November 1860 and completed on 10 March, 1861, Silas Marner is a highly unified novella about learning to love unconditionally and act responsibly, about personal redemption through love. Silas, cut off from the fellowship of the Lantern Yard and victimized by malice, lust, and greed, is saved from self-pity through the arrival of an infant at the Christmas season. As is consistent with Wordsworth's notions about literature, the story shows what is extraordinary in the lives of ordinary men and women. Jennifer Uglow points out that Molly's story is a re-working of Hetty's in Adam Bede: "both are seduced by dreams of marriage to men of substance and status, but Molly's final bitterness is material rather than emotional" (148).

Her fate mirrors Hetty's. In his reformation Silas dramatizes Carlyle's "Everlasting Yea" from Sartor Resartus, re-forging the bonds of fellow-feeling that enable him to accept the mixture of good and evil in human nature. The well-balanced tale ends the early phase of Eliot's career as a novelist.

In Romola she focuses on a period removed from that of her earlier work, the 1490s in Florence. After her delineation of English rural communities in her first four novels, this historical novel set in Renaissance Italy marks a widening of Eliot's perspective as she deals with complexities of human nature at a turning point in the history of western civilisation. In Felix Holt, The Radical, and Middlemarch she dramatizes the years 1829 to 1833, a period of social and political reform in England, the former focusing on labour strife in the Midlands. In Daniel Deronda she projects an 1860s Zionist vision of a new Israel.

In character Eliot's realism led her to create personages neither good nor evil; in each story she studies several characters in depth against the background of a village chorus. Her plot tends to arise from the inter-relationships of these carefully-drawn characters. Typically, she builds a character's dialogue from his trade, which provides a symbolic and metaphorical framework--for instance, by trade a builder, Adam Bede often thinks in terms of architectural and construction imagery. She up-holds chance as the chief factor in human life, as when Eppie makes her way to the cottage of Silas. Sometimes, however, she is too omniscient, moralizing at length, as in Adam Bede, and telling the reader about the character and passing judgment instead of letting a character reveal himself. Henry James objected to Eliot's dictating in this manner to her reader. She sometimes leads the reader into making snap judgments about characters and their motivations.

Like Jane Austen, Eliot employs a series of social gatherings such as the young squire's twenty-first birthday festivities and the Poysers' harvest home in Adam Bede to inter-relate her characters and bring new characters on stage, as in Book One, Chapter Eleven, of Middlemarch. Unlike Austen, Eliot does not maintain the convention of presenting certain good characters ("true wits") with whom the reader is expected to identify in order to learn virtue (for example, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice). Eliot does, however, utilize essay-like asides to offer her philosophical interpretations of life. Unlike Dickens, Eliot never allows her minor characters to get out of control and steal the scene. Examining her central characters in depth, Eliot often abandons conventional plot-formulae by failing to provide an entirely happy ending. Her stories usually end somberly, without a real hero or heroine emerging.

Eliot began her greatest work, Middlemarch, in 1867 and completed it in 1872; it was published in Blackwood's Magazine in eight monthly instalments, although she had finished only three when the serial run began in 1871. She envisioned the Vincey part of the story as complete in itself in 1869. To add to the story's realism she carefully investigated provincial hospitals, medical practices, and physicians, rather than accept conventional thinking and stereotypes. Although she was to write one final lengthy novel (Daniel Deronda) before her death in 1880, it is for Middlemarch that she is still remembered as "The Victorian Sage," a remarkable achievement for a woman in nineteenth-century Britain.


Victorian Web George Eliot

Last modified 18 February 2001