Novelist George Eliot, 150 years later


This video in English with Greek subtitles, is called George Eliot: A scandalous life 1/6.

By David Walsh:

In praise of George Eliot’s Adam Bede on its 150th anniversary

Part 1

30 December 2009

This year marked the 150th anniversary, widely and deservedly celebrated, of the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species.

Marx, who immediately recognized the significance of Darwin’s work, published his own A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that same year. Its preface contains the famous summation of the materialist conception of history (which, decades later, the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky would memorize and be able to recite by heart) that begins, “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.…”

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens appeared in 1859, as did Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. Gustave Courbet was the acknowledged, if embattled, leader of the Realist current in painting. He held a Grand fête du Réalisme at his studio in Paris in October, writing a friend two months later that “Realism is very much under attack at the moment…we must marshal new forces and do everything we can.”

Before 2009 comes to an end, the publication of George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede early in 1859 also deserves to be noted.

There are numerous biographies of Eliot, and Adam Bede is easy enough to obtain, but certain details about the author and her first novel are worth commenting upon. …

Eliot’s life, 1819-1880, coincides almost exactly with Marx’s (1818-1883). Important developments at the material base of society, in industry and technology, in the natural sciences, as well as in art and culture, influenced their lives—in different ways and under different conditions, of course.

Eliot (whose real name was Mary Ann or Marian Evans) was born in Warwickshire in England’s West Midlands region, the daughter of an estate manager known for his conscientious work habits and staunchly conservative political views. Recognized at an early age for her intelligence, Evans gained access to the estate’s library. At school, as an adolescent, she was allowed considerable freedom in what she read; she devoured books, including Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

Evans was strongly touched by Evangelicalism in her later teenage years, and devoted several years to taking religion and religious study seriously. During that time, she disapproved of frivolities such as the theater and novels. However, her theological ardor eventually cooled and she found herself reading all of Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Southey and, especially, Wordsworth, among others.

In 1841, she and her father moved to a house near Coventry where Mary Ann came under different intellectual influences. There was clearly something in the social air as well, including no doubt the impact of the Chartist movement and the depression of 1841-1842, that made her susceptible to new ideas, among them those advanced by Charles and Caroline Bray, who became her close friends. Charles Bray was a ribbon manufacturer and a free thinker. He was an acquaintance of, among other figures, Robert Owen, the utopian socialist, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher, to both of whom he introduced Mary Ann, who had by now stopped attending church. She “was quickly brought,” as biographer Gordon S. Haight writes, “from provincial isolation into touch with the world of ideas.”

Her intellectual development was rapid and extraordinary. An assiduous student of foreign languages, Evans began translating David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), originally published in 1835, from German into English in 1843. This pioneering “left Hegelian” work, which denied the supernatural and miraculous elements of the Christian gospels and treated the latter as mythology, helped lead Friedrich Engels (another contemporary of Eliot’s, 1820-1895) to abandon his Christian faith and provided “the first impulse,” in his expression, for the modern philosophical struggle against religion.

“For two years,” writes Haight, “Mary Ann laboured, translating the fifteen hundred pages of German, with quotations in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.… For her work she was paid £20. Few books of the nineteenth century have had a profounder influence on religious thought in England.”

By now she read everything, including French writers—such as Rousseau, the utopian socialist Saint-Simon, and the “scandalous” novelist George Sand—who shocked even some of her new progressive friends. In March 1848, she welcomed the outbreak of the French Revolution and expressed contempt for the overthrown ruler, Louis-Philippe. She declined to sentimentalize over “a pampered old man when the earth has its millions of unfed souls and bodies.”

However, she had no hope for any English revolution. Here, she wrote a correspondent, “a revolutionary movement would be simply destructive—not constructive. Besides, it would be put down.… [T]here is nothing in our constitution to obstruct the slow progress of political reform. This is all we are fit for at present.… We English are slow crawlers.”

Part 2 of this article is here.

Shared Experience theatre company brings to stage the life of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and political radical: here.

Mary Shelley play fuels debate and imagination: here.

Dame Barbara Cartland, whose romantic novels have already sold over a billion copies worldwide, faced furious allegations of plagiarism, previously unpublished letters that were sent in 1950 reveal. The writer Georgette Heyer accused Cartland of trying to “cash in” on her work and of acting like “a petty thief”: here.

12 thoughts on “Novelist George Eliot, 150 years later

  1. Academic: Jane Austen had helping hand from editor

    AP

    By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press Writer

    Sat Oct 23, 12:02 pm ET

    LONDON – She’s renowned for her precise, exquisite prose, but new research shows Jane Austen was a poor speller and erratic grammarian who got a big helping hand from her editor.

    Oxford University English professor Kathryn Sutherland studied 1,100 handwritten pages of unpublished work from the author of incisive social comedies such as “Pride and Prejudice.” She said Saturday that they contradicted the claim by Austen’s brother Henry that “everything came finished from her pen.”

    “In reading the manuscripts, it quickly becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing,” Sutherland said.

    She said the papers show “blots, crossings out, messiness,” and a writer who “broke most of the rules for writing good English.”

    “In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in ‘Emma’ and ‘Persuasion’ is simply not there,” Sutherland said.

    Sutherland said letters from Austen’s publisher reveal that editor William Gifford was heavily involved in making sense of Austen’s sensibility, honing the style of her late novels “Emma” and “Persuasion.”

    Gifford did not edit earlier books such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice,” whose inconsistencies have sometimes been blamed on bad printing.

    “In fact, the style in these novels is much closer to Austen’s manuscript hand,” Sutherland said.

    Sutherland said the revelations shouldn’t damage the reputation of Austen, who was little known when she died in 1817 at the age of 41 but has since become one of Britain’s most beloved authors.

    Sutherland said the documents reveal an experimental writer who was “even better at writing dialogue and conversation than the edited style of her published novels suggest.”

    “The manuscript evidence offers a different face for Jane Austen, one smoothed out in the famous printed novels,” she said.

    Austen’s handwritten manuscripts will go online Monday at http://www.janeausten.ac.uk, the result of a three-year project to digitize the author’s unpublished work.

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