andscape and landscape painting afforded George Eliot great visual pleasure and spiritual refreshment. Her enjoyment and careful study of natural appearances found full expression in her novels, impelled by personal feeling and summoned by a tradition of landscape description that had become established in British and American fiction in the time of Mrs. Radcliffe, Scott, and Fenimore Cooper.1 Eliot's responsiveness to landscape views in fiction may be seen in her appreciation of Charles Kingsley's "scene-painting" in Alton Locke, Yeast, and Westward Ho! (Essays, pp. 129-30). Her own vision of landscape combined several important eighteenth- and nineteenth-century traditions. The cult of the picturesque and the English school of topographical painting, both of which had reached their prime in the eighteenth century, were second-nature to George Eliot in her perception and description of country scenes. But she was also profoundly influenced by three nineteenth-century developments in landscape sensibility, each of which came to her in part through the work of Ruskin: the cult of detailed naturalism, which Ruskin advocated and the Pre-Raphaelites practiced; the nature poetry of Wordsworth, which Ruskin echoed in many parts of Modern Painters; and the moral critique of the cult of the picturesque, which finds its classic formulation in volume IV of Modern Painters To explore these five aspects of George Eliot's landscape vision is the purpose of the present chapter. [126/127]
Several of the traditions just mentioned work together harmoniously in the following passage of Middlemarch:
The ride to Stone Court, which Fred and Rosamond took the next morning, lay through a pretty bit of midland landscape almost all meadows and pastures, with hedgerows still allowed to grow in bushy beauty and to spread out coral fruit for the birds. Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood: the pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and trees leaned whisperingly; the great oak shadowing a bare place in midpasture; the high bank where the ash-trees grew; the sudden slope of the old marl-pit making a red background for the burdock; the huddled roofs and ricks of the homestead without a traceable way of approach; the grey gate and fences against the depths of the bordering wood; and the stray hovel, its old old thatch full of mossy hills and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow such as we travel far to see in later life, and see larger, but not more beautiful. These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls — the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father's knees while he drove leisurely. [12:l55-56l
The narrator here is in part a Gilpinesque tourist, in search of the picturesque in all its roughness, variegation, chiaroscuro, and suggestive antiquity ("old, old thatch full of mossy hills and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow such as we travel far to see in later life"). But there is also an element of Ruskinian naturalistic precision in the description of individual features in the landscape, the "little details" that give "each field a particular — physiognomy" such as "the great oak shadowing a bare place in mid-pasture." And finally there is a Wordsworthian emphasis upon the "joy" that such landscape brings in maturity to those who have grown up amidst it. All these tones are characteristic of the George Eliot landscape, which we may now examine in greater detail. "The power of description, both of scenery and of character . . . may be very puissant in the hands of a fine writer, gifted with a [127/128] real sense of the picturesque," G. H. Lewes argued in "The Novels of Jane Austen" (p.109). The cult of the picturesque grew up in the late eighteenth century, making it fashionable to travel in search of landscape views that compose themselves pictorially.1 The models for such views derived in part from the neoclassical heroic landscapes of Claude Lorrain and the Poussins, in part from the wilder, more dramatic visions of Salvator Rosa, and in part from the leafy, aqueous, rock-strewn country scenes of Ruisdael, Hobbema, and other seventeenth-century Dutch painters. William Gilpin's initial definition of the picturesque in 1768 as "that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture" (Tempelman p. 82)3 was refined by a complex debate in the 1790s and early 1800s to mean a kind of aesthetic effect which is neither awesomely sublime nor smoothly beautiful but a blend of those two extremes distinguished by roughness, variety, sudden contrast, chiaroscuro, signs of age or decay, and a power to stimulate in the viewer a piquant mixture of painful and pleasurable impressions and associations.
The coming of Romanticism modified but did not extinguish the cult of the picturesque. Christopher Hussey is more right than not when he asserts that "the picturesque became the nineteenth century's mode of vision" (p. 2) It was certainly a natural mode for George Eliot, whose letters and journals are full of descriptions in the Gilpin tradition. Italy in 1860 showed her "Claude-like scenes of mountains, trees, and meadows, with picturesque accidents of building, such as single round towers, on the heights" (Cross, II, 178). Biarritz in 1867 seemed to G. H. Lewes, and doubtless to Eliot as well, "so picturesque that it may be called a succession of Prouts" (Letters, IV, 331-32). Switzerland in 1860 was mediated through the novelist's prior experience of Alexandre Calame's landscape painting (Letters, III, 79, 309; Cross, II, 51). Except for ruins, the valley of Bercka near Weimar in 1854 had all the necessary ingredients of the picturesque:
The hanging woods — the soft colouring and graceful outline of the uplands-the village with its roofs and spire of a reddish violet hue, muffled in luxuriant trees — the white Kurhaus glittering on a grassy slope — the avenue of poplars contrasting its pretty [128/129]>primness with the wild bushy outline of the wood-covered hill, which rises abruptly from the smooth, green meadows — the clear winding stream, now sparkling in the sun, now hiding itself under soft grey willows — all this makes an enchanting picture. [Essays, p. 121]
Returning from Germany in 1855, the ardent tourist found a charming English landscape at Dover: "As I walked up the Castle hill this afternoon, the town, with its background of softly rounded hills shrouded in sleepy haze, its little lines of water looking golden in the sun, made a charming picture" (Cross, I, 307). Jersey in 1857 offered a feast for the wandering eye (Cross, I, 360-63), and a stroll along the banks of the Trent near Newark in 1868 brought "some charming quiet pictures — Frith landscapes" (Letters, IV, 473).
In 1879, less than two years before her death, Eliot sought to pass on her taste for the picturesque to young Blanche Southwood Lewes, who had just celebrated her seventh birthday with a visit to an exhibition and a boatride on the Thames: "I am sure you must have liked being on the river in the steamboat for the first time. The wide river, and the bridges, and the great buildings that can be seen a long way by the waterside, are all very beautiful, are they not? It would seem to you like another and grander sort of picture, after seeing the small pictures on the wall at the Exhibition" (Letters, VII, 186). Eliot wanted Blanche's vision to be shaped and enriched, as hers was, by the experience of pictures.
Eliot's novels, from the start to the finish of her career, abound with picturesque descriptions in an eighteenth-century vein. She was especially fond of "pretty bits of midland landscape" like the one quoted above from Middlemarch. Here is another representative "bit," this time from Felix Holt.
The Rectory was on the other side of the river, close to the church of which it was the fitting companion: a fine old brick and-stone house, with a great bow-window opening from the library on to the deep-turfed lawn, one fat dog sleeping on the door-stone, another fat dog waddling on the gravel, the autumn leaves duly swept away, the lingering chrysanthemums cherished, tall trees stooping or soaring in the most picturesque variety, [130/131] and a Virginian creeper turning a little rustic hut into a scarlet pavilion. [23:343-44]
After reading a similar description of a parsonage and farm in "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story," John Blackwood wrote to George Eliot: "The picture reminds me strongly of the genuine English rural landscapes with which we are all familiar on canvas or in nature" (Letters, II, 323). Blackwood's was precisely the sort of response Eliot wanted her language in such passages to elicit. The convention of the Gilpinesque tourist-guide may help to account for the anonymous observer who opens so many of George Eliot's stories, mediating between author, reader, and action. The horseback traveler in Adam Bede, the armchair dreamer in The Mill on the Floss, the Florentine shade in Romola, and the stagecoach passenger in Felix Holt are visitors or revisitors on holiday, having no business in the scene except to appreciate it. They make a Gilpinesque discrimination of landscape and figures, and disappear as soon as they have drawn the reader into engagement with the prospect (though the traveler in Adam Bede does reappear later in the novel as the magistrate who helps Dinah gain admission to Hetty's prison cell). They are guides and tutors, demonstrating the quality of perception that the reader must learn to apply to the world within the novel.
