Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)
About George Eliot Americans were certain of two truths by the time of her death in 1880: she was a genius who was pushing the novel into a new terrain of seriousness, intense moral purpose, and artful design; she was also a glum realist in whose work characters were called to a high moral duty in a godless world without transcendent values. Lavish praise of her work from its first appearance in the United States in 1858 continued largely without qualification until the publication of Middlemarch in 1873. Throughout the seventies she was as frequently denounced, "gloom and doom" replacing "humour and pathos" as reviewers' formulas. Eliot's intent was to widen men's sympathies; as a realist for whom that phrase meant more than quaint local colour, her goal was to guide readers to "do without opium and live through all our pain with conscious, clear-eyed endurance.'" Americans wanted, by contrast, what was so poignantly expressed in a question posed by a reviewer in Scribner's: "Is there not a Saviour for us?" (October,1874). Americans wanted light and hope and moral uplift.
Little wonder then that unlike nearly all of her fellow English novelists of the Victorian era whose works were routinely adapted for the American stage, Eliot never saw her novels produced in American theatres. From the fifteen volumes of William C. Odell's monumental Annals of the New York Stage her name is missing; nor, with one exception, may an Eliot title be found in any of the volumes of the Best Plays series from 1895 to the present, in Rodin's Later American Plays, or in Hixon and Hennessee's Nineteenth-Century American Drama.
From midcentury on the novel's headlong rush into realism was more advanced in England than in the United States. By the time the word "realism" was first used in Atlantic Monthly in 1857, it described the work of a generation of English practitioners. The novel, both in England and in the United States, also preceded the drama in its adoption of a realist aesthetic. By the time the American stage was ready for realistic domestic drama, Eliot's contradictory reputation was fixed. The only Eliot novel adapted to the stage, Romola, was fittingly chosen to resolve the contradiction. Her glum realism - which for adaptation purposes meant all of her novels but one-was cast aside just when the canon of theatrical material was turning increasingly realistic. Her status as classic genius was preserved ironically by those whose dramatic and theatrical tastes were most conservative in the adaptation of her most "poetic" work, her only historical romance.
The theatrical adaptation of Romola preserved Eliot for Americans but at the expense of the truth of her work. Ironically the adaptation process saved her by turning her into what she had been charged with being all along-a wholly secular writer. Secular could be made acceptable so long as it was not realistic. The adapting medium-the American stage of the 1890s--assured that this would be the case, presenting us with an interesting case study of the role played by adapting media in the consolidation or alternation of a reputation.