Sunday, December 13, 2009

From Maryann Evans to Marian Evans to George Eliot

I started the Jenny Uglow bio of George Eliot, who was christened Maryann Evans and subsequently assumed various pennames before settling on George Eliot. She is a daunting person, no doubt about it, not nearly as approachable as either Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte, and with a much deeper record of non-fiction works that reflect her intimidating intellect than has Austen. I've enjoyed Middlemarch immensely in the past, and am looking forward to rereading Silas Marner, Adam Bede and reading for the first time the rest of her novels and stories. I'm also planning on reading some of her essays, reviews, and poems as well in the course of reading the bio.

I had thought I might actually start by reading her translation of David Frederich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, which was first published in 1846 under the title The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. I did manage to get a copy through interlibrary loan, but reading the introduction, hefting the tome a few times, and scanning the chapter headings convinced me that I simply did have the time, motivation, staying power, or background to tackle it. I will have to take the assertion by both Uglow and A.S. Byatt, editor of the collection of Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, that it was "one of the most influential in changing attitudes to Christian belief and interpretation" in the nineteenth century.

I had visions of reading this translation because it was the first major work that she produced, and it seems to have had a profound impact on her life and work as a novelist. She took on the translation task at the urging of uber intellectual friends and immersed herself in it (i.e., translating over 1500 pages from German to English) for two years, beginning at the ripe old age of 23. During this time, she was nursing her father, who died in 1848. The stress of this time in her life is compounded when you realize that her father, a devout Evangelical, deeply resented her decision in 1841 to no longer attend church with him because she had ceased to believe in the doctrine and rituals.

Fortunately, Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings did contain a few excerpts that I did manage to read, and I think I might have gotten a germ of what it meant to her in the excerpt from 'Concluding Dissertation: The Dogmatic Import of the Life of Jesus' in which Strauss/Evans equates Jesus as divine to humanity (collectively) as divine, with Jesus as an allegory for humanity.

I have no wish to turn this blog into a place for theological debate. What I want to get to is an understanding of Eliot's point-of-view. In this case, I think authorial point-of-view matters because it clearly mattered to her. More than other authors, at least those I have studied, Eliot saw her work as art and she consciously tried to create the highest form of art that she could and understanding what she considered the highest form of art and what she considered divine is important, at least for me, when reading her novels this time around.

Now I think I can move on, return The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined to the library (whew!), and relax.

Now I think I'll go find a cup of tea and read some more of Diana Gabaldon's The Fiery Cross before I fall through the Looking Glass. That I can understand!


  1. So it seems there are things we have to drop from time to time. We can't read all and everyhting - though I still feel guilty when I can't finish a book. George Eliot's novels can be read and loved even without deep knowledge of the woman who wrote them. Un/fortunately books have a life of their own, more dependent on the reader than on the writer. So, for example, I've loved her THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, MIDDLEMARCH or DANIEL DERONDA - I didn't read any other of her works - though I've never read any detailed biography or any of her theoretical works... Enjoy your The Fiery Cross!
    BTW I Got your Intimations,THANKS!!!
    BTW II It's time I get my first Gabaldon - Outlander isn't it? - and make my acquaintance with her novels ... I started feeling an outcast!

  2. Oh I love George Eliot. So much. Middlemarch remains a defining work in my life as a reader. I've not read all her stuff - Silas Marner and Adam Bede still need to be read. Haven't read a lot of the essays. Love the biographical stuff I've delved into.

    I have a lovely collection of early editions of some of her books - Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss and Romola - I think that one's a second edition. I like to keep George Eliot near me at all times.

  3. Maria - glad to hear Intimations arrived. Hope you enjoy it. You're right, I've loved Middlemarch for years while knowing very little about George Eliot. However, I found I enjoyed Gaskell more having learned about her life, etc., so I wanted to see if the same held true for Eliot. And you're right, we can't read all and everything. Finally, I really do enjoy Gabaldon--wish they would really make the movie they keep teasing us with!

    Bells - hang on to those early editions! Do you read them or do you have paperbacks for actually reading? I have some nice editions of Austen, but I tend to read the ratty paperbacks so that I can keep the nice copies nice.

  4. "She is a daunting person, no doubt about it, not nearly as approachable as either Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte, and with a much deeper record of non-fiction works that reflect her intimidating intellect than has Austen."

    How true! Eliot's novels are amongst the hardest ever written and can be incredibly alienating for those without an unquenchable thirst for Victorian writers. When reading Middlemarch in college, two of us in the class found ourselves defending it against all the rest of the students, whose frustration with the novel had escalated into hatred. I adore Eliot but admit there is something almost masochistic in reading her. Her prose are so loaded with philosophy they resemble a brain teaser at times. She is, unquestionably, one of the most brilliant writers to ever put pen to paper.

  5. The Life of Jesus does sound better read in excerpts. I think it's great to read so much of Eliot's work, but I think I might have to draw the line there too!