Eliot, George: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: "The Mill on the Floss." Saturday Review 9, no. 233 (14 April 1860): 470-71.

In the following review, the anonymous critic's qualified praise of The Mill on the Floss offers a provocative example of the contemporary response to a female novelist.

To speak the simple truth, without affectation of politeness, [Adam Bede ] was thought to be too good for a woman's story. It turns out that a woman was not only able to write it, but that she did not write it by any lucky accident. The Mill on the Floss may not, perhaps, be so popular as Adam Bede, but it shows no falling off nor any exhaustion of power. We may think ourselves very fortunate to have a third female novelist not inferior to Miss Austen and Miss Bronté; and it so happens that there is much in the works of this new writer that reminds us of these two well-known novelists without anything like copying. George Eliot has a minuteness of painting and a certain archness of style that are quite after the manner of Miss Austen, while the wide scope of her remarks, and her delight in depicting strong and wayward feelings, show that she belongs to the generation of Currer Bell, and not to that of the quiet authoress of Emma. Where all excel, it is of no use to draw up a sort of literary class-list, and pronounce an opinion as to the comparative merits of these three writers; but no one can now doubt that the lady who, with the usual pretty affectation of her sex, likes to look on paper as much like a man as possible, and so calls herself George Eliot, has established her place in the first rank of our female novelists.

She has done us all one great kindness, for she has opened up a field that is perfectly new. She has, for the first time in fiction, invented or disclosed the family life of the English farmer, and the class to which he belongs.… There is nothing in which George Eliot succeeds more conspicuously than in [the] very nice art of making her characters like real people, and yet shading them off into the large group which she is describing. Some notion of what it requires to make a good novelist may be obtained by reflecting on all that is implied in the delineation of three farmer's daughters and their husbands with separate and probable characters, and in allotting them suitable conversation, and following the turns and shifts of their minds within the narrow limits of the matters that may be supposed to interest them. It is this profusion of delineative power that marks the Mill on the Floss, and the delineations are given both by minute touches of description and by dialogues. To write dialogue is much harder than merely to describe, and George Eliot trusts greatly to the talk of her farmers' wives in order to make her conception of these sisters come vividly before us. Both in the description and in the dialogue there are exhibited a neatness of finish, a comprehensiveness of detail, and a relish for subdued comedy that constantly bring back to our recollection the best productions of Miss Austen's genius. Like Miss Austen, too, George Eliot possesses the art of taking the reader into her confidence. We seem to share with the authoress the fun of the play she is showing us. She joins us in laughing at her characters, and yet this is done so lightly and with such tact that the continuity of the story is not broken. Every one must remember the consummate skill with which Miss Austen manages this, and if we do not quite like to acknowledge that our old favourite has been equalled, we must allow that George Eliot performs the same neat stroke of art with a success that is little inferior.

Portraiture, however, and the description of farmers and their wives, only occupies one portion of George Eliot's thoughts. There is a side of her mind which is entirely unlike that of Miss Austen, and which brings her much closer to Charlotte Bronté. She is full of meditation on some of the most difficult problems of life. She occupies herself with the destinies, the possibilities, and the religious position of all the people of whom she cares to think. Especially she seems haunted with the thought of the amazing discrepancy between what she calls "the emmet-life" of these British farmers, and the ideal of Christianity. She dwells on the pettiness, the narrowness, the paganism of their character. She even takes a pleasure in making the contrast as strong as she can. In her stern determination to paint what she conceives to be the truth, to soften nothing and not to exalt and elevate where she profoundly believes all to be poor and low, she shocks us with traits of character that are exceptional, however possible. (p. 470)

As it seems to us, the defect of the Mill on the Floss is that there is too much that is painful in it. And the authoress is so far led away by her reflections on moral problems and her interest in the phases of triumphant passion, that she sacrifices her story. We have such entire changes of circumstances, and the characters are exhibited under such totally different conditions of age and mental development, that we get to care nothing for them.…We hope that some time George Eliot will give us a tale less painful and less discursive. There is something in the world and in the quiet walks of English lower life besides fierce mental struggles and wild love. We do not see why we should not be treated to a story that would do justice to George Eliot's powers, and yet form a pleasing and consistent whole. (p. 471)



[The womanliness of thought about human relations] is in a more impassioned way the attitude of George Eliot: and there is something worth thinking of in this coincidence. The feelings and thoughts of women about the larger relations and more abstract motives of human life have been singularly inarticulate. While feeling much, they have accepted men's interpretations of their feelings, as they have taken their creeds from men, though themselves the religious sex. If George Eliot and Olive Schreiner are true interpreters of the way women would feel about society could they get at their own feelings clearly, the womanly standard for human society is first, that sort of minute and transcendental justice that we call altruism, second, love of truth, and third, private love, as the ruling forces. The most penetrating passages are those in which the appeal is made to men to understand what they are doing to each other by injustices.

Anonymous. An excerpt from "Dreams." The Overland Monthly 19, no. 110 (February 1892): 223-24.