Though it came so naturally to her, Eliot knew that the picturesque way of seeing has its dangers. For one thing, it can become facile and overgeneralized. She did not favor the Claudian technique, often imitated by Gilpin in his sketches of Wales and the Lake District, of reconstructing an actual landscape according to an ideal model; see Barbier, p. 107. George Eliot's distaste for Claudian techniques may account for her inability to admire Karl Rottmann's Greek landscapes, which she saw at Munich in 1858 (Cross, ll, 33). She preferred a sense of unique place and abundant local detail in landscape descriptions (see Barrell). From this preference stems her critique of Tom Tulliver's drawing lessons in The Mill on the Floss.
Tom found, to his disgust, that his new drawing-master gave him no dogs and donkeys to draw, but brooks and rustic bridges and ruins, all with a general softness of black-lead surface, indicating that nature, if anything, was rather satiny; and as Tom's feeling for the picturesque in landscape was at present quite latent, it is not surprising that Mr. Goodrich's productions[130/131]seemed to him an uninteresting form of art . . . Tom learned to make an extremely fine point to his pencil, and to represent landscape with a "broad generality," which, doubtless from a narrow tendency in his mind to details, he thought extremely dull. [II, 4:260]
A broad generality in which no characteristic details can be discerned was not George Eliot's idea of a good landscape style. The picturesque must be tempered by the naturalistic. We shall see that in Adam Bede, as in Modern Painters, Claudian ideal landscape is something of a villain.
George Eliot's taste for the representation of actual places shows itself in her imitation of eighteenth-century topographical painting, especially in her descriptions of English country houses and their grounds. John Steegman has shown how the bird's-eye perspective and diagrammatic cartography of early country-house portraits gave way in the eighteenth century to a lower viewpoint, a placing of the house itself in the middle or far distance, and a bringing forward of human and/or animal groups into the intervening space (Steegman). Engraved views of noblemen's and gentlemen's country seats were especially popular between 1760 and 1840 (p. 15). J. P. Neale's six-volume set, published between 1818 and 1823, had a standard pictorial format that can be characterized in the words of John Dixon Hunt: "The typical English landscape garden as generally visualized would consist of undulating grass that leads somewhere down to an irregularly shaped piece of water over which a bridge arches, of trees grouped casually, with cattle or deer, about the slopes, and of houses and other buildings glimpsed in the middle or far distance'' (p.1; see also Morris). When Phillipe Mercier, a transplanted imitator of Watteau, began around 1725 to make the figures in the foreground into portraits, he initiated a special and highly influential form of semitopographical English conversation piece which depicts "family groups in their proper setting, that is in their own park or garden, with a sight of the family home in the background."11
Eliot's skill at country-house portraiture may be seen in her descriptions of Hall Farm and the Chase in Adam Bede, of Transome Court in Felix Holt, and of Offendene, Brackenshaw Park, the [131/132] Abbey, Diplow, and Gadsmere in Daniel Deronda — see Adam Bede (6:102-03, 22:383), Felix Holt (1:15-16), and Daniel Deronda (3:27, 10:144-45, 30:92, 31:119-20, 35:215-17). A favorite and recurring form of architecture in her novels is a plain red-brick structure built in the Queen Anne period, sometimes adjoining the ruins of a medieval abbey. The gables, windows, and doors are ornamented with limestone, but the contrast between the limestone and the brick is diminished by the growth of a powdery, greenish-grey lichen. A flowery lawn cut by graveled, often tree-lined walks or driveways runs from the house to a plantation of trees which nearly surround the house or screen it on the north. The plantation frequently contains Scotch firs, while one or two large firs or cedars or beeches may stand immediately adjacent to the house. If the estate is landscaped, the garden is in the picturesque style, with rolling lawns, man-made lakes, serpentine paths, clumps of trees, and perhaps an occasional glimpse of a white temple. Eliot's affection for "grounds, which are laid out with a taste worthy of a first-rate landscape gardener" was expressed in her early descriptions of the Belvedere gardens at Weimar (Essays, pp. 86-87, 118).
Eliot's most elaborate country-house portrait is of the neo-Gothic Cheverel Manor in "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story." Here the topographical element is very strong; for, as Margharita Laski has said, "Cheverel Manor is photographically Arbury Hall," the Newdigate family seat in Warwickshire near which George Eliot grew up (p. 57). Her description is also a full-fledged conversation piece, beginning with close-up portraits of Caterina Sarti and Lady Cheverel, and then placing the sitters in their habitat:
they sat down, making two bright patches of red and white and blue on the green background of the laurels and the lawn, which would look none the less pretty in a picture because one of the women's hearts was rather cold and the other rather sad. And a charming picture Cheverel Manor would have made that evening, if some English Watteau had been there to paint it: the castellated house of grey-tinted stone, with the flickering sunbeams sending dashes of golden light across the many-shaped panes in the mullioned windows, and a great beech leaning athwart one of the flanking towers, and breaking, with its dark flattened boughs, the too formal symmetry of the front; the [133/133] broad gravel-walk winding on the right, by a row of tall pines, alongside the pool-on the left branching out among swelling grassy mounds, surmounted by clumps of trees, where the red trunk of the Scotch fir glows in the descending sunlight against the bright green of limes and acacias; the great pool, where a pair of swans are swimming lazily with one leg tucked under a wing, and where the open water-lilies lie calmly accepting the kisses of the fluttering light-sparkles; the lawn, with its smooth emerald greenness, sloping down to the rougher and browner herbage of the park, from which it is invisibly fenced by a little stream that winds away from the pool, and disappears under the wooden bridge in the distant pleasure-ground; and on this lawn our two ladies, whose part in the landscape the painter, standing at a favourable point of view in the park, would represent with a few little dabs of red and white and blue. [2:150-521
Eliot's sensitivity to color is evident here, and the reference to an "English Watteau" is entirely apt since, as we have noted, Watteau's fêtes galantes were the immediate predecessors of Mercier's pioneering English conversation pieces.l4 Eliot even includes the artist in her scene, as Mercier did in his seminal Viscount Tyrconnel with His Family in the Grounds of Belton House (1725-26).
When the narrator moves inside Cheverel Manor to describe the dining-room and saloon, we seem to be observing two of Joseph Nash's views of The Mansions of England in the Olden Time (1839-49), staffed by figures in Georgian instead of Tudor or Restoration costume.l6 What Neale had done for the exteriors of country houses, Nash did for their interiors, by publishing detailed engravings of their great halls, drawing-rooms, parlors, bay windows, galleries, bedchambers, staircases, porches, and chapels. Again, however, Eliot's description combines view-painting with portraiture, turning the picture into a conversation piece. She presents informal portraits of Sir Christopher Cheverel and Anthony Wybrow, surrounded by the architecture which is Sir Christopher's proudest domestic achievement.
