Looking Back: Eliot

Industrialism as Progress

Looking Back: Eliot

It is time to turn back—to cross back into England from France and to look back, for the first time, into the past. Progress, we know, is future-oriented; it drives forward with the promise of endless improvement. And thus far, the writers we have examined have largely let themselves be driven forward: Carlyle by way of a spiritual detour, Tennyson with the help of a weak community, and Baudelaire with the help of Tennyson. Progress, however, also changes the way we relate to the past. By lashing the present to the future, it alienates us from history, making it difficult to determine what, if anything, history can mean for us. This would be true in any era of progress, but industrial progress deepened the divide. If industrialism marked the biggest change in millennia of human existence—breaking the Malthusian trap and inaugurating a new era in economic and social life—it thus rendered the lessons of history strangely obsolete; what value could the pre-industrial past have for a Victorian culture caught on the far side of a great, historical chasm?

This is not to say that the Victorians themselves were indifferent to their past. On the contrary, they were consumed with it. “Besotted” is the word preferred by David Lowenthal in his seminal book The Past is a Foreign Country: “Scott’s historical novels, Gothic Revival architecture, neo-chivalric fashions of dress and conduct, classical standards of beauty, successive passions for all things Roman, Greek Egyptian, Chinese, early English—all this betokened a people besotted with the past” (97).1 As is clear from even this brief list, it was not just one era of the past that stood out. Medievalism certainly had its privileged place, but beside Carlyle and Ruskin’s attachment to the age of monasteries and cathedrals was Rossetti’s interest in the Italian Renaissance, Tennyson’s regular use of classical sources, and George Eliot’s preference for early 19th-century England. In each case, though, the fundamental problem was the same: what could the industrial world learn from the pre-industrial? What is gained, just now, by turning to the past? And why did the Victorians do so with such ritual regularity?

This problem is especially pointed in Eliot’s case, because in her work the relation between past and present has been narrowed to its thinnest. To invoke the ancient world, the Medieval, or the Renaissance, is to take for granted that history has happened in between. But for Eliot, the question of why she turned to the past is compounded by the question of whether she really did turn to the past. Eliot’s most regular setting was what we might call the last days of the rural—rural society on the brink of dissolution, when the world was still full of thriving artisans and strict communal forms but occasionally disturbed by railways and dispossessions.2 More often than not, these last rural days are also carefully dated to the late 1820s and early 1830s; two of her three Scenes of Clerical Life are set then, as are three of her four provincial novels: Mill on the Floss, Felix Holt, and Middlemarch. Whether this makes them pre- or post-industrial is, however, still difficult to determine. The divide is never as sharply demarcated as, for instance, in the opening lines of Charlotte Bront\EB’s Shirley:

But not of late years are we about to speak; we are going back to the beginning of this century: late years—present years are dusty, sunburnt, hot, arid; we will evade the noon, forget it in siesta, pass the midday in slumber, and dream of dawn. (5)

Here, the contrast between early and mid-century is stark; compared to the “dusty, sunburnt, hot, arid” climate of the now, even the relatively recent past seems as fresh and promising as “dawn.”

Eliot’s past is not that distant. Indeed, with few alterations, it is possible to imagine he novels being set either in 1780 or in 1850. And though her readers in the 1860s and 1870s would certainly have thought of the 30s as the past, they might still have memories of that earlier time, which would make those years seem less like a distinct era and more like part of the unfolding present.

Both these perspectives make sense, and each corresponds to a different aspect of Eliot’s style: her nostalgia, on the one hand, and her realism on the other. Tracing this fissure reveals something more than Eliot’s ambivalent relation to the past; it tells us about the Victorian commitment to history more broadly. Turning back was never about wanting to go back; rather, it was about retrieving some keepsakes for the journey forward. For Eliot and her mid-Victorian contemporaries, progress was still the dominant idea and the beckoning future still shone brighter than the fading past. Yet, the inhumanity of industrial progress gave the past a weak, compensatory power—as the of home of certain values that the future, though happier, simply could not sustain. Eliot, herself, was that familiar Victorian type: a devotee of progress who preferred to walk backwards into the future. And part of the burden of her work was to craft a matching kind of nostalgia, something warm enough to comfort but not so bright as to distract from the backward-march. The past, in Eliot, is there to be remembered and treasured—not sought or revived. Middlemarch, in particular, envisions a past whose value lies precisely in its archive of rich disappointment, its recollection of a time when not all tragedies looked like Huskisson’s and it was still possible to fail in a noble and grandly human fashion.

