Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 18 (1987)
This paper is part of a comprehensive survey of Shakespeare's influence on George Eliot's writing, an influence widely recognised by critics but rarely given the detailed analysis it deserves. It seems to me that, a study of this sort is needed because Shakespeare belongs to that enormous "choir" of philosophers, theologians, writers, poets, dramatists and scientists on whom Eliot drew when shaping her philosophy of life and art; a "choir" which with "mild persistence urge man's search/ To vaster issues. I offer this critique of "Janet's Repentance", therefore, as something to be compared with studies that show other influences from the above “choir”, as further proof of Eliot's enormous scholarship, and because there is intrinsic value in glimpsing an understanding of Shakespeare by one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian period.
On the surface of it, “Janet's Repentance" is not a promising work for discussing Shakespeare's influence. There are no epigraphs from any source; Eliot's "Commonplace Book", with entries from 1855 to 1876, contains notes relating to al I the novels except Scenes of Clerical Life; and, David Lodge, in the Penguin English Library edition (1973), and Thomas A. Noble, in the Clarendon edition (1985), identify only two allusions to Shakespeare. In the first, Mr. Dempster says of Mr. Tryan and other Evangelicals, "they're all bad ones by the sly; smooth-faced, drawling, hypocritical fellows, who pretend ginger isn't hot in their mouths" (Clarendon edition, p. 194), which recalls a drunken Sir Toby Belch who says to Malvolio, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" to which the Clown adds, “Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger shall be hot i’ th’ mouth too" (Twelfth Night, 11, iii, 113-7); and in the second allusion, Mr. Dempster's remark, "Tryan's as soft as a sucking dove -- one of your honey-mouthed hypocrites" (p.236), echoes Bottom's "But I wiII aggravate my voice so, that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you an, 'twere any nightingale" (A Midsummer Night's Dream, I,ii, 76-7).
Two allusions seems slender ground on which to build a case for Shakespeare's influence. However, the nature of the allusions, and the context in which they appear, make them significant inasmuch as they allow Eliot to make the sort of moral distinctions which she felt were necessary to a sympathetic understanding of people. My point will become clearer after briefly putting the whole of Scenes into historical perspective.