English, Department of

 

Date of this Version

2000

Document Type

Article

Citation

The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/

Comments

The George Eliot Review 2019

Abstract

A productive starting point for a critical evaluation of Henry James's criticism of George Eliot's fiction is his unsigned review of Felix Halt, the Radical, 1 which, as his first piece of criticism on her, is perhaps itself most usefully read against the background of the novel's extremely favourable contemporary reception,' for in his review lames addresses the issues of the novel's acclaim, arguing not only that the volume of praise it had already acquired was sufficient but also that Eliot's increasing reputation would only attract more (E&W 911). This determination to call a halt to the praise showered on Eliot's fifth novel - disregarding Scenes of Clerical Life - shows a certain arrogance on the part of the young critic who, by 1866, at the age of twenty-three, was far from having acquired a reputation either as a novelist or a critic. In fiction he had published only four short stories,' and his relatively undistinguished first novel Watch and Ward, with its moments of stylistic sophistication and wit, showing glimpses of the novelist to come, was not to appear until 1870. His criticism, however, was more extensive. By the time he came to write the Felix Halt review he had, over a period of two years, published about twenty-five reviews. His objective at this stage does seem to have been to establish his reputation as a critic, although real evidence of this does not emerge until 1874 when he expediently turned a review of Turgenev's Spring Torrents and 'King Lear of the Steppes' into a long critical essay which covered almost the whole Turgenev oeuvre: In 1866, on Eliot, however, when dealing with the question of why such 'excessive homage' had been paid to her, lames recognized that the intellectual dimension of her fiction gave her a unique place in the tradition of the English novel: 'It is so new a phenomenon for an English novelist to ... have powers of thought at all commensurate with his powers of imagination, that when a writer unites these conditions he is likely to receive excessive homage' (E&W 911). Not surprisingly, then, James's review is a mixture of harsh criticism and carefully modulated praise: 'Better, perhaps, than any of George Eliot's novels does "Felix Holt" illustrate her closely wedded talent and foibles' (E&W 911). Yet scrutiny of his comments on Eliot's fiction over his life-time tends to show that, as his own reputation as a novelist grew, he became increasingly generous, especially in the middle and later years. In 1877, for example, he placed the fiction of Eliot and Turgenev over that of any other living novelist on the world's stage:

There are only two living novelists the appearance of whose new productions constitutes anything that can be called a literary event. If one of these writers is that blessing of reviewers the author of 'Daniel Deronda', the other is certainly the distinguished Russian whose name we have inscribed at the head of these remarks ... '

Some forty years later he nostalgically recollected 'lying on [his] bed at Swampscott, ... and reading, in ever so thrilled a state, George Eliot's Felix Halt, just out, and of which I was to write, and did write, a review in the Nation'" In the Preface to The Princess Casamassima, too, he revalues Eliot's fiction when he represents it not within its own terms so much as within those that suit an explanation of his own fictional emphasis and method, namely the psychological history of his characters with the power to transmit, as he thought, their moral consciousness directly to the reader. Here he observes that Eliot also apparently attempts to show the histories of her characters 'as determined by their feelings and the nature of their minds', and it is this which makes 'their emotions, their stirred intelligence, their moral consciousness ... our very own adventure' (E&W 1095). These comments tend to undermine twentieth-century interpretations of his criticism which imply that James always disapproved of novels with multiple plots,' for none of Eliot's, not even Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, figures among the 'loose baggy monsters' of Tolstoy, Thackeray and Dumas which James attacked on formal grounds in his Preface to The Tragic Muse (E&W 1107). However, despite the praise James accorded to Eliot just after the turn of the century, his last word on her in his much later autobiography shows a further variation in viewpoint. Here he reveals how personal contact with the writer in his youth affected his judgement to such an extent that he was virtually incapable of making a critical estimate of her outside what he termed 'a living and recorded relation' (61). Thus biography and criticism merge to the point where he skillfully avoids committing himself to the place that 'the author of Middlemarch and Silas Mamer may be conceived to have in the pride of our literature'.8 (Interestingly, the ambiguous praise he gives to Uncle Tom s Cabin in his autobiography also reflects how his approach to another female writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, changed over time.')

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