George Eliot's penchant for topographical specificity in landscape also took a form that was more characteristic of the nineteenth [133/134] century than of the eighteenth. Her passion for precise naturalistic detail was kindled by the teachings of Ruskin, the practice of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and the scientific researches of G. H. Lewes. After reading the third volume of Modern Painters in February of 1856 and reviewing it in April, Eliot spent May and June at llfracombe on the north coast of Devon, where Lewes was conducting the fieldwork in marine biology that eventually led to the publication of his Sea-Side Studies (1858). Art and science were in perfect harmony during these happy months. The picturesque took on an ecological dimension:
From this end of the Capstone we have an admirable bit for a picture. In the background rises old Hillsborough jutting far into the sea-rugged and rocky as it fronts the waves, green and accessible landward; in front of this stands Lantern Hill, a picturesque mass of green and grey surmounted by an old bit of building that looks as if it were the habitation of some mollusk that had secreted its shell from the material of the rock; and quite in the foreground, contrasting finely in colour with the rest, are some lower perpendicular rocks, of dark brown tints patched here and there with vivid green. In hilly districts, where houses and clusters of houses look so tiny against the huge limbs of Mother Earth one cannot help thinking of man as a parasitic animal — an epizoon making his abode on the skin of the planetary organism. [Letters, II, 241-42; emphasis added]
It is difficult to know whether these words came originally from George Eliot or from Lewes, since they appear almost verbatim in Sea-Side Studies (pp. 30-31). But the ideas were in any case shared. Man, the figure in the landscape, becomes a mollusk or epizoon when viewed from a biological perspective. Ruskin's mixture of science and aesthetics was very much in Eliot's mind at llfracombe, as a letter sent from there to Barbara Leigh Smith suggests: "What books his last two are! I think he is the finest writer living" (Letters, 11, 255; Haight, p. 197). She must have been thinking in part of Ruskin's defense of the naturalistic landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelite painters: [134/135]
I have talked of the Ilfracombe lanes without describing them, for to describe them one ought to know the names of all the lovely wild flowers that cluster on their banks. Almost every yard of these banks is a "Hunt" picture — a delicious crowding of mosses and delicate trefoil, and wild strawberries, and ferns great and small. But the crowning beauty of the lanes is the springs, that gush out in little recesses by the side of the road — recesses glossy with liverwort and feathery with fern . . . I never before longed so much to know names of things as during this visit to llfracombe. The desire is part of the tendency that is now constantly growing in me to escape from all vagueness and inaccuracy into the daylight of distinct, vivid ideas. The mere fact of naming an object tends to give definiteness to our conception of it — we have then a sign that at once calls up in our minds the distinctive qualities which mark out for us that particular object from all others. [Letters, II, 250-51]18
The "Hunt" mentioned here could be either William Henry ("Bird's Nest") Hunt, who had tutored Barbara Leigh Smith, or William Holman Hunt, whose landscape in The Hireling Shepherd (1851) Eliot had already praised for its "marvelous truthfulness" (Essays, p. 268). Both Hunts practiced a painstaking realism, and their treatment of vegetation made a lasting impression upon the novelist, who sought an equivalent precision in her own medium. She had been accustomed to think of "attention to vegetation as one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite painters" by the essay on "Pre-Raphaelitism in Art and Literature" which she read and praised in the 1852 British Quarterly Review.
In his review of Modern Painters, volume lV, Lewes defined "the ideal of a pre-Raphaelite landscape" as "isolating one part of the landscape, and thus concentrating attention on it alone" (pp. 545-46). This formulation was prompted by an experience he and George Eliot had in the Belvedere gardens at Weimar. Walking through the park, they came upon a set of "large glass globes of different colours" placed upon an artificial rock. "It is wonderful to see with what minute perfection the scenery around is painted in these globes," Eliot wrote. "Each is like a pre-Raffaelite [135/136] picture, with every little detail of gravely walk, mossy bank, and delicately-leaved, interlacing boughs, presented in accurate miniature" (Essays, p. 119). The eighteenth-century connoisseur of the picturesque had composed his landscapes in a special mirror known as a Claude glass. But George Eliot's equivalent of the Claude glass isolated "every little detail" for special attention, heightening what Mario Praz in Mnemosyne has called the "microscopic structure" of represented reality (p. 172).
Pre-Raphaelite attention to natural detail helped to shape George Eliot's technique of landscape description. The Huntian treatment of vegetation especially influenced her rendering of the hedgerows that she considered the most distinctive feature of the English midlands landscape.22 In the following passage from Felix Holt, the precise botanical naming imitates the Hunts' leaf-by-leaf drawing:
But everywhere the bushy hedgerows wasted the land with their straggling beauty, shrouded the grassy borders of the pastures with catkined hazels, and tossed their long blackberry branches on the corn-fields. Perhaps they were white with May, or starred with palepink dog-roses; perhaps the urchins were already nutting amongst them, or gathering the plenteous crabs. It was worth the journey only to see those hedgerows, the liberal homes of unremarkable beauty — of the purple-blossomed ruby-berried nightshade, of the wild convolvulus climbing and spreading in tendrilled strength till it made a great curtain of pale-green hearts and white trumpets, of the many-tubed honeysuckle which, in its most delicate fragrance, hid a charm more subtle and penetrating than beauty. Even if it were winter the hedgerows showed their coral, the scarlet haws, the deep-crimsoned hips, with lingering brown leaves to make a resting-place for the jewels of the hoar-frost. ["Introduction": 3-4]
These hedgerows reappear in Adam Bede (18:283) and Middlemarch (12: 155), where George Eliot's prose again follows the principle laid down at Ilfracombe: to describe them one ought to know the names of all the lovely wild flowers that cluster on their banks." Passages like these inspired Ruskinian praises from at least one of George Eliot's contemporaries: "Marian Evans does really good landscape sketching, of an intensely truthful character" (Hamerton, II, 254). [136/137]
Yet Eliot's strong local attachment to her native midlands scenery is due neither to the cult of the picturesque nor to the cult of outdoor naturalism. Rather it shows the Wordsworthian side of her landscape sensibility. "I am afraid you despise landscape painting," she wrote to an early correspondent, "but to me even the works of our own Stanfield and Roberts and Creswick bring a whole world of thought and bliss — 'a sense of something far more deeply interfused.' The ocean and the sky and the everlasting hills are spirit to me, and they will never be robbed of their sublimity" (Letters, I, 248). This is the voice of a young person who has been reading the early volumes of Modern Painters in conjunction with "Tintern Abbey" [text] and mediating her Wordsworthian responses to landscape through the vision of the landscape painter. The enthusiasm was by no means temporary, for in her maturity George Eliot continued to pair Ruskin with Wordsworth and to draw inspiration from the association.24 "The two last volumes of Modern Painters," she wrote in 1858, "contain, I think, some of the finest writing of this age. He is strongly akin to the sublimest part of Wordsworth, whom, by the bye, we are reading now with fresh admiration for his beauties and tolerance for his faults" (Letters, II, 422-23).
