Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Quote of the Day (George Eliot, on Why ‘Our Dead Are Never Dead to Us Until We Have Forgotten Them’)

“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them: they can be injured by us, they can be wounded; they know all our penitence, all our aching sense that their place is empty, all the kisses we bestow on the smallest relic of their presence.” —English novelist, translator, editor, and religious writer Mary Ann Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot (1819-1880), Adam Bede (1859)

Almost nothing was conventional about George Eliot: her appearance; her religious skepticism; her piercing intellect at a time when educating women was not a family priority; her longtime common-law marriage to editor George Henry Elwes; her use of a male pen name so her initial novels would be taken more seriously; and finally, her death at age 61 on this day 140 years ago, in Chelsea, England, only six months after marrying a man 20 years her junior.

She blazed her own path in literature as well, with seven novels characterized by flinty realism and high moral seriousness. In this year of COVID-19, when so many people all over the world have experienced the death of family members or dear friends, the quote above seems not only a fair sample of her attitude, but also an appropriate response to the sense of loss so many feel.

Over the years, Eliot’s detractors (e.g., Mark Twain) have correctly noted her humorlessness, adding even heavier weight to her earnestness. 

But Virginia Woolf, in a 1919 Times Literary Supplement essay on the novelist’s career, generously but judiciously summarized her achievement by noting that she “taken to heart certain lessons learnt early, if learnt at all, among which, perhaps, the most branded upon her was the melancholy virtue of tolerance; her sympathies are with the everyday lot, and play most happily in dwelling upon the homespun of ordinary joys and sorrows.”

More pointedly, Woolf observed that in the 1871 masterpiece Middlemarch, Eliot had created, “with all its imperfections…one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

(In an especially relevant post for our time, Delia da Sousa Correa of London’s Open University has written for the Institute of English Studies blog about the role of an earlier epidemic—a cholera outbreak in Britain—in Middlemarch.)

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