English, Department of



Barbara Hardy

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 35 (2004) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (35)


Once or twice when I read and re-read the scene of the railway survey in Middlemarch I felt a sense of niggling lost connection, then one day I belatedly found it. George Eliot had copied the name of Elizabeth Gaskell's Timothy Cooper, in Cousin Phillis, for her character in Middlemarch.

Eliot wrote to Gaskell1 that she felt an affinity with 'the feeling which inspired "Cranford" and the earlier chapters of "Mary Barton'" and had read Cranford when writing Scenes of Clerical Life and Mary Barton when writing Adam Bede. When The Moorland Cottage was proposed as source for The Mill on the Floss she said she had not read it. She writes about Ruth, The Life of Charlotte Bronte and Sylvia's Lovers, but as far as I know never mentions Cousin Phillis, serialized in The Cornhill Magazine between November and February, 1863-4, six years before Eliot began to brood over Middlemarch, nine before her novel began its serial appearance. She is unlikely not to have read Gaskell's novella, and also unlikely, I think, to have deliberately used the name of its Timothy Cooper. It seems to be a case of creative forgetting.

The two Timothy Coopers are poor farm labourers, on the fringe of the action, each given one big scene. They might be called minor characters but the description is misleading. I once wrote that George Eliot refused to create minor characters, liking to imply that every figure in her fiction has, as she explicitly says, a 'centre of self'. The same is true of Gaskell, exemplified in her late novella Cousin Phillis, a feat of condensation she described as 'a complete fragment' , an oxymoron effortlessly defining the story and its genre.

Timothy Cooper is only one link between the greatest Victorian novella, narrative at its most terse and small-scale, and the greatest Victorian long novel, narrative at its most expansive. Both works combine love-story - twanging what the narrator of Middlemarch calls the old troubadour strings - with wide geographical reference (the Midlands, Italy and America) and historical range. Both dramatize and discuss the coming of railways to England. Cousin Phillis dramatizes more detail about technicalities (shunting, difficulties of laying rail on marshy ground) and personnel (share-holders, managing engineer, clerk, inventors, and navvies) than Middlemarch, and inserts English railways between those in Piedmont and Canada. We may list Gaskell with Robert Evans and Herbert Spencer, both involved with railway survey and works, as a source of Eliot's railway information.