Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 21 (1990)
One of the Shakespeare quotations most frequently used by George Eliot in her writings is an otherwise little-known phrase from As You Like It, Act 1 scene iii, where Rosalind, about to leave the court for the Forest of Arden, says, '0, how full of briars is this working-day world!' In George Eliot' s work the phrase is illustrative of her theory of realism in fiction, the theory most famously expressed in Adam Bede, where the author praises the truthfulness of Dutch paintings, describing the sympathy which is aroused in her by 'these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence', as exemplified by 'old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands' (Book 2, chapter 1). George Eliot's novels show that there is both truth and beauty to be found in everyday scenes among ordinary people. It is not a completely new idea about literature; most famously, Wordsworth had espoused it in the theory and practice of Lyrical Ballads at the beginning of the century. But the novels of the mid-nineteenth century were most often characterised by melodrama, coincidence, and extremes of the social scale, in novels of high life, such as those of Bulwer Lytton, or novels of Newgate, including Oliver Twist.
Of course, George Eliot's novels are not without their measure of melodrama - one thinks of the child-murder of Hetty Sorrel and her last minute reprieve from the gallows in Adam Bede, the Liebestod in the flood at the end of The Mill on the Floss, or the Dickensian elements in Felix Holt, such as the secret relationships in the Transome family, and the complicated legal arrangements which are gradually uncovered. But George Eliot also renders people in the home, at work, living ordinary lives (in which, as Wordsworth had also seen, there is plenty of drama mixed up with the monotony). One thinks of Caleb Garth and his family in Middlemarch, or of Adam Bede the carpenter, seen in the very opening chapter (entitled 'The Work-shop ') of this first bestselling novel by the unknown 'George Eliot', actually at work, making a door. George Eliot is so much one of the great Victorian novelists, and we know that many of those who came after her - Hardy, Meredith, Henry James -owed her a debt of influence, that we may tend to take such elements in her work for granted, even see them as typically Victorian. But she ~ doing something radical, and intentionally so.