Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 34 (2003) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
It was perhaps Herbert Spencer in his Autobiography (1904) who first disseminated the myth that, though George Eliot will remain for posterity one of our finest novelists, her weakness was that she could not construct effective, dramatic plots. By implication, her stories would thus not be effective on the stage, without the commentary of her wise, omniscient narrator. Perhaps in consequence there have been fewer dramatic adaptations of George Eliot's work than those of other nineteenth-century novelists, including Jane Austen and Dickens - this despite, amongst others, an extremely distinguished silent film based on Romola, starring Lillian Gish, in 1924. Several productions of varying merit before and after the latter representation have, however, appeared, beginning with an allegedly tame, saccharine interpretation of Adam Bede in 1862. Amongst better dramatizations, a fine serialized version of Daniel Deronda appeared in 1970.
But it has been particularly in the last twenty years that radio, television, and stage adaptations of George Eliot's fiction have demonstrated how well, in fact, her stories translate into other media, revealing her excellent hold on dialogue and her ability to tell a gripping story despite the absence of her narrative voice. Perhaps best of all the theatrical adaptations has been Helen Edmundson's highly acclaimed version of The Mill on the Floss for the Shared Experience Theatre Company, which electrified audiences throughout England (and the USA and China) in 1994-5, and which more recently returned to London's West End. The vivid interplay of experience and dialogue in this production meant that I initially felt some disappointment that only one actor, Josepb Millson - who had taken part in the Shared Experience adaptation of The Mill- was to play all the roles in Tim Heath's extremely faithful adaptation of 'The Lifted Veil' at the British Library (previously shown in Guildford). But it soon became clear that, since we can never know how much of the action of this story is simply part of the hallucinatory, paranoid projections of the main protagonist, Latimer, with his neurasthenic, 'diseased sensibility', a monologue was the best form in which to present his largely subjective experiences in George Eliot's novella on stage; and though the critic is often expected to carp, I have to say that Millson's performance was a real tour de force, not least because of the lean, handsome and languid persona that one might expect in Latimer.