Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 16 (1985)
It was George Eliot's Parson Gilfil who "smoked very long pipes, and preached very short sermons". Anyone speaking on this occasion (whether clergyman or layman) should remember Parson Gilfil, and preach a very short sermon!
But standing here, and looking around this little group of memorials. George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Tennyson, Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, John Masefield ... one can't help thinking how happily they must have greeted one another's arrival in this poetic Pantheon. ("Have you heard, Tom? George Eliot's joining us! "). One also reflects on how long all these now-silent literary lions had to wait for the great novelist whom we honour to take her rightful place among them.
I say "her rightful place". But in a book I read last year, what do I find? - A suggestion that the novels or George Eliot were written by Mr. Lewes! This, I suppose, is on the Shakespeare/Bacon principle. It's not unlike the old assertion that the works of Homer were written, not by Homer, but by someone else of the same name.
And yet.... that very same recent book uncompromisingly describes George Eliot as "Warwickshire's second volcanic genius". Note the word 'volcanic', applied to a Victorian lady novelist. John Ruskin, writing about what he called "this disgusting 19th century", complained of his contemporaries that "we 'are a different race altogether from the men or old time. We live in drawing-rooms instead of deserts, and work by the light of chandeliers instead of volcanoes". It was a well-aimed rebuke. But, however inviting the general target, there is no doubt that in George Eliot's work there are volcanoes, as well as occasional chandeliers. And chandeliers may glitter with a gentle wit that passes almost unnoticed if one reads too quickly. Consider the neat 'one-liner' (as we would call it these days) from my beloved Middlemarch. Celia is sympathising with her sister, Dorothea:
"Poor dear Dodo! - How dreadful! " said Celia, feeling as much grieved as her own perfect happiness would allow"
What a charming description of well-meant sympathy at second hand!