English, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 34 (2003)


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


I thought that I would talk today about a previously unexplored topic - George Eliot and cats. Unfortunately, I find that the reason why the topic is previously unexplored is that George Eliot, unlike the other Eliot, had very little, or possibly nothing, to say about cats. There may have been the odd un-named farm cat lurking about in Adam Bede, but nothing on which one could construct a ten-minute talk in the open air.

Dogs, of course, are quite another story, both real and fictional. There was Pug, a present from John Blackwood, sadly lost after only eighteen months, and replaced by the kindly Blackwood by a china pug, and Ben the bull terrier, and fictitiously any number of farm dogs, pet dogs and 'unpetted sheepdogs' with splendid names like Ponto (‘Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story') and Yap, Minny and Mumps (The Mill on the Floss).

Having been foiled in the matter of cats, my thoughts turned to George Eliot's place in the literary pantheon. Just now, and I hope for always, she stands on the pinnacle of Mount Olympus, but it was not always so. After the burst of interest and commentary following her death little was said, and perhaps little was read, for some fifty years, though isolated commentators, for example Virginia Woolf, clearly recognized her worth. In the preface to the 1889 edition of Alexander Main's Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings the adoring Mr. Main affirms that 'what Shakespeare did for the Drama, George Eliot has done for its modem substitute the Novel.... she has forever sanctified the Novel by making it the vehicle of the grandest and most uncompromising moral truth'. In 1890 Oscar Browning wrote 'The name of George Eliot is unique in English literature' and referred to her execution of 'so large a quantity of work of the highest merit and of far-reaching influence'. 'At this moment', he said, 'ten years after her death, it is perhaps most difficult to forecast what will be her ultimate position. Reputations which stand highest at the period of a sudden dissolution, pass for a season into obscurity.'

What might be described as the George Eliot revival dates probably from an early work of Professor Gordon Haight, subsequently the great post-war biographer and editor of the Letters, who produced his George Eliot and John Chaprnan in 1940, but it was many years before his work bore fruit in the beginning of the extraordinary George Eliot industry which shows no sign of abating, and produces an immense body of scholarly work every year. Look up George Eliot on a search engine, and be prepared to spend many hours looking through the references.