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Happy Birthday, George Eliot! (Appreciating the Avuncular)

It is perhaps fitting that my youngest nephew celebrates his first birthday today (three days before the actual event) on the 113th anniversary of the birth of his great-great Aunt Ruth and the 190th anniversary of the birth of the greatest English novelist who ever lived, Mary Anne Evans Cross (AKA George Eliot).  For that great woman was particularly fond of children.  Almost all her novels end with the main character romping (or otherwise in the company of) his (or her) progeny.

Eliot understood childhood and the importance of a nurturing relationship between an adult and child.  And she even understood the importance of uncles.  At the close of Adam Bede, while Seth the brother to the novel’s eponymous hero did not marry the woman he loved, did delight in being uncle to her children.  Beckoned by his sister-in-law, Seth

. . . presently appeared stooping under the doorway, being taller than usual by the black head of a sturdy two-year-old nephew, who had caused some delay by demanding to be carried on uncle’s shoulder.

‘Better take him on thy arm, Seth,’ said Dinah, looking fondly at the stout black-eyed fellow.  ’He’s troublesome to thee so.’

‘Nay, nay:  Addy likes a ride on my shoulder.  I can carry him so for a bit.’  A kindness which Addy acknowledged by drumming his heels with promising force against uncle Seth’s chest.  But to walk by Dinah’s side, and be tyrannised over by Dinah and Adam’s children, was uncle Seth’s earthly happiness.

Last year, at this time I watched the BBC version of Silas Marner (featuring Ben Kingsley) where Eliot tells how by adopting an abandoned child, the eponymous hero found meaning and joy in his life and a connection to his his community.

“It’s a lone thing; I’m a lone thing. . . . It’s come to me,” he says when others in the community tried to take the child from him.  Eliot so delighted in the effect of a child on an adult with an open heart:

She [that child] was perfectly quiet now, but not asleep–only soothed by sweet porridge and warmth into that wide-gazing calm which makes us older human beings, with our inward turmoil, feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in the earth or sky–before a steady glowing planet, or a full-flowered eglantine, or the bending trees over a silent pathway.

In February when I was in San Francisco, my sister and her husband went for a run, leaving me to watch over my sleeping nephew.  I peered into the darkened room where he was asleep in his cradle and felt a similar awe, an awe I’ve felt in the presence of his many cousins.  Eliot had described something we grownups feel and have felt, perhaps for as long as members of our species could feel.

Such is the power of George Eliot’s prose, the images she invokes, the ideas she presents, the emotions she expresses. She helps us find words for our deepest thoughts and shows compassion for our everyday weaknesses. She seems to see into the troubles of all our lives and finds the balm in tender relations with our fellows.

Since I am borrowing from last year’s post to craft this one, this year I will once again cut and paste the piece I have posted in previous years:

There are holidays we all celebrate. And then there are the personal days, the anniversary of a wedding, the day we first met our beloved, the birthday of a friend, special relative or favorite writer. November 22 is one of those days for me. Not only does it mark the anniversary of the birth of a very dear great Aunt, my Aunt Ruth, who would have been 113 today, it is also the 190th anniversary of birth of the greatest English novelist, George Eliot.

Born Mary Ann Evans in South Arbury, England on November 22, 1819, she was particularly close to her brother Isaac as a child. She describes that sweet relationship in her novel The Mill on the Floss. In her early adulthood, she wrote countless essays and translated several works German into English. She, however, did not become the great novelist we know today until after she met George Henry Lewes in 1851. Neither lover was particularly physically attractive, but both could dazzle their Victorian peers with their presence. When people met Miss Evans, they soon forget her looks, more entranced were they by her conversation, her intelligence and her insight, her wisdom.

Even though Lewes never divorced his wife, he and Evans lived together as husband and wife until his death in 1878. While their love produced no children, it did help her “give birth” to many great ideas which she turned into some of the greatest novels, including one which many consider to be the greatest novel in the English language. In creating her pen name, she took the name George from Lewes, the great love of her life.

Her greatest books include the aforementioned Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede, Felix Holt, Romola, the touching Silas Marner and Middlemarch that greatest of English novels. There is much, so much, I could say about this great woman such that I would take up our blog’s entire home page. She had a keen sense of values, understood human psychology, could peer into the human heart and show the positive sides of her villains. Indeed, none of her characters were completely evil and none purely good. Yet, they all performed acts of kindness, nobility, cruelty and/or stupidity.

After much hesitation, the selfish Bulstrode shows some kindness to his nephew Fred Vincy. And that well-meaning Fred had previously gambled away a loan that Caleb Garth, the father of Mary, his one true love, had guaranteed for him, draining that good man’s family of money they had saved to pay for their son’s education.

She spoke of compassion and of the importance of finding that one person who could “be all” to her heroines. She, who had lived so long alone, well understand the value and promise of romance and how true love sustains those of us who recognize its power and are willing to work hard to keep it alive. She exhorted us to understand our fellow man and showing sensitivity to his difficulties: “More helpful,” she wrote in The Mill on the Floss, “than all wisdom is one draught of simple human pity that will not forsake us.” “Fellow-feeling” was one of her treasured experessions.

To honor her birthday, I offer a few more quotes from the writings of this great lady so that you will may celebrate her life with nuggets of her wisdom. Then, as Glenn Reynolds might say, go read the “whole thing” — her collected works!

Happy Birthday, Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot.

