Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Stemming from a genuine desire to grapple with the complex theoretical issues underlying nineteenth-century attitudes to the novel and its aesthetic, Henry James was one of the leading critics of the mid-Victorian period. Yet his conclusion in his early criticism that George Eliot's digressions detracted from her style, was one of his less astute judgements. We know from his correspondence with Charles Eliot Norton in 1866 that James had for some time been looking for a novelist on whom to write a long general essay concerning quality, originally considering and then rejecting Harriet Beecher Stowe,' and a glance across his criticism between 1864 and 1866, shows that the novelist on whom he had ultimately settled for his first signed essay was George Eliot. For comments on Eliot's indulgence in 'discursive amplifications of incidental points', mentioned in passing in the Felix Holt review (1866),2 were clearly the beginning of a series of criticisms on digression continued not only in the longer, more exploratory piece on her work, namely, 'The novels of George Eliot' (1866, E&W 912-33), but also in the reviews of Middlemarch (1873, E&W 958-66) and Daniel Deronda (1876, E&W 973-74), as well as in 'Daniel Deronda: A Conversation' (1876, E&W 974-92), the review of 'The Lifted Veil' and 'Brother Jacob'(l878, E&W 992-94) and 'The Life of George Eliot' (1885, E&W 994-1010). This range of texts extending over a period of nearly twenty years gave James the opportunity of looking more widely and searchingly at Eliot's oeuvre, and of taking up the point of whether her fiction stood his own personal test of verisimilitude and the problems he believed her digressive, reflective style posed for what he perceived as her realism.
Dealing with Eliot's first six volumes of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Romola and Felix Holt, the Radical, the 1866 essay covers a wide range of general topics as well as those already mentioned. Almost all of them are, in one way or another, related to James's perception of Eliot's realism and world view. Opening with the observation that the critic's first duty in the presence of an author's collected works is to seek out some key to their method, some view of their literary convictions, or some indication of their ruling theory, James considers that in some writers the critic will find explicit declarations, in others 'conscientious inductions' (E&W 912). In the former category, James is probably thinking of writers such as Balzac, who grouped his fiction under three main titles, Etudes de moeurs, Etudes philosophiques and Etudes analytiques, which indicated the purpose and scope of the novels (in the 1842-8 collected edition). But in his second category, James is clearly referring to writers who, in his opinion, give some indication of their intention through the form of the 'authorial digression' of which, he tells us, George Eliot was so fond (E&W 912). Taking this as his point of departure, James selects as his example the passage from the much-discussed chapter 17 of Adam Bede, 'In Which the Story Pauses a Little':