Eliot read Wordsworth often from 1839 till the end of her life (Pinney, 20-22). As she indicated in "Impressions of Theophrastus Such," she felt a considerable affinity of temperament with the great poet: "And I often smile at my consciousness that certain conservative prepossessions have mingled themselves for me with the influences of our midland scenery, from the tops of the elms down to the buttercups and the little wayside vetches" (2:36-37; on Eliot's temperamental affinities with Wordsworth, see Salvesen, pp. 19-22). This vocabulary of influences, mingling, and prepossessions reflects the change Wordsworth had wrought in the literary representation of landscape. Wordsworth "began in the picturesque," as J. R. Watson has noted.27 The early poem, "An Evening Walk," continues a tradition of loco-descriptive poetry that descends from John Denham and James Thomson. But as early as "Descriptive Sketches" (1793), Wordsworth began to grow restless with the picturesque apprehension of nature, and to evolve a new sense of landscape which placed greater emphasis upon the affective and experiential interchange between the observer and the scene. The Wordsworthian observer is in fl the landscape and part of it, rather than separated from it by an aesthetic distance. He is more concerned to render the emotional [137/138] impact of the outdoor setting, the sense of its total presence, than to distinguish and analyze its constituent parts. The landscape affects him in a diffuse but profound and permanent manner, creating in his memory an "obscure sense/Of possible sublimity" which is a source of both joy and moral strength in later years.28 This complex sense of an environment that functions in many ways as a deity was immensely congenial to George Eliot. "I never before met with so many of my own feelings, expressed just as I could like them," she declared shortly after reading Wordsworth in 1839 (Letters, I, 34). Having originated in a reaction against the picturesque tradition, the mature Wordsworthian mode is essentially nonpictorial. As Christopher Salvesen has noted
Wordsworth is always much more aware of the presence of landscape, of its surrounding influence, than of any pictorial qualities it might have . . . the fundamental landscape of his best poetry is not at all detailed: the unifying force of nature is what creates it and holds it together, and this force is conveyed by Wordsworth's emotion rather than by his observation. He responds to a landscape rather than observes it: he feels it, almost, rather than sees. [p. 69]
The absence of pictorial qualities in Wordsworth's best poetry undermines most critical attempts to compare it with painting; see, for example, Kroeber and the critical review by E. D. H. Johnson. The distinction Salvesen is making could be illustrated by the well-known comparison between "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" and Dorothy Wordsworth's far more particularized journal description of the same field of daffodils (Nabholtz). The distinction may also be illustrated by two passages from George Eliot:
Janet's way thither lay for a little while along the highroad, and then led her into a deep-rutted lane, which wound through a flat tract of meadow and pasture, while in front lay smoky Paddiford, and away to the left the mother-town of Milby. There was no line of silvery willows marking the course of a stream — no group of Scotch firs with their trunks reddening in the level sunbeams — nothing to break the flowerless monotony of grass and hedgerow but an occasional oak or elm, and a few cows sprinkled here and there. A very commonplace scene, indeed. But what scene was ever commonplace in the descending sunlight, when colour has awakened from its noonday sleep, and the long shadows awe us like a disclosed presence? Above all, what [138/139] scene is commonplace to the eye that is filled with serene gladness, and brightens all things with its own joy? And Janet just now was very happy. [26:305-06]
And the mill with its booming — the great chestnut-tree under which they played at houses — their own little river, the Ripple, where the banks seemed like home, and Tom was always seeing the water-rats, while Maggie gathered the purple plumy tops of the reeds, which she forgot and dropped afterwards — above all, the great Floss, along which they wandered with a sense of travel, to see the rushing spring-tide, the awful Eagre, come up like a hungry monster, or to see the Great Ash which had once wailed and groaned like a man — these things would always be just the same to them. [15:57]
The second of these passages is more truly Wordsworthian than the first, yet the first is more pictorial in the strict sense of the term. What makes it so is the addition of topographical and picturesque details to the basically nonpictorial Wordsworthian emphasis upon presences, awe, gladness, and joy. The second passage abounds with visual images, but they are not arranged pictorially. Their disposition is controlled rather by what Wordsworth might have called the inward eye of contemplation and memory, as opposed to the outward or bodily eye. It is not surprising, then, that Eliot's two most Wordsworthian novels — The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner — are her two least pictorial. Although both are full of visually memorable scenes, the construction of those scenes is seldom indebted to the visual arts. To be sure, the panoramic landscape which opens The Mill on the Floss is pictorial, as Reva Stump has pointed out (70-71). The passage appeals to other senses than sight in an effort to create the illusion of a total environment, but the dominant mode of the description is picturesque. The details constitute a virtual anthology of motifs from seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting: a distant view of a town and river in a flat, wide, cultivated plain; a mill and cottage among trees by a stream; a covered wagon pulled by a team of horses across a bridge. It is tempting to connect this word-painting with [139/140]
Constable's Suffolk landscapes, especially in view of the many affinities between Constable and Wordsworth.32 But the motifs are commonplace, and since George Eliot never mentions Constable in any of her published writings, there is no independent evidence that his work was important to her. (Eliot did know Constable's biographer, C. R. Leslie (Haight, p. 83), and she could have seen the six important Constable pictures in the Sheepshanks bequest, which came to the South Kensington Museum in 1857. But Ruskin's low estimate of Constable's art would hardly have escaped her notice.)
After its opening passage, the novel offers relatively little of a pictorial nature until Maggie emerges in Book 5 as a stately hamadryad among the Scotch firs in the Red Deeps.34 Pictures are used within the story to characterize the amusingly provincial taste of St. Ogg's, and to act as Hogarthian emblematic warnings of Maggie's fate, but the scenes and characters in the first four books of the novel are only rarely conceived as pictures.
Likewise in Silas Marner, as Norma Jean Davis has pointed out, "there is a general absence of pictorial patterns" (p.72). The principal exceptions to this rule are two contrasting scenes in Godfrey Cass's parlor at the Red House (3:35-36, 17:226-27); the introduction of Nancy Lammeter (11:136); and the description of the churchgoers which opens part 2 and shows the main characters after a lapse of sixteen years (16:204-05). But the climacffc discovery of Eppie by Silas turns upon Silas's nearsightedness and is therefore not visualized pictorially, while the famous scene at the Rainbow Inn, as we have seen, is not visually indebted to Dutch genre painting. Silas Marner, too, works mainly by the Wordsworthian inner eye of memory and feeling.
In Daniel Deronda the English landscape has a Wordsworthian potential to heal and integrate the human personality, but that potential is largely unrealized by the English characters. Gwendolen's family has led a rootless and nomadic modern life, and therefore lacks the sense of selfhood that comes from full integration with a relatively permanent environment (see Jones, p. 97). Although their new home at Offendene affords "a glimpse of the wider world in the lofty curves of the chalk downs, grand steadfast forms played over by the changing days" (3:27-28), the inhabitants are unable to incorporate that stability. Mrs. Davilow passes untouched through a landscape which combines picturesque and Wordsworthian elements in the most characteristic George Eliot manner. [140/141]
It was a fine mid-harvest time, not too warm for a noonday ride of five miles to be delightful: the poppies glowed on the borders of the fields, there was enough breeze to move gently like a social spirit among the ears of uncut corn, and to wing the shadow of a cloud across the soft grey downs; here the sheaves were standing, there the horses were straining their muscles under the last load from a wide space of stubble, but everywhere the green pastures made a broader setting for the corn-fields, and the cattle took their rest under wide branches. The road lay through a bit of country where the dairy-farms looked much as they did in the days of our forefathers-where peace and permanence seemed to find a home away from the busy change that sent the railway train flying in the distance.