The quotations are all below:

From Middlemarch:

When one sees a perfect woman, one never thinks of her attributes–one is conscious of her presence. . . .

Will was not displeased with that complimentary comparison, even from Mr. Brooke; for it is a little too trying to human flesh to be conscious of expressing one’s self better than others and never to have it noticed, and in the general dearth of admiration for the right thing, even a chance bray of applause falling exactly in time is rather fortifying. . . Our sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettantism and make us feel that the quality of our action is not a matter of indifference. . . .

Our good depends on the quality and breadth of our emotion; and to Will, a creature who cared little for what are the solid things of life and greatly for its subtler influences, to have within him such a feeling as he had towards Dorothea, was like the inheritance of a fortune. What others might have called the futility of his passion, made an additional delight for his imagination: he was conscious of a generous movement, and of verifying in his own experience that higher love-poetry which had charmed his fancy. . . .

But indefinite visions of ambition are weak against the ease of doing what is habitual or beguilingly agreeable; and we all know the difficulty of carrying out a resolve when we secretly long that it may turn out to be unnecessary. In such states of mind the most incredulous person has a private leaning towards miracle: impossible to conceive how our wish could be fulfilled, still

wonderful things have happened! . . .

But he was in gloomy rebellion against the fate that his quick apprehensiveness foreshadowed to him, and when his eyes fell on Rosamond’s blighted face, it seemed to him that he was the more pitiable of the two; for pain must enter its glorified life of memory before it can turn into compassion. . . .

But that base prompting which makes a woman more cruel to a rival than to a faithless lover, could have no strength of recurrence in Dorothea when the dominant spirit of justice within her had once overcome the tumult and had once shown her the truer measure of things. All the active thought with which she had before been representing to herself the trials of Lydgate’s lot, and this marriage union which, like her own, seemed to have its hidden as well as evident troubles–all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power; it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance. She said to her irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort. . . .

She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. . . .

All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine prompting and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. . . .

They were bound to each other by a love stronger than any impulses which could have marred it. No life would have been possible to Dorothea which was not filled with emotion, and she had now a life filled also with a beneficent activity which she had not the doubtful pains of discovering and marking for herself.

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8 Comments

  1. Dan, you clearly love Eliot and thanks for trying to share it. I might be too much of a lunkhead to get it.

    In the quotes you’ve chosen, the style is filled with adjectives, which tell the reader what to think or feel, rather than being a selection of ‘telling’ facts or details that will make her -see-. (I have a similar problem in whatever I write, though I tend to over-use adverbs, which is worse. So I’d know ;-) ) Meanwhile, the content – again in the quotes you’ve chosen – seems to be a series of assertions about people processing their inner experience. Again a seeming emphasis on telling the reader “It is so”, or “Think/feel X”, rather than having the reader see and infer.

    We have in common a great love of Tolkien’s writing. Maybe I’ll give _Middlemarch_ a try, at some point. Its reader-written reviews on Amazon sound promising, emphasizing more its plot and character portraits, and what can be learned from those.

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — November 22, 2009 @ 9:17 am - November 22, 2009

  2. George Eliot is great (for an atheist), but I feel compelled to put in a plug for Henry James, a bitter, celibate homosexual who is one of my heroes. The homoerotic undertones of The Ambassadors is the best kind of gay porn ever.

    Comment by Ashpenaz — November 22, 2009 @ 12:02 pm - November 22, 2009

  3. Happy Burthday to both Mary Anne and to Miles, may he have many wonderful years and visits to Disneyland with his uncle.

    Ilc, I found listening to Middlemarch a good way to enjoy the book.
    There are wonderful characters and a great description of the times.

    Can’t say I love George Eliot as much as Dan, but I will say that I find her much deeper and interesting than Jane Austin. I enjoy an Austin novel, but Eliots’ ideas and stories stay with me.

    Comment by Leah — November 22, 2009 @ 1:13 pm - November 22, 2009

  4. I like Austin, although she her stories tend to be a bit too much like this, “Mary Elizabeth Jane inherited a fortune of 8,000 pounds, which gave her a respectable but meagre living of some 300 to 400 pounds per year…” (BTW, it’s always a 4-5% interest rate.)

    I loved the BBC production from the 90s of _Pride and Prejudice_. The 4-hour one with Colin Firth.

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — November 22, 2009 @ 1:48 pm - November 22, 2009

  5. Oh, please, let me. . .um, that’s “Austen,” ILC. Not that I get any pleasure out of humiliating you in public. :)

    Comment by Ashpenaz — November 23, 2009 @ 11:51 am - November 23, 2009

  6. Whatever.

    Comment by ILoveCapitalism — November 23, 2009 @ 1:42 pm - November 23, 2009

  7. I linked to you in a post with my own favorite quote from Middlemarch. I can’t figure out why the trackback didn’t come through here, though.

    It’s always a pleasure to read your posts on George Eliot. Thank you.

    Comment by Cynthia Yockey, A Conservative Lesbian — November 23, 2009 @ 3:55 pm - November 23, 2009

  8. Happy birthday, George Eliot…

    George Eliot
    Gay Patriot West, Daniel Blatt, and I share a love for the English novelist, Mary Anne Evans Cross, who wrote under the nom de plume, George Eliot. He has a lovely post today in honor of the 190th anniversary of her birth.
    Eliot’s gr…

    Trackback by Cynthia Yockey, A Conservative Lesbian — November 23, 2009 @ 4:19 pm - November 23, 2009

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