English, Department of



Melissa Raines

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (38)


In George Eliot's Middlemarch, the narrator reflects on those crucial events which shape pathways in our lives. For Tertius Lydgate, this occurs with the chance opening of a book to a particular page:

[T]he first passage that drew his eyes was on the valves of the heart. He was not much acquainted with valves of any sort, but he knew that valvae were folding doors, and through this crevice came a sudden light startling him with his first vivid notion of finely adjusted mechanism in the human frame.'

For Lydgate, this seminal instant is the one which inspires him to be a doctor. While Eliot did not pursue a specifically scientific pathway in her own life, she had an undeniable interest in physiology and is even specifically described by Kirstie Blair as 'a novelist engaging with medical investigations into the heart." Terence Cave highlights Eliot's familiarity with Herbert Spencer's First Principles, which 'she read in page-proof even while she was writing Silas Mamer' , along with The Physiology of Common Life by her partner George Henry Lewes.3 These works both addressed the issue of 'the interaction between and, ultimately, the inseparability of psychological and physiological experience' (Cave, p. xv). It is this tie between the mind and the body that Eliot made a focal point in her writing - not just at the level of story, also through syntax.

The syntactical expression of the physiology of the heart is particularly evident in Silas Mamer. The title character is a solitary weaver who retreats from human interaction after being turned away from the religious community that dominated his young life. He attempts to protect himself from the pain of past rejection and betrayal with a closed-off, 'insect-like existence" that is, in an odd twist, a strange, waking equivalent of the cataleptic fits from which he suffers:

So, year after year, Silas Mamer had lived in this solitude, his guineas rising in the iron pot, and his life narrowing and hardening itself more and more into a mere pulsation of desire and satisfaction that had no relation to any other being. His life had reduced itself to the mere functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end towards which the functions tended. (p. 19)