Realism

When Middlemarch was first published in 1871, the reviewers were equally certain that it was a genuinely historical novel, and that it was an absolutely contemporary novel. In the words of the Edinburgh Review, it describes “a quiet country-town of forty years ago, and a squire’s house lying near it, with just the people whom we know were there at that time.” (127). And yet it was also, according to the Westminster Review: “the book from which future generations will learn not only our outward lives, our daily doings, but our inmost thoughts and aspirations” (325). Somehow, Middlemarch seemed to capture both the lives of its contemporary readers and the lives of early-century rural denizens. And, as it happens, the book itself provides ample evidence for both views. At various points, Eliot insists that her Middlemarch world is a lost world. “In those days,” she tells us, “the world in general was more ignorant of good and evil by forty years than it is at present” (188). In the field of medicine, “this was a dark period” (145), and in politics, it was “before Reform had done its notable part in developing the political consciousness” (88). There are touches of irony in these several phrases, but they are light touches, and the emphasis still falls on the historical distance between reader and characters.

At other times, however, that distances collapses, as when Eliot suggests that Mary Garth may be waiting for us right around the corner: “If you want to know more particularly how Mary looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street to-morrow, if you are on the watch” (407). Against Eliot’s repeated insistence on the pastness of her fictional world, in other words, stands her tendency to universalize, her equal insistence that the motives and biases driving her characters still shape the people on the mid-Victorian street. The “stealthy convergence of human lots” which has become such a convenient shorthand for the operations of the books as a whole is itself a perfect example. That famous passage is remembered, chiefly, for its grand, universal statement about the diffuse nature of human influence:

But any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand. (95)

Human lives, she tells us, are more intricately interwoven than is usually imagined—the connective tissue being dense, if also nearly invisible. What looks to us like a first meeting is frequently pre-arranged, long prepared by a destiny whose omniscience makes our surprise seem risible. There is nothing in this paragraph to suggest that such effects are particularly modern. Indeed, the very mention of destiny hints at age-long truths and universal relevance.

And yet, the very next paragraph reads: “Old provincial society had its share of this subtle movement …those less marked vicissitudes which are constantly shifting the boundaries of social intercourse, and begetting new consciousness of interdependence” (95). Why should “old provincial society” not have its share? Its denizens are human, so they have “human lots,” or at the very least they qualify as “dramatis personae.” What could possibly exempt them from destiny? Ultimately, I do not think there are sound answers to these questions. The fact that Eliot refers, at one moment, to a general feature of human social life and then must insist, at the next moment, that this truth about all societies happens also to be true of provincial society is just a symptom of the competing temporalities of her novel: its historical nature, on the one hand, and its absolutely contemporary nature, on the other.

The real question, and the one which we do need to answer, is whether this matters for Eliot’s realism. How does her realism—or realism in general—fit into history? From the very beginning, Middlemarch was understood in realist terms. “The leading men and women of Middlemarch,” wrote the Athanaeum, “are realities of flesh and blood” (726 Dec. 7, 72). And extending the argument from characters to setting, St. Paul’s Magazine believed that: “so graphically are the various scenes and persons brought under our notice that we seem to know the borough-town perfectly” (604). This verdict, of course, is supported not only by Eliot’s many realist pronouncements—as from the famous 17th chapter of Adam Bede—but also by the very painterly subtitle of Middlemarch itself: “A Study of Provincial Life.” Yet, no one seemed to know which reality this realism was supposed to reflect. Is Eliot’s a historical realism (i.e. bearing some meaningful relation to the reality of 1830s)? Or a contemporary realism (i.e. bearing some meaningful relation to the reality of the 1870s)? These are not the same thing. The England of 1870 was hardly identical to the England of 1830. Population had mushroomed, urban spaces had exploded into the air, class antagonisms had been substantially realigned. For forty years, industrial progress had continued its rapid and unabated course. So if realism aims, even in the weakest sense, to present an illusion of reality, it should have to account for such changes in the experience and understanding of reality.

