English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


Female novelists in this century from de Beauvoir to Drabble have acknowledged the contribution of the Victorian George Eliot. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. for instance, Simone de Beauvoir reports that, during her school days, she tried to conceal her reading of Adam Bede from her mother because of the novel's character Hetty Sorrel, pregnant out of wedlock (11). The Mill on the Floss held the -future French feminist in its spell for many reasons:

I read a-novel which seemed to me to translate my spiritual exile into words: George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss made an even deeper impression on me than Little Women .... Maggie Tulliver, like myself, was tom between others and herself: I recognized myself in her. She too was dark, loved nature, and books and life, was too headstrong to be able to observe the conventions of her respectable surroundings, and yet was very sensitive to the criticism of a brother she adored .... The others condemned her because she was superior to them; I resembled her, and henceforward I saw my isolation not as a proof of infamy but as a sign of my uniqueness .... Through her heroine, I identified myself with the author; one day other adolescents would bathe with their tears a novel in which I would tell my own sad story. (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. p.14Q)

Not only de Beauvoir but also the English novelist Elizabeth Bowen became so enamored of Eliot that she dressed up as her for an Oxford pageant in the 1930's (Glendinning, p63). And Virginia Woolf, preparing to write an article for the Times Literary Supplement's observation of the centennial of Eliot's birth, wrote in it letter that she was "reading through the whole of George Eliot":

So far, I have only made way with her life, which is a book of the greatest fascination, and I can see already that no one else has ever known her as I know her .... I only wish she had lived nowadays, and so been saved all that nonsense .... It was an unfortunate thing to be the first woman of the age. (Letters, 26 January 1919)

In our own time, novelist Margaret Drabble has admitted that "George Eliot is the woman writer that she most admires" (Rose, 125). In addition to gaining the respect of female writers, George Eliot has been hailed by male literary critics from F.R. Leavis to Harry Levin and Raymond Williams. Moreover, the French novelist Marcel Proust admitted weeping more than once over The Mill on the Floss (Levin, 390).

But what I would like to consider surpasses such adulation as de Beauvoir's and Woolf's and transcends even the praise of Proust. It is a pattern that occurs in the work of at least three contemporary female novelists; it is a phenomenon of intertextuality. Not content to quote the novels of George Eliot or to allude to her life, these writers have made either Eliot or her work an integral part of their own fiction. Such intertextuality indicates that these authors, whose fiction embodies that of George Eliot, are both writers and readers. The reader -oriented perspective of Wolfgang Iser supplies a theoretical key to the situation.