But the spirit of peace and permanence did not penetrate poor Mrs. Davilow's mind. . . . 113:192-93]
Only at the very end of the novel, after suffering has burned away her alienation, does Gwendolen have "a more wakeful vision of Offendene" and its landscape, accepting them at last as her home (64:332). She is finally able to hear what George Eliot, in the "Impressions of Theophrastus Such," calls "the speech of the landscape" (2:39).
Just as the portraiture in the Jewish part of Daniel Deronda contrasts with the portraiture in the English part, so the landscapes of the two plots differ. The Jewish landscape belongs to Mordecai, and is not Wordsworthian but Turnerian and visionary, Its distinguishing features are a brilliant yellow sun near the horizon, a luminous hazy atmosphere, water, and indistinct shapes of boats and men.
Thus, for a long while, he habitually thought of the Being answering to his need as one distantly approaching or turning his back towards him, darkly painted against a golden sky. The reason of the golden sky lay in one of Mordecai's habits. He was keenly alive to some poetic aspects of London; and a favourite resort of his, when strength and leisure allowed, was to some one of the bridges, especially about sunrise or sunset.... Leaning on [141/142] the parapet of Blackfriars Bridge, and gazing meditatively, the breadth and calm of the river, with its long vista half hazy, half luminous, the grand dim masses or tall forms of buildings which were the signs of world-commerce, the oncoming of boats and barges from the still distance into sound and colour, entered into his mood and blent themselves indistinguishably with his thinking. . . . Thus it happened that the figure representative of Mordecai's longing was mentally seen darkened by the excess of light in the aerial background. [38:299-300]
When Daniel fulfills this vision, he is rowing downstream toward Blackfriars Bridge at the sunset hour of half-past four. He appears to Mordecai out of "a wide-spreading saffron clearness, which in the sky had a monumental calm, but on the river, with its changing objects, was reflected as a luminous movement" (40:327). Eliot clearly has the work of Turner in mind here, as Edward Dowden rightly sensed when he referred in 1877 to "the Turneresque splendour" of the bridge scenes (p. 29; See also Kearny, p. 301). The novelist had acquired a firsthand knowledge of Turner's pictures in 1851 (Letters, I, 347). She had spoken of "a Turnerian haze of network" in "Janet's Repentance" (3:73) and of "a faery landscape in Turner's latest style" in "Brother Jacob" (2:368). She also mentioned Turner in connection with a London sunset in a letter of 1868 to Barbara Bodichon (Letters, IV, 476). Turner's visionary painting is well suited to the visionary temperament of Mordecai, in whom George Eliot boldly asserts the Romantic possibility of second sight and prophecy.
Turner, like Wordsworth, had gone beyond the picturesque mode (see Gage); and so in a different way did Ruskin. In his discussion "Of the Turnerian Picturesque" in Modern Painters, Ruskin denied that the picturesque as traditionally defined is a valid aesthetic category, a tertium quid mediating between the sublime and the beautiful. Ruskin's preference was all for the sublime, and he argued that the qualities of roughness, variety, irregularity, and chiaroscuro are in fact qualities of the sublime which connoisseurs of the picturesque mistakenly transfer from mountains, trees, and other sublime natural growths to cottages, ruins, and other objects that are not inherently sublime. He thus defined conventional picturesqueness as a [142/143]parasitical sublimity, and since it was in his view an entirely superficial effect, he called it also the "surface-picturesque." The apprehension of the surface-picturesque involves a failure of the moral-aesthetic imagination, according to Ruskin, for the viewer not only fails to grasp the true nature of what he contemplates, but he also fails to sympathize with the human suffering which ruins and broken cottages so often imply. Ruskin declared that "the lower picturesque ideal is eminently a heartless one," and he characterized the lover of the lower picturesque as "kind-hearted, innocent, but not broad in thought; somewhat selfish, and incapable of acute sympathy with others" (6.19; see also 11.159-60 and 8.234-36).The only true form of the picturesque, Ruskin argued, is one in which the objects depicted express suffering, poverty, or decay in an unselfconscious manner. This mode of representation he called the noble, or Turnerian, picturesque, and attributed above all to Turner and Prout among contemporary painters.41
A moral critique of the cult of the picturesque was not original with Ruskin. Gilpin was aware that banditti, though pictorially colorful, are morally reprehensible and socially undesirable. The moral question was also raised in the debates between Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight around 1800 (Hussey, p.70; Hipple, p. 220). By the mid-nineteenth century such reservations about the picturesque had become almost commonplace in England and America.43 But Ruskin's statement of the argument was classic for its eloquence, incisiveness, and passion; and it exercised a powerful influence upon contemporary readers such as George Eliot (See Price, "Picturesque Moment," p. 283).
In the same volume of Modern Painters, in the famous chapter on "Mountain Gloom," Ruskin applies his critique compellingly. Here he is out to quash naive romantic notions of the beneficial effects of living close to nature. He undertakes to show that even the magnificent scenery of the Swiss Alps, created nature's nearest approximation to paradise, contains elements of suffering, poverty, and decay behind its picturesque surface. The landscape itself has a dark and ominous aspect, and its sublime influences do not protect its human inhabitants from squalor, misery, disease, ignorance, and Catholicism. Ruskin vividly describes the dismal condition of the Swiss peasantry and then contrasts their reality with false and sentimentally picturesque representations of peasant life in contemporary opera:[143/144]
nightly we give our gold, to fashion forth simulacra of peasants in gay ribands and white bodices, singing sweet songs, and bowing gracefully to the picturesque crosses: and all the while the veritable peasants are kneeling, songlessly, to veritable crosses, in another temper than the kind and fair audiences dream of, and assuredly with another kind of answer than is got out of the opera catastrophe. [6.390]
The chapter effectively advances the argument made throughout Modern Painters that the fallen world contains both good and evil, that the greatest art represents both the beauties and the imperfections of nature, and that any art which does not acknowledge the existence of evil is likely to be false and sentimental.
Ruskin's critique of the picturesque is an informing principle of George Eliot's great essay on Riehl's Natural History of German Life. Here the novelist-to-be transfers Ruskin's attack upon the opera to contemporary fiction and painting.
Opera peasants, whose unreality excites Mr. Ruskin's indignation, are surely too frank an idealization to be misleading; and since popular chorus is one of the most effective elements of the opera, we can hardly object to Iyric rustics in elegant laced bodices and picturesque motley, unless we are prepared to advocate a chorus of colliers in their pit costume, or a ballet of char-women and stocking-weavers. But our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representation is a grave evil. [Essays, p. 270]
When she turns to contemporary English painting, the unreality of the peasants she finds represented there prompts Eliot to grumble about "cockney sentimentality" and to draw unfavorable comparisons between Holman Hunt and Teniers or Murillo. English painters display "a total absence of acquaintance and sympathy with our peasantry," she argues. They "treat their subjects under the influence of traditions and prepossessions rather than of direct observation.... The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated, and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life" (Essays, pp. 268-69). She proceeds to contrast, in thoroughly Ruskinian manner, a/ [144/145]sentimentalized view of hay makers seen from a safe aesthetic distance with a more realistic view from close up which does not shirk their coarseness and dependence upon drink. The artistic manifestoes of Ruskin and Eliot, both published in 1856, coincide historically with a general change in English rustic genre painting away from depictions of the countryside as a place of simple pleasures, pieties, and harmonies, toward depictions of "dreary landscapes" and scenes of rural poverty such as sickbeds, deathbeds, acts of charity, floods, evictions, redundancy, alcoholism, prostitution, workhouses, and emigration.