This problem is not unique to Eliot, of course; it would seem to apply to all of 19th century realism. And although very few of today’s critics have addressed the issue, some of the early practitioners did.3 When the realist school was first coalescing in France in the 1850s, and Louis Edmond Duranty summarized the doxa of realism for his journal Réalisme, his very first principle was “That Realism bans the historical in painting, the novel, and the theatre so that no lie may creep in and the artist cannot borrow knowledge from others”—(his second principle, virtually the same, was “That Realism demands of artists only the study of their period”) (Furst 31). For Duranty, realism was first and foremost a depiction of the contemporary. Looking back, it is hard to say whether this French rule was more honored in the breach or the observance. Madame Bovary, for example, is set between the 1820s and the 1840s, which puts it between 10 and 30 years in the past. Balzac’s novels are primarily set in the late 18th and early 19th century. Does that make them contemporary or historical?

On the English scene, Duranty’s dicta had no more force. The recourse to history was a common realist practice, strongly rooted in the popularity and prestige of Walter Scott. If we took Duranty at his word, this would be proof of a kind of realist failing, but there is no good reason to take him at his word, especially on the English side of the channel. English realism was a completely different animal from French realism, having its own lines of influence, its own preoccupations, and its own theoretical basis.4 It was never self-consciously scandalous, as the French version often was, and it was never much interested in the vulgar or the irredeemably ugly, even when it turned to the “low.” Indeed, an entire specialized discourse of English realism has developed to account for this difference. George Levine, for one, has argued that “Realism in England belongs, rather, to a much more affable and moderate tradition,” one that “found little incompatibility between ‘sincere’ representation and a conscious attempt to speak helpfully to a sympathetic audience.”5 Unlike its French counterpart, which is taken to be more detached and dispassionate, English realism is understood to include both a descriptive impulse and a didactic one, an effort “to use language to get beyond language” (6) and to do so “in the name of some moral enterprise” (8).6 Amanda Claybaugh has recently emphasized this same duality, arguing that mid-century realist novels are essentially reformist; they “represent the world as it is in order to bring about the world as it should be” (40).

Why this interest in reform and “moral enterprise” should manifest itself in a turn to the past is something neither Levine nor Claybaugh address directly, but Suzanne Graver’s work on Eliot offers a first possible solution. In Graver’s reading, Eliot’s past is less like “the world that was” and more like “the world that should be”; it is full of elements—values, beliefs, practices—which can aid in the reconstitution of the present. As Graver puts it, Eliot’s novels offer “a poetry of community created out of still vital old forms and beneficial new ones” (91). By “vital old forms” is meant, chiefly, the pre-industrial social structure: the sympathy, solidarity, and fellow-feeling which yesterday’s Gemeinschaft communities had and which today’s Gesellschaft society needs. But the details, here, are less important than the general framework. To the question of how Eliot’s realism could seem both historical and contemporary, Graver’s response is thus clear: it cannibalizes the past in the name of the present, taking invoice of history’s dustbin to see if there are scraps we might recycle. Eliot’s novels are historical and contemporary because they make history vital for the reform of modern life.

