Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 28 (1997) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
When Ladislaw has watched and listened to Dorothea in the Vatican Museum, he says to the painter Naumann that language is superior to painting and 'gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague.[ ... ] This woman whom you have just seen, for example: how would you paint her voice, pray? But her voice is much diviner than anything you have seen of her.' The novelist does in a way paint the voice, using the visual signs of written language to convey an auditory experience.
Written dialogue may be naturalistic and idiomatic in its choice of words and syntax, well-marked by punctuation, but it can never give a full impression of what we hear in life. One of the hardest tasks for the novelist is to convey the many individual qualities of voice, in terms of natural pitch, smoothness and harshness, and so on. Qualities may be affected by physical changes, as the slurred speech of intoxication or the huskiness of a cold; or situationally by whispering or shouting. In all these things the novelist must use the equivalent of stage-directions, indicating by verbal commentary how the character is to be 'heard' by the reader.
George Eliot's sensitivity to speech is outstanding among the great Victorian novelists. I do not propose to examine again the well-trodden ground of her use of dialect, or the idiolects of her characters. What has received less attention is her sensitivity to the nuances of conversation, and her unusual ability to recall the distinctive sounds of voices. She wrote to the French translator of The Mill on the Floss, whom she had met with his mother, that as she read his letter she was 'hearing the tone of the two voices. I have the happiness of being able to recall beloved faces and accents with great clearness'.3 This aural memory is evoked by Mirah in Daniel Deronda when she tries to recall her childhood. 'Is it not wonderful how I remember the voices better than anything else? I think they must go deeper into us than other things. I have often fancied heaven might be made of voices'.