Social and moral concerns are reflected in the presentation of landscape throughout George Eliot's fiction. Felix Holt, for example, opens with a dioramic view of the midlands countryside circa 1832 as it passes before a hypothetical passenger on the outside box of a stagecoach. The reader is offered a rich description of such natural beauties as meadows, watercourses, ponds, lanes, willows, elders, yews, hedgerows, wildflowers, ricks, and cattle. But the landscape, as Arnold Kettle has pointed out, is sociological as well as pictorial (p. 100); For an opposing view, see Conrad, Victorian Treasure-House, pp. 39-40. It offers what Eliot, in the "Impressions of Theophrastus Such," calls "a piece of our social history in pictorial writing" (2:40). The narrator of Felix Holt not only places a shepherd in the scene but pauses to characterize his mental horizons. She contrasts an impoverished, benighted cluster of laborers' cottages ("their little dingy windows telling, like thick-filmed eyes, of nothing but the darkness within") to a more prosperous, better-schooled village. Many of the visual details take on an emblematic moral significance, as they do so often in Ruskin's great set-piece descriptions.
Both Adam Bede and Middlemarch are deeply influenced by Ruskin's critique of the picturesque. The landscape of Adam Bede consistently reflects a Ruskinian awareness of the dark underside of an apparently Edenic setting. Loamshire at first seems the classic paysage riant, ideally fertile and perfectly suited to man's needs. But a close scrutiny of the opening prospect reveals some ominous tints. In the following passage the nameless Gilpinesque traveler begins and ends in the picturesque, but symbolic elements intervene.
On the side of the Green that led towards the church, the broken line of thatched cottages was continued nearly to the church [145/146] yard gate; but on the opposite, northwestern side, there was nothing to obstruct the view of gently-swelling meadow, and wooded valley, and dark masses of distant hill. That rich undulating district of Loamshire to which Hayslope belonged, lies close to a grim outskirt of Stonyshire, overlooked by its barren hills as a pretty blooming sister may sometimes be linked in the arm of a rugged, tall, swarthy brother; and in two or three hours' ride the traveller might exchange a bleak treeless region, intersected by lines of cold grey stone, for one where his road wound under the shelter of woods, or up swelling hills, muffled with hedgerows and long meadow-grass and thick corn; and where at c very turn he came upon some fine old country-seat nestled in the valley or crowning the slope, some homestead with its long length of barn and its cluster of golden ricks, some grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees and thatch and dark-red tiles. [2:21-22]
The distant glimpse of Stonyshire introduces a touch of mountain gloom into the agreeable vista (Creeger). Bleakness and barrenness, according to Gilpin, are distinctly nonpicturesque; here they function as emblematic reminders of an alternate and far less pleasant state of nature.
The traveler proceeds to analyze the landscape in the approved Claudian terms of foreground, middle distance, and background. The prospect accommodates this conventional zoning, first by falling away from the viewer, who occupies a middle elevation, and then by rising in the distance to its maximum elevation in the form of large hills. But the description emphasizes that the zoning is nature's rather than man's; and the foreground, with its "level sunlight lying like transparent gold among the gently curving stems of the feathered grass and the tall red sorrel, and the white umbels of the hemlocks lining the bushy hedgerows," is far more Pre-Raphaelite than Claudian (2:23).
Moreover, a strong consciousness of time invests the consideration of space. Although the moment is 18 June 1799, the description evokes the grand perennial cycle of nature, so that the reader seems to glimpse the same landscape under different seasonal [146/147]aspects. The passage of time brings renewal to nature, but has a different meaning for mortal man. The "keen and hungry winds of the north" and the "sound of the scythe being whetted [which] makes us cast more lingering looks at the flower-sprinkled tresses of the meadow" remind man of his finite term, as they often do in traditional pastoral literature. The description suggests that man will be swallowed up from view, much as the "tall mansion" and its landscaped park are swallowed up from view by the woods and meadows (2 :22-23).50
In his picture of Dinah Morris Preaching on Hayslope Green (1861), E. H. Corbould neatly solves the problem posed by George Eliot's detailed and richly significant landscape description. He simply turns Dinah around, so that her backdrop is not the panoramic vista, as in the novel, but Hayslope village and a piece of the intervening green, an altogether more manageable subject.
The truly Ruskinian landscape always contains intimations of mortality as well as of immortality. The bay into which Romola's boat drifts is spectacularly beautiful and peaceful but contains a plague-stricken village. As Norma Jean Davis points out, "both Ruskin and Romola discover, in their exploration of Italian landscape, that behind the apparent picturesque beauty and green luxuriance are elements of death and decay'' (p. 115). In Adam Bede Eliot twice introduces overt memento mori into apparently idyllic landscapes. Early in the novel Adam and Seth carry a coffin through a scene of "Eden-like peace and loveliness," creating, as the narrator says, "a strangely-mingled picture" (4:73). A moment later they come upon their drowned father's body. This effect of moral chiaroscuro is repeated in the setting through which the pregnant Hetty sets off in search of Arthur. The early February landscape is astir with signs of spring and hope, but the narrator thinks of the wayside crucifix one might encounter in a Continental countryside on such a day:
an image of a great agony — the agony of the Cross. It has stood perhaps by the clustering apple — blossoms, or in the broad sunshine by the cornfield, or at a turning by the wood where a clear brook was gurgling below; and surely, if there came a traveller to this world who knew nothing of the story of man's life upon it, this image of agony would seem to him strangely out of place in the midst of this joyous nature. He would not know that hidden behind the apple-blossoms, or among the golden com, or under the shrouding boughs of the wood, there might be a human heart beating heavily with anguish; perhaps a young [147/148] blooming girl, not knowing where to turn for refuge from swift-advancing shame; understanding no more of this life of ours than a foolish lost lamb wandering farther and farther in the nightfall on the lonely heath; yet tasting the bitterest of life's bitterness. [35:112]
This appeal for sympathy is a virtual reprise of the third and fourth paragraphs of Ruskin's "Mountain Gloom." There, too, a naive traveler comes upon "a cross of rough-hewn pine, iron-bound to its parapet" amidst an inspiring landscape. This cross is an emblem of the misery of the peasants who inhabit the landscape and who die contemplating images of the suffering Christ. Eliot's comparison of the incomprehending Hetty to a biblical lost lamb may have been prompted by Ruskin's comparison of the insensible Swiss peasants to the wild mountain goats which take no "passion of joy in all that fair work of God" surrounding them (6.387-89). The cross in the landscape is a reminder of unseen moral forces in nature. The moral intrudes upon the picturesque again in the climactic recognition scene of Adam Bede. Adam, passing through the Fir-tree Grove, stops to contemplate a beech-tree as Gilpin himself might have done in his Remarks on Forest Scenery. The sensitive carpenter registers aesthetic detail as well as potential board-feet:
Adam delighted in a fine tree of all things; as the fisherman's sight is keenest on the sea, so Adam's perceptions were more at home with trees than with other objects. He kept them in his memory, as a painter does, with all the flecks and knots in their bark, all the curves and angles of their boughs; and had often calculated the height and contents of a trunk to a nicety, as he stood looking at it. No wonder that, notwithstanding his desire to get on, he could not help pausing to look at a curious large beech which he had seen standing before him at a turning in the road, and convince himself that it was not two trees wedded together, but only one. For the rest of his life he remembered that moment when he was calmly examining the beech, as a man remembers his last glimpse of the home where his youth was passed, before the road turned, and he saw it no more. The beech stood at the last turning before the Grove ended in an [148/149]archway of boughs that let in the eastern light; and as Adam stepped away from the tree to continue his walk, his eyes fell on two figures about twenty yards before him. [27:10]
