English, Department of



Brenda McKay

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 45 (2014)


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


A reader of George Eliot's novels, with their luminous intelligence and authoritative command of a fictional world, might be surprised to learn that this author was actually frequently tormented by crises of confidence, exhaustion and bodily pain. Her illnesses were often exacerbated by her novel-writing; but certainly not always. '[M]y life’, as she wrote, 'has always been much broken by physical malaise'.' She later commented that, despite extensive medical tests, the doctors could find nothing wrong with her. The word 'malaise' suggests extreme somatic discomfort, not necessarily associated with disease, but also depression. Eliot herself was aware, as she acknowledged early on in a description of 'rheumatism which sent me to bed’: 'My troubles are purely psychical - self-dissatisfaction and despair at achieving anything' (L, 1,166-6). Acknowledging Sara Hennell's love and patience she concedes: 'I have nothing to complain of but subjective maladies ' (L, I, 207). (It must be emphasized, however, that psychosomatic illnesses are, or can become, genuinely organic).