In a late passage from one of her notebooks, Eliot herself suggested something similar. Under the right conditions, she wrote, the understanding of history might help to guide society towards a better future. In particular, “the exercise of a veracious imagination in historical picturing seems to be capable of a development that might help the judgment greatly with regard to present and future events.” But even this careful statement, with its “seems” and its “might” represents Eliot at her most uncharacteristically hopeful and it does not comport well with the reality of the novels. No doubt, there are reformist aspects to Eliot’s work, and there is little question that sympathy, in particular, was a quality she thought fiction could inspire. But, to argue that Eliot used the past to redeem the future is to greatly overstate the case. For Eliot, the past was something other than a blueprint for the future—something more like a treasured, but fading photograph. History is central to her work not because it can be made present again but because it cannot—and, more important, because her readers did not want it to be.

The unique nature of her historical realism is beautifully illustrated by a lengthy 1882 review essay entitled “Village Life according to George Eliot.” Himself a product of the countryside, the author T. E. Kebbel declares early on that Eliot’s characters “seem to be old friends, to anyone at all conversant with the bucolic speech of Warwickshire or Leicestershire” (266) The emphasis, here, is on old, since Kebbel understands that Eliot’s characters belong to an England now half-a-century in the past. “Such men as these,” he adds, “we can remember well” (269). But Kebbel is troubled by something in Eliot’s history and concerned that her novels do not align with other accounts of the era:

It is necessary to remember that many of these scenes are drawn after what is called ‘the bad times’ had begun. They do not lie back in the golden past, in the days of Cobbett’s youth, the time in which, according to Hallam, writing in 1828, the English labourer was better off than he had been either before or since. They belong to the period when prices had risen almost to famine point, when nothing like any commensurate increase had taken place in wages, and when the enclosure of wastes and commons had deprived the poor man of the resources by which he had formerly supplemented them. Yet, in spite of all these circumstances, English rural life as painted by George Eliot still retains some of the hues of Arcadia. (274)

Where, Kebbel wants to know, are the labor pains of industrial progress? Where is the growing poverty? The flight to the cities? The rick-burners and machine-breakers? All the things that Cobbett described in his rural rides?

Kebbel is alert to the fact that Eliot is a writer of fiction and that there are many reasons a novel might be unfaithful to history, but he does not think this is relevant to Eliot’s case because she is not just a writer of fiction; she is a writer of realism. She “claims for herself …the credit of reproducing common life with the accuracy of a Dutch painter,” so if her descriptions of the past do not match the suffering seen in Cobbett’s later rides, it is not enough to say that he writes non-fiction sketches while she writes fictional novels. Both claim to present the truth, and therefore only one of them can be right. Kebbel, for his part, trusts to Eliot:

We can only therefore account for the difference between them by supposing that the hardships of the village poor were to some extent exaggerated then, as they have been since, by well-intentioned sympathisers whose imagination was more powerful than their reason; as well as by interested advocates who had ulterior purposes to serve. It is easier at all events to believe this, than to believe either that George Eliot could have been entirely ignorant of the squalid penury which according to some contemporary writers was the lot of the ordinary English peasant during the period in question, or that, not being ignorant of it, she should never once have made the slightest allusion to it. …If we cannot trust George Eliot, what reason have we for trusting the writers who so widely differ from her. (276)

The logic here is only too obviously blinkered, and Kebbel’s conception of evidence too obtuse for comment. He chooses Eliot because he finds it “easier to believe” that early-century hardships were frequently exaggerated than to believe that she herself could have been ignorant of them. He trusts George Eliot’s novels more than he trusts Cobbet’s sketches, and he is untroubled by the fact that this means trusting realism more than non-fiction.

For Kebbel, there is something extra-trustworthy about realism. Notice, in that regard, that Eliot’s realism does not just give her an equal claim to historical truth but in fact a better one, a higher purchase on reality. And though that may sound like a perverse misreading on his part, it actually takes its cue from the implied promise of realism itself: the promise to show us a reality that is richer and more complete than our own. Realism does not approximate reality in some asymptotic fashion; it constantly overreaches, giving us more reality than we have ever known. Time and again, throughout her career, Eliot’s readers celebrated her work for being just that: more lifelike than life itself and so real that it could not exist in our world. Middlemarch was not just a mirror but “a magic mirror in which the aspects of real life are reflected but with a reflection far more intelligible than could be any direct vision of the objects that we are looking at” (Examiner Oct. 5 72, 985). And the Academy too spoke of its great pleasure in seeing “men and women whom we have all known in real life, where, however, to our dimmer vision, they seemed less real and life-like than in the book” (1 January 1873, 1-4.)7