This is the moment of Adam's psychic fall from innocence to experience. His innocent perception of the picturesque variegation of tree-trunks and boughs gives way to a shattering recognition of Eve with her seducer. The recognition is still pictorial, since the "archway of boughs" makes a perfect frame; but the picture now admits the existence of treachery and evil in the idyllic scene. This episode may have been the model for the great recognition scene in Henry James's The Ambassadors, in which Lambert Strether, like Adam, sees two trusted friends in a compromised position amidst a landscape which only moments before had been a pleasant picture.54
The Fir-tree Grove in Adam Bede is a delusory paradise for all who enter it. It is the regular trysting-place of Hetty and Arthur, and the scene of the seduction that has such tragic consequences. Michael Squires has rightly related the setting to the tradition of the locus amoenus in pastoral poetry, the erotic and magical pagan paradise which changes those who enter it (Squires, pp. 60-67; the Red Deeps in The Mill on the Floss is a vestigial locus amoenus. Compare Ware Commons in chapter 12 of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman). But George Eliot treats the topos with a Protestant distrust that recalls Spenser's handling of the Bower of Blisse in The Faerie Queene. In pictorial terms, the grove is a Claudian mythological landscape, peopled with figures from Ovid. This ideal landscape is the symptomatic product of a mind that avoids reality to indulge in fantasies of self-gratification.
She thought nothing of the evening light that lay gently in the grassy alleys between the fern, and made the beauty of their living green more visible than it had been in the overpowering flood of noon: she thought of nothing that was present. She only saw something that was possible: Mr. Arthur Donnithorne coming to meet her again along the Fir-tree Grove. That was the foreground of Hetty's picture; behind it lay a bright hazy something — days that were not to be as the other days of her life had been. It was as if she had been wooed by a river-god, who might any time take her to his wondrous halls below a watery heaven. 113:201-02]
In other words, Hetty prefers a Heroic Landscape with Poseidon and Tyro to a more realistic picture along the lines of, say, Millais's Waiting (1854).56 Claude's presumed avoidance of the nature immediately surrounding him makes him the chief villain in the historical drama of landscape painting presented by Ruskin in Modern Painters. By the same token, Claudian landscape is something of a villain in Adam Bede.
The aesthetic and the moral remain compatible in Adam Bede. Ruskin's critique of the surface-picturesque opens the way to a true landscape which intimates the possibility of salvation through moral struggle. The same is true in Middlemarch, but in the later novel the vision of true landscape is much more problematic. George Eliot explores more deeply than ever before the disturbing possibility that the aesthetic and the moral are incompatible, that art itself has no worthy human use. As Barbara Hardy has said: "The art/life antithesis is a very important subject in Middlemarch.... Many characters are defined and even tested by their response to art, and art itself is defined and even tested by its relevance and meaning for human beings of different kinds" (p. 165).
These issues are crystallized in chapter 39, which narrates Mr. Brooke's visit to the farm of his tenant, Dagley. Here the lower picturesque is precisely what Ruskin called it: an eminently heartless ideal.
It is true that an observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people's hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freeman's End: the old house had dormer-windows in the dark-red roof, two of the chimneys were choked with ivy, the large porch was blocked up with bundles of sticks, and half the windows were closed with grey worm-eaten shutters about which the jasmine boughs grew in wild luxuriance; the mouldering garden wall with hollyhocks peeping over it was a perfect study of highlymingled subdued colour, and there was an aged goat (kept doubtless on interesting superstitious grounds) lying against the open back-kitchen door. The mossy thatch of the cow-shed, the broken grey barn-doors, the pauper labourers in ragged [150/151]breeches who had nearly finished unloading a wagon of corn into the barn ready for early thrashing [sic]; the scanty dairy of cows being tethered for milking and leaving one half of the shed in brown emptiness; the very pigs and white ducks seemed to wander about the uneven neglected yard as if in low spirits from feeding on a too meagre quality of rinsings, — all these objects under the quiet light of a sky marbled with high clouds would have made a sort of picture which we have all paused over as a "charming bit," touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest, with the sad lack of farming capital, as seen constantly in the newspapers of that time. But these troublesome associations were just now strongly present to Mr. Brooke, and spoiled the scene for him. [39: 182-83]
At Freeman's End, picturesque unevenness betokens neglect and brown emptiness signifies want. As Eliot says in Daniel Deronda, again echoing Ruskin: "What horrors of damp huts, where human beings languish, may not become picturesque through aerial distance!" (14:230; for Ruskin passage, see 11.57-60.). The narrator of Middlemarch will not indulge the nostalgia for "dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency" which gives pleasure to the narrator of "Amos Barton" (1:4). Even Mr. Brooke's connoisseurship gives way to a true perception of his tenant's misery.
The aestheticist view of life is questioned throughout Middlemarch. We have seen that Will Ladislaw accuses Naumann of looking at the world "entirely from the studio point of view" (21:317). By the same token Dorothea's conscience is troubled by aesthetic apprehension as such. She is unable to bring the "severe classical nudities and smirking Renaissance-Correggiosities" in her uncle's art collection at Tipton Grange into "any sort of relevance with her life" (9:109). Her trip to Rome helps her better to understand what Will calls the "old language" of classical and Renaissance art, but it does not bridge the gap between that art and her own sense of purpose. As Richard S. Lyons has pointed out in "The Method of Middlemarch (p. 43), Dorothea renews her attack upon Mr. Brooke's collection after her return from Rome: "I used to come from the village with that dirt and coarse ugliness [151/152] like a pain within me, and the simpering pictures in the drawing room seemed to me like a wicked attempt to find delight in what is false, while we don't mind how hard the truth is for the neighbours outside our walls" (39:175-76). As the novel progresses, Ladislaw becomes less the aesthete, but Dorothea does not become more the connoiseuse.
Dorothea can find relevance in simple portraiture, which she values more for iconic than for aesthetic reasons. The miniature of Ladislaw's grandmother sustains her through some bad times because it reminds her of Will himself and of his great regard for her. Dorothea is also sustained by a hard-won vision of the English landscape, a vision that is partly pictorial but not sentimentally picturesque. She tends from the first to envision her own destiny as somehow involved with the midlands countryside. Even in the sculpture gallery of the Vatican Museum her first thoughts are of the English landscape: "She did not really see the streak of sunlight on the floor more than she saw the statues: she was inwardly seeing the light of years to come in her own home and over the English fields and elms and hedge-bordered highroads; and feeling that the way in which they might be filled with joyful devotedness was not so clear to her as it had been" (20:311). Dorothea values nature and duty more highly than art, and her priorities reflect certain moments in George Eliot's own museum-going (Cross, II, 22, 88).
