Happy birthday, George Eliot

by CynthiaYockey on November 23, 2009

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 greatest novel, Middlemarch, is regarded as one of the best novels in English literature. It is a study of the interwoven lives of a fictional town, Middlemarch. When I first studied it in college it absolutely drove me crazy that the two main characters, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, who would have been perfect for one another and accomplished great things together, were not attracted to one another and chose spouses who ensured they would achieve nothing extraordinary. Odd, isn’t it, how when you get older you become more accepting of people’s lives not turning out how they planned in their youth.

My favorite passage in Middlemarch is in Chapter 15, where Eliot is describing how Lydgate developed his passion for medicine as a boy and his goals for his career — I have boldfaced the passages that I love the most:

Perhaps that was a more cheerful time for observers and theorizers than the present; we are apt to think it the finest era of the world when America was beginning to be discovered, when a bold sailor, even if he were wrecked, might alight on a new kingdom; and about 1829 the dark territories of Pathology were a fine America for a spirited young adventurer. Lydgate was ambitious above all to contribute towards enlarging the scientific, rational basis of his profession. The more he became interested in special questions of disease, such as the nature of fever or fevers, the more keenly he felt the need for that fundamental knowledge of structure which just at the beginning of the century had been illuminated by the brief and glorious career of Bichat, who died when he was only one-and-thirty, but, like another Alexander, left a realm large enough for many heirs. That great Frenchman first carried out the conception that living bodies, fundamentally considered, are not associations of organs which can be understood by studying them first apart, and then as it were federally; but must be regarded as consisting of certain primary webs or tissues, out of which the various organs – brain, heart, lungs, and so on-are compacted, as the various accommodations of a house are built up in various proportions of wood, iron, stone, brick, zinc, and the rest, each material having its peculiar composition and proportions. No man, one sees, can understand and estimate the entire structure or its parts — what are its frailties and what its repairs, without knowing the nature of the materials. And the conception wrought out by Bichat, with his detailed study of the different tissues, acted necessarily on medical questions as the turning of gas-light would act on a dim, oil-lit street, showing new connections and hitherto hidden facts of structure which must be taken into account in considering the symptoms of maladies and the action of medicaments. But results which depend on human conscience and intelligence work slowly, and now at the end of 1829, most medical practice was still strutting or shambling along the old paths, and there was still scientific work to be done which might have seemed to be a direct sequence of Bichat’s. This great seer did not go beyond the consideration of the tissues as ultimate facts in the living organism, marking the limit of anatomical analysis; but it was open to another mind to say, have not these structures some common basis from which they have all started, as your sarsnet, gauze, net, satin, and velvet from the raw cocoon? Here would be another light, as of oxy-hydrogen, showing the very grain of things, and revising all former explanations. Of this sequence to Bichat’s work, already vibrating along many currents of the European mind, Lydgate was enamoured; he longed to demonstrate the more intimate relations of living structure, and help to define men’s thought more accurately after the true order. The work had not yet been done, but only prepared for those who knew how to use the preparation. What was the primitive tissue? In that way Lydgate put the question-not quite in the way required by the awaiting answer; but such missing of the right word befalls many seekers. And he counted on quiet intervals to be watchfully seized, for taking up the threads of investigation — on many hints to be won from diligent application, not only of the scalpel, but of the microscope, which research had begun to use again with new enthusiasm of reliance. Such was Lydgate’s plan of his future: to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world.

By the way, if you ever hear an English major — and it really will only be an English major who would insult anyone this way — slam someone for pursuing the Key to All Mythologies, this is the book to read to understand the allusion. It will be worth the effort.

Update, 11/23/09, Mon.: Thank you, dear Little Miss Attila, for the link. My runner-ups are Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens. Personally, I find Thomas Hardy too dark, although perhaps what he intended to do was rub Victorians’ noses in the dark side of their morality to spur them to lighten up — but still, he’s more depressing than I can stand. And the scene in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where she slips a letter under Angel’s door and it goes under the rug so he never even sees it, but she never checks to see if he got it and her life is destroyed as a result, changed my life. If I send a message to someone over a a life-changing issue, I make sure they received it to ensure that I’m interpreting their silent treatment correctly.

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