Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)
The influence of George Eliot's fiction on Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time has often been discussed. For instance, L. A. Bisson drew attention in 1945 to 'the possibility, even the likelihood, of[ ... ] [an] immediate and sympathetic suggestion' by Eliot, citing Proust's claim in 1910 that 'II n'y a pas de litterature qui ait sur moi un pouvoir comparable a la litterature anglaise ... deux pages du Moulin sur la Floss me font pleurer.'2 Bisson goes on to suggest that three specific passages in The Mill on the Floss have their counterparts in Proust's work, the most plausible of which is in the opening chapter where the narrator has a waking dream of his childhood which leads into the main story, and that is exactly what is made to happen at the beginning of In Search of Lost Time. The other two passages have to do with the importance of childhood memories for a person's existential integrity, which is of course of central importance in Proust's work
Taking over this argument by Bisson, I aim to demonstrate that there is a further thematic continuity between the two writers. Where Bisson focuses on the aspect of time regained, I will instead focus on the aspect of time lost, which is most probably what made Proust weep. Proust's crucial reference to The Mill on the Floss in the letter Bisson partly cites in the previous quotation is as follows:
It is curious that in all the contrasted kinds of writing from George Eliot to Hardy, from Stevenson to Emerson, there is no literature which exerts on me a power comparable to that of English and American literature. Germany, Italy and quite often France leave me indifferent. But two pages of Mill on the Floss [sic] make me weep.
While the passage as a whole states that he finds Anglo-American literature, in general, emotive, it gives The Mill on the Floss a highly privileged status by exclusively mentioning the book title. Proust later refers to it in a different letter as 'the book I have loved the most'.' But what is most important here is that Proust explicitly states his particular response to the novel. He weeps. Neither the way the novel opens, nor its statements on the importance of childhood memories, would be in themselves enough to make one weep. This strongly suggests that it was the tragic strain in Eliot's novel, its depiction of squandered youthful lives that exerted its power on Proust and made him weep. I wish to demonstrate that this tragic strain, the representation of lives that are wasted in pursuit of futile desire, is his main inheritance from Eliot's fiction. Contrary to the contemporary vogue of reading Proust as a means of learning to be positive,' in this paper I will dwell rather on how In Search of Lost Time tenaciously dwells on the negative by portraying life as a waste of time, and reconsider its ostensibly positive conclusion.