English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 31 (2000)


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


Middlemarch is widely recognized as being one of the most strenuously narrated novels in English literature. Many of the most moving, and most quoted, lines of the novel are the product of direct narrational intervention and the reader is aware of the surrounding, solicitous presence of the author-narrator throughout the novel. Throughout this paper, I am going to be looking closely at a number of short passages from the novel in order to try to establish the 'tasks' - as I call them - which George Eliot undertakes and fulfils through her narrator in Middlemarch. But I should like to point out before going on the occasion of my interest in the narrating voice in George Eliot's work since it bears on my argument. That interest came about in the first place through my interest in the absence of such an explicit narrating presence in the mature work of Elizabeth Gaskell - her Wives and Daughters in particular. In a study of Gaskell which I have recently completed - which looks at Gaskell's work in relation to George Eliot among other nineteenth-century realist writers - I conclude that the absence in Gaskell's work of the strenuous narrative voice we find in George Eliot's work, can be explained in part by the fact that Gaskell's depiction of real life in her novels rests upon religious faith. (Gaskell was a lifelong and committed Unitarian.) That firm religious faith, I conclude, enabled Gaskell to accept the complexity - including the sadness, the failures, the waste and the human hurts - which she witnesses and registers in her final novel, as something which, however apparently without design, was divinely ordered and ordained. Gaskell, that's to say, did not feel the need to worry through the complexity and the human perplexity she depicts - explicitly thinking, arguing or explaining her way out of the problem - in the way that George Eliot, by contrast, characteristically did feel the need to do, and I came to wonder, with renewed, revitalized interest, how far that need in George Eliot was the result of her loss of religious faith. (This wasn't, of course, a new question, but I was arriving at it in a new way.) A pro-Gaskell reader might say that Gaskell's belief in God meant that she didn't need to play God in her novels in the way that George Eliot is often accused of doing - insistently offering (so critics complain) the authoritative last word on everything. Part of my purpose here is to offer a more sympathetic account of the ways in which the narrating voice in Middlemarch might be seen as substituting for a lost divinity. But it is also part of my purpose to suggest that this substitutive function is not the whole story.

I shall begin by looking at some of the criticisms of George Eliot's narrative voice. Andrew Davies, the writer of the 1994 BBC TV adaptation of the novel, has said:

One thing I've always hated about George Eliot is the way she'll write a brilliantly dramatic and moving scene and then spend the next few pages pointing out all the subtleties, just in case we missed them.

One senses Davies's frustrations here as a screen-writer faced with the challenge of translating to a television medium the wealth of direct authorial comment he finds in Middlemarch. But Davies is reiterating a frequently-made complaint: that the authorial comment in the novel is, or ought to be, superfluous, an added-extra. George Steiner, for instance, writing in the 'fifties, said:

By interfering constantly in the narration George Eliot attempts to persuade us of what should be artistically evident. . .. It should be noted that omniscience is an author's most lazy approach and that personal interference in the action must be compared to what occurs in a Chinese theatre where the manager comes on during the play to change props.