For these reviewers, the world of Middlemarch is even more real than the real world. It is ablaze with a vivid intensity which reality itself has never provided, but which we imagine it might if we got close enough. The secret, as the London Quarterly Review astutely noted, was in the form. Eliot’s narrator can secret us into guarded places and offer us otherwise inaccessible perspectives:

But this writer, to whom the manifold aspects of the human soul lie as naked as a dissected preparation to an anatomist, takes us with her behind the multiform veil of flesh, distance, and separation; lets us see through her eyes the minutest workings of the yearning heart, the troubled spirit, the guilty conscience; and puts into our hands a legible scroll of destiny, where actual circumstance would fling us an impenetrable hieroglyph or a Sphinx’s riddle.” (London Quarterly Review, 101-2)

Reality as we know it is all too illegible. Screened as we are by “the multiform veil of flesh, distance, and separation,” the force of “actual circumstance” strikes us as “an impenetrable hieroglyph.” Middlemarch lifts that veil. It shows us reality as we have never seen it before, populated by naked souls and organized by a Destiny willing to share her every design secret.

Herein lies both the great power of Eliot’s realism and the first clue to its relation with history. In Kebbel’s case, remember, it wasn’t Eliot’s representation of the present that seemed more real than reality; it was her representation of the past. And by a simple and seductive slippage Middlemarch comes to seem less like a picture of ‘reality as we have never known it’ and more like ‘reality as we no longer know it.’ If Eliot shows us a more vivid reality, and if she sets her novels in the past, than it is tempting to believe that these things are connected. “Actual circumstances” have not always been an “impenetrable hieroglyph;” they became so in the wake of industrialism, before which the real world was richer, fuller, and more soulful. It is not that her novels seem more real and that they are set in the past; they seem more real because they are set in the past, at a time when reality itself was somehow more vivid and more real. Eliot’s more-than-realism is, in that sense, not a more intense picture of today’s reality but an accurate reflection of yesterday’s more intense reality. And the first answer to the question of how Middlemarch manages to be both realist and historical is precisely because its realism is angled to capture the richer reality of the past. We do not turn to the past in order to rebuild the future; we turn to the past because our memory is more complete than our reality.

Souls in the Crowd

If Middlemarch, as a whole, seemed more real than reality, it was still the case that some characters seemed more real than others. Of Lydgate, for instance, Eliot said that she was going to “make him better known to any one interested in him than he could possibly be even to those who had seen the most of him since his arrival at Middlemarch” (141-2). And of course there is also Dorothea, whom Henry James described in the following terms:

To render the expression of a soul requires a cunning hand; but we seem to look straight into the unfathomable eyes of the beautiful spirit of Dorothea Brooke. She exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness, and we believe in her as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day when we should find ourselves doubting of the immortality of the soul. (49)

This is something like what Eliot said of Mary Garth. Dorothea, too, is the kind of character you might run into on a fine day. Only in Dorothea’s case, you would have to be walking through a kind of spirit-world. She is something more than human, a “soul” with “unfathomable eyes” and an “aroma of spiritual sweetness”—vivid proof of our own uncertain immortality. As it happens, though, being a soul, rather than a real person, is what makes her so strangely fit for Eliot’s more-than-realism.8

The word “soul,” which James employs twice in these few lines, is one that he borrowed from Eliot. In the novel, Dorothea speaks with “the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp” (80), and when, later, she appeals to Lydgate for counsel, Eliot calls it a “cry from soul to soul” (290). Even when the exact term soul is not in play, some variant often is. Dorothea is “a heaven-sent angel” (425), “an angel beguiled” (209), “one of those county divinities not mixing with Middlemarch mortality” (432