Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 28 (1997) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
In one of the first reviews of Proust's Du cote de chez Swann, appropriately published in the journal Le Temps, in 1913, the critic Paul Souday takes Proust to task for writing too much like an Englishman. 'His copious narratives have something of Ruskin and Dickens in them,' Souday remarks; and he might easily have added George Eliot, whom we know Proust to have read and admired. Souday goes on:
This superabundance of trivial events, this insistence on suggesting explanations of them, is frequently met with in English novels, where the sense of life is produced by a kind of assiduous cohabitation with the characters. We French and Latin folk prefer a more synthesising method.
The question of what realism in fiction is, and whether indeed there can be said to be such a thing, is a perennial topic of criticism - one to which George Eliot herself notably contributed. I would like to offer Souday's back-handed phrase - 'the sense of life produced by a kind of assiduous cohabitation with the characters' - as a working definition, or at any rate adopt it as the motto for this essay. I take it that Souday's response to Proust would be generally disagreed with today, as indicating his failure to see the wood for the trees - a failure excusable in part, of course, by his having traversed only the first thicket of A la recherche du temps perdu. But if anything, criticism of Proust has gone to the opposite extreme in its emphasis on design and control in a work which does, after all, luxuriate and proliferate with Dickensian or Ruskinian energy. My argument will be that in Middlemarch, too, the 'sense of life' is conveyed by a superabundance of trivial events, but that something else has its eye on this superabundance and may be said to have designs upon it.