The landscape that matters most to Dorothea upon her return from Rome lies immediately outside the west window of her boudoir at Lowick. The window gives onto an avenue of lime-trees leading to an entrance-gate, beyond which may be seen a bit of road and a large expanse of open, flat field. Dorothea views this prospect under several different diurnal, seasonal, and emotional aspects, so that it affords a series of landscape images in which objective and subjective elements strive to achieve a stable balance. E. D. H. Johnson has pointed out in "The Truer Message" that the sequence of views from Dorothea's boudoir window provides an index to her growth toward self-knowledge (p. 200).
The most important views occur in chapters 28, 54, and 80; and they form a progression from despair through indifference to affirmation which corresponds roughly with the progression outlined by Carlyle in Sartor Resartus from the Everlasting Nay through the [152/153]Centre of Indifference to the Everlasting Yea. In chapter 28 Dorothea is at an ebb, having suffered the disappointment of virtually all her marital hopes. The landscape outside her boudoir reflects her mood of cold constriction and drab imprisonment:
she saw the long avenue of limes lifting their trunks from a white earth, and spreading white branches against the dun and motionless sky. The distant flat shrank in uniform whiteness and low hanging uniformity of cloud.... Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colourless, narrowed landscape.... [28:1-4]
Dorothea's subjectivity dominates this landscape of despair. The description borders on the pathetic fallacy, a concept which George Eliot noted with interest in "Arts and Belles Lettres," her review of the third volume of Modern Painters (p.631). The novelist here displays what John Stuart Mill called "the power of creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling; so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it, and to summon up the state of feeling itself, with a force not to be surpassed by anything but reality" (pp. 404-05). Mill was speaking of Tennyson's earliest poems, especially of "Mariana"; and indeed it is of "Mariana" and Millais's splendid painting of Tennyson's heroine (1851) that one is reminded most strongly by chapter 28 of Middlemarch
Dorothea's duty is no clearer to her in chapter 54, but as a widow she suffers less acutely than she did as a wife. She has recuperated from the worst of her bereavement, and her condition is now comfortable but neutral and aimless. Again the landscape reflects her spiritual state:
She had not yet applied herself to her work, but was seated with her hands folded on her lap, looking out along the avenue of limes to the distant fields. Every leaf was at rest in the sunshine, the familiar scene was changeless, and seemed to represent the prospect of her life, full of motiveless ease — motiveless, if her own energy could not seek out reasons for ardent action. [54:11-12]
The prospect is no longer jaundiced by Dorothea's despair, but it is [153/154] still dominated by her subjectivity. There is no fruitful interchange between objective and subjective, between nature and the perceiving mind.
The possibility of a more balanced relationship with the landscape is adumbrated in chapter 37 and realized in chapter 80. "She had been so used to struggle for and to find resolve in looking along the avenue towards the arch of western light," we are told in the earlier instance, "that the vision itself had gained a communicating power" (37:149). Once the vision itself communicates, it can offer the joy and moral strength that work through time and memory to make up Wordsworthian maturity. Dorothea attains such maturity in chapter 80, after suffering through a night of dark despair brought on by Will Ladislaw's apparent rejection of her love. Her psychic resurrection is assisted by her recognition of an independent life in the landscape outside her boudoir window.
She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving — perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. [80:392]
The landscape is no longer problematic; its objective reality affords Dorothea an alternative to self-pity, and makes possible a creative interaction between her mind and the world outside it. Though faith is gone, the world remains; and work still has meaning, as it does for Carlyle's Teufelsdrockh in the phase of the Everlasting Yea. The perception of otherness is not sickening, as in Sartre's La Nausée, but healing. The recuperation of Rex Gascoigne in Daniel Deronda begins with a similar act of attention to a landscape peopled by working figures immediately outside his own window (8:122-23).
The vista in chapter 80 of Middlemarch holds its Wordsworthian [154/155] and Carlylean elements within a highly pictorialized structure. The window provides a frame, and the prospect is divided into foreground, middle distance, and background. The lighting is specified and the figures in the scene are precisely located. Critics have sought analogues for the description in the paintings of Rubens and Millet, but the details given by Eliot are so minimal and generic as to defy identification with the work of any particular artist (Davis, p. 121, and Jonson, p. 202). They are at any rate not conventionally picturesque; they manifest no roughness, irregularity, vivid chiaroscuro, or ruin. Eliot is evoking not the surface-picturesque but the noble picturesque, which consists, according to Ruskin, in the unconscious expression of human suffering "nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart . . . the world's hard work being gone through all the while, and no pity asked for, nor contempt feared" (6.14-15).
Sir J. E. Millais. Mariana. Click n thumbnail for larger image.
The best pictorial analogue for the window-scenes in Middlemarch is not to be found in landscape painting at all but in a popular motif of nineteenth-century Romantic genre painting: the figure looking out a window who presents his or her back to a viewer located inside the room. The motif is operative in European painting from the seventeenth century well into the twentieth; its classic nineteenth-century embodiment is in the work of Caspar David Friedrich, especially the Frau am Fenster of about 1822.66 Millais's Mariana belongs to this tradition, as does Moritz von Schwind's Morgenstunde, a picture George Eliot might have seen at Munich in 1858. The real subject of such paintings, at least in the nineteenth century, is usually the spiritual interaction between the spectator and the prospect. Romantic Fensterbilder are an appropriate analogue to the window-scenes in Middlemarch because Dorothea's presence in those scenes is always visualized as carefully as the landscape itself, and because the quality of her apprehension is the true center of the audience's interest.
In natural description, then, no less than in characterization and domestic scenes, George Eliot was deeply influenced by pictorial conventions. Her vision of nature was shaped by eighteenth-century traditions of the picturesque and topographical, and by nineteenth-century modes of landscape sensibility which came to her through Wordsworth, Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelites She was well aware [155/156] that the beholder's share of perception may be conditioned by the experience of art. She lends this awareness to Daniel Deronda as he contemplates a Gothic capital at the Abbey:
'I wonder whether one oftener learns to love real objects through their representations, or the representations through the real objects,' he said, after pointing out a lovely capital made by the curled leaves of greens, showing their reticulated underside with the firm gradual swell of its central rib. 'When I was a little fellow these capitals taught me to observe, and delight in, the structure of leaves.' [35:220]
These remarks are in the spirit of Ruskin, as Henry Auster has pointed out, but they must also reflect many of George Eliot's own encounters with the natural world (p. 97). She knew that art can help one see and feel, and indeed she valued art chiefly because it can.
But what happened to Eliot's descriptive art when it became, in turn, subject to someone else's imagination — when, in short, an illustrator set about to render it into visual forms? Inevitably the pictures were modified from what the author had conceived. The next chapter will examine Frederic Leighton's illustrations of Romola, both for the light they throw upon the text and for the questions they raise concerning literary illustration in general.
Created 2000; reformatted 2007 and 14 April 2015