Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 34 (2003)
Who is the English novelist worthy of comparison with Tolstoy? The name of George Eliot immediately suggests itself, though even Middlemarch does not have the range of War and Peace. What Henry James said of Eliot - that she is 'also a good deal of a philosopher and it is to this union of the keenest observation with the ripest reflection that her style owes its essential force' - seems to apply to Tolstoy as well. F. R. Leavis, we recall, invoked the name of the Russian novelist in his appraisal of Eliot, arguing that the best parts of Daniel Deronda and Anna Karenina are great in the same way. It is, therefore, with some surprise that one greets Josie Billington's comparative study of Tolstoy and Elizabeth Gaskell.
In the initial chapters Billington, in a somewhat elaborate fashion, establishes Gaskell's 'subtly relaxed worldview' (9) and defines the nature of the novelist's realism, her acceptance of the miscellany and the formlessness of the real. Along the way, however, there is a lively discussion of Wives and Daughters in relation to Maria Edgeworth's Helen. Billington's treatment, it seems to me, is more sensitive than that of Marilyn Butler, who previously made the same comparison and emphasized Gaskell's rigid dogmatism (The Review of English Studies, 1972).