Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 45 (2014)
I want to start with a useful rather than a funny question posed by the critic Hilary M. Schor: 'What acts of information-organization do we perform on the Eliot career?'! The answer is possibly a succession of familiar base-touchings: Eliot's Warwickshire childhood and family life, the loss of her evangelical faith, her London journalism and reviewing, the development of her artistic values through engagement with European art and literature - the works of Baruch Spinoza, Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss, and Auguste Comte - and, of course, her partnership with George Henry Lewes. Other notable Eliot 'themes' might include science, religion, history, natural history, gender, music, and Darwinism. In this endless list of possible configurations, a category we're most unlikely to come up with is Eliot and laughter.
The ideological shaping of Eliot's career talks to a wider bourgeois preference in the mid-Victorian period - and beyond - for lachrymose respectability, one that publicly, at least, occluded laughing or gelastic narratives, even when these were enjoyed in camera. While George Henry Lewes, for example, famously professed to admiring Eliot's 'fun' in her first work of fiction, 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton' (1858), it was her 'pathos' that he ultimately plumped for.' Both Eliot and Lewes 'cried together' over the scenes of Milly Barton's deathbed, a marital act of affective communion that is tacitly invoked when Eliot published the story in Scenes of Clerical Life, in 1858. Her narrator directly addresses her readers with the words, 'I wish to stir your sympathy with commonplace troubles - to win your tears for real sorrow." The emphasis on 'real sorrow' connotes sympathy's peculiar grammar of affect, a generic predisposition for crying following from reading novels and letters that interfaces shared sympathies and weeping in a transactional exchange of ink for tears.
Yet despite this, Eliot participated in increasingly widespread debates about the ideological and aesthetic place of laughter in Victorian society, begun by writers like William Hazlitt, Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, George Meredith, and continued by scientists and philosophers, Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, James Sully and later Sigmund Freud. In 1856, writing anonymously for the Westminster Review in 'German Wit: Heinrich Heine', she quotes Goethe's comment that 'nothing is more significant of man's character than what they find laughable'" Eliot, however, adds a notable modification: 'The truth of the observation would be more apparent if Goethe had said culture [my emphasis] instead of character." What is remarkable here, considering Eliot's enduring status as a canonically serious author, is her stridency about laughter's irreducible significance in the public realm.