The Dickensian George Eliot

This post has been contributed by Catherine Quirk.

For anyone working in academia as a professor, as a graduate student, or as an unaffiliated researcher, “summer” tends to be a time not of holiday and relaxation but of research and conference travel (recent claims to the contrary by non-academics notwithstanding). This summer, my own conference preparations looked, on the surface, to be unintentionally single-minded: I attended the 22nd Dickens Society Symposium in Boston and the 37th Dickens Universe in Santa Cruz, run by the Dickens Project. More information on the Dickens Society Symposium can be found in the storify for Day One, Day Two, and Day Three, and in forthcoming blog posts on the conference. The Dickens Universe is organised each summer around a particular Dickens novel, and provides an immersive environment for academics, students and teachers from all levels from high school to post-graduate, and the general public. This year, however, the Universe focused not on Dickens at all, but instead on George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72). While I was initially a bit uncertain about such a well-known Dickensian event discussing a different author entirely, my week in Santa Cruz introduced me to an unexpectedly Dickensian view of George Eliot.

Fittingly, George Levine titled his closing lecture – a lecture which traditionally references the often radically divergent threads of the previous talks and ties together the themes under discussion the rest of the week – “The Dickensian George Eliot”. Levine opened by admitting he had had similar concerns before arriving in Santa Cruz: “Whatever happened to Dickens?” he was prepared to ask. Over the course of the week, however, we all realised that Dickens was in fact, in Levine’s words, “with us everyday”. Not only was Dickens’s portrait watching over us from the stage, and not only did his name, works, and life enter into nearly every discussion and lecture, Middlemarch itself, as Levine went on to delineate, is upon closer consideration remarkably Dickensian.

Levine included in his lecture a (non-exhaustive but remarkably lengthy) list of similarities between Eliot’s novels and the style conventionally associated with Dickens. Both novelists took advantage of the freedom of serial publication, and were similarly restricted by the parameters imposed by this format. The novels of each deal with a vast number of characters, representing a range of classes and regional associations, and connected by multiple plot lines often only tangentially related. Both Dickens and Eliot end with a final summary, setting everything into its proper place and rewarding their characters in keeping with the respective moral merit of each. At the heart of the novels of both Eliot and Dickens, Levine summarised, lie “webs of connection that constitute a profound social commentary and commentary on life itself”.

The adjective “Dickensian” calls most readily to mind two concepts: humour and melodrama. On first (and, to be honest, second-through-fourth) reading, these are not concepts I readily associate with George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Over the week in Santa Cruz, however, countless readers expressed their surprise and pleasure to find these two elements at work in the novel. Mrs Cadwallader, for instance, made many more appearances than she might otherwise do in a discussion of Middlemarch. She is often relegated to her background role in the main plots, and not considered – as she was over and over in Santa Cruz – as both the source of offhand commentary on her neighbours and as representative of many of Eliot’s readers. Ruth Livesey drew on this latter point as a humorous thread in her Thursday morning lecture. Speaking broadly on the topic of the middle (“On Writing from the Middle: Middlemarch, Eliot’s Midlands, and the Structures of Provincial Fiction”), she returned repeatedly to the narrative structure of the sermon as described by the rector’s wife: “When I married Humphrey I made up my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn’t have the end without them” (Ch. 34). At various points Livesey paused to assure “the Mrs Cadwalladers in the audience” that she was in the “beginning-middle”, well into the middle, or nearing the end of her discussion.

Discussions of Eliot’s novels often focus special attention on the narrator, and the week in Santa Cruz was no exception. Beyond the usual considerations of how closely the narrator’s views might coincide with Eliot’s, or how we might best identify the gender of the narrator, here discussion included the tone taken by that narrator. Speakers and participants continually turned to such scenes as Peter Featherstone’s funeral to exemplify the Dickensian nature of much of Eliot’s novel.

“When the animals entered the Ark in pairs, one may imagine that allied species made much private remark on each other, and were tempted to think that so many forms feeding on the same store of fodder were eminently superfluous, as tending to diminish the rations. (I fear the part played by the vultures on that occasion would be too painful for art to represent, those birds being disadvantageously naked about the gullet, and apparently without rites and ceremonies.)

The same sort of temptation befell the Christian Carnivora who formed Peter Featherstone’s funeral procession; most of them having their minds bent on a limited store which each would have liked to get the most of.” (Ch. 35)

The narrator here takes a distinctly sardonic tone, diminishing the characters to the level of animal appetite. The first person parenthetical works, as it so often does in Dickens, to characterise the narrator as a separate entity, with its own very strongly marked opinions. While this technique in Dickens is often dismissed as flippancy on the part of the author, or an attempt to fill up the word count demanded by the serialisation process, in Eliot’s works the same narrative tone tends to be taken as a distancing technique: throughout Eliot’s works the narrator addresses the reader in a manner that distinctly establishes the narrator’s intellectual superiority. But here, in a way often ignored by readers seeking to separate the intellect of Eliot from the humour of Dickens, the narrator’s snide commentary works instead to build a fellowship with the reader: reader and narrator laugh together at the characters gathered for Featherstone’s funeral.

Eliot’s reliance on melodrama, like her use of humour, is often overshadowed by discussions of the psychological and intellectual depth of her plots and characterisations. Critics consider such sensational elements as murder, blackmail, and stock or flat characters as “Dickensian” – and so the opposite of Eliot’s style. Levine, however, reminded us that not only do all of these elements exist in Middlemarch, melodramatic coincidence is in fact intrinsic to the coherence of Eliot’s multiplot novel. He took as his central example the undecipherability of Will Ladislaw’s personal history, going to great lengths to untangle the web of connections surrounding this character and connecting him to each of the novel’s main plots. Levine emphasised that not only was the novel tied together by these moments of melodrama, but that in fact an understanding of the melodramatic plot is essential to the working out of the main plot. When Dorothea marries Will, she becomes the third woman to “flee her inheritance to marry a Ladislaw”. Dorothea’s fully-developed character rests both on this choice and on the historical pattern it follows. The Dickensian, then, as seen through this central melodrama as well as the use of humour and various formal qualities, forms an unexpected but intrinsic element of Eliot’s intellectual realism. And so Dickens remains an intrinsic part of the Dickens Universe, even when that event goes by the name “Eliot Universe”.

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