Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The tradition of admiring George Eliot for her genius is as old as the author herself. Alexander Main, one of her more sycophantic devotees, laid the foundations of this tradition during her lifetime with the publication of Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings, a work dedicated 'to George Eliot in recognition of a genius as original as it is profound and a morality as pure as it is impassioned'. Though Main confesses that the preface to his book is 'not the place in which to attempt to give an exposition of George Eliot's genius', he cannot resist using it to remind us that she has made the novel 'the vehicle of the grandest and most uncompromising moral truth' , that 'there is to be found, on almost every page of her writings, some wise thought finely expressed, some beautiful sentiment tenderly clothed, some pointed witticism exquisitely turned', and that the 'riches' to be found in her work 'would seem to be actually without a limit'.1 If this is Main determined not to expound George Eliot's worth, it is hard to imagine him in an expository mood.
Main's preface, however, is more than mere goddess-worship; it also outlines the major characteristics of George Eliot's writing - 'moral truth', 'wise thought', 'pointed witticism' - qualities for which her novels have been vigorously championed and violently criticized for the last century and a half. Of these, it is undoubtedly with a kind of moralism and wisdom that George Eliot has become most closely associated since her death. Gordon Haight attributes this phenomenon largely to John Walter Cross, George Eliot's second husband and first biographer. 'The legend of lofty seriousness', Haight explains, 'fostered in the beginning by Lewes, became through Cross's efforts so firmly fixed that it colored her reputation as a novelist'.2 And indeed it has. Despite the range of critical opinions that informs scholarship on George Eliot's life and work, to view her as a 'serious' artist first and foremost has become something of standard practice among her critics both cruel and kind. As V. S. Pritchett put it, 'one pictures her, in life, moralizing instead of making a scene'.'
George Eliot was certainly a serious author, and her penchant for 'moralizing' is a well-documented (if not well-loved) fact of her style. But alongside her penetrating observations of human nature and her sincere appeals to the moral conscience of her readers runs a vibrant current of something with which she is too rarely associated: humour. George Eliot may well be formidable, but she is also funny, a quality with which I think she has been insufficiently associated since her death. Like John Cross, whose devotion to the 'sibylline' George Eliot prompted him in editing her letters to highlight 'the more sententious passages' and omit altogether 'the spontaneous, trivial, and humorous remarks'" posterity, it would seem, has committed itself to an unsmiling image of the author. This essay seeks to adjust that image, to catch the sibyl in the act of smirking. By highlighting the work of critics who appreciated her capacity for humour, and by calling attention to moments in her writings which exhibit that comic capacity at work, I will argue here that to conceive of George Eliot solely as an austere, weighty, untouchable personality is to misunderstand her, and that knowing how to laugh with George Eliot is a crucial part of knowing how to read her.