Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, once wrote an interesting essay: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. Like much of Eliot’s work, the essay does a remarkable number of things deftly and all at once. Although she is an uncommonly compassionate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvious thing she does here is chiffonade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while castigating some women, she manages to champion women as a whole. Her chief objection to silly novels is that they misrepresent women’s real intellectual capacity; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the culture that produced them—through inadequate education, low expectations, patronising critics, and fear of the real deal.
In hindsight, however, perhaps the most interesting thing Eliot does here is trace out, in negative space, the contours of a truly great novel. Such a novel would represent human beings, in their inner and outer worlds, with nuance and fidelity. Its prose would be bespoke and cleansed of cliché. It would approach life’s knotty moral questions with knowledge, intelligence, and experience. It could not be fatuous, frothy, prosy, pious, or pedantic. It would have to be rich and filling when served hot; it would also have to keep. Fifteen years later, Eliot sat down and wrote it.
Schulz notes that Middlemarch is forever waxing on about how to be good, that it was written with the explicit goal of making us a little better. Eliot presages this in an 1859 letter:
The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves.
Harold Bloom, speaking of people who differ from ourselves, was right to note the weirdness of this part of Eliot’s project—or rather, the weirdness of it working. She was, he wrote, the only “major novelist, before or since, whose overt moralizings constitute an aesthetic virtue rather than a disaster.” Which raises a question: How does she get away with it? And, beyond the basic exhortation to be good, what exactly is it that she wants us to do?
Read Kathryn Schulz’s enlightening essay at Vulture … or Alexander Nazaryan review at Newsweek of My Life In Middlemarch, by the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead. Nazaryan reckons Middlemarch will teach the bespectacled young man from Brooklyn or Austin or San Francisco far more about this business of living than all of Jonathan Franzen’s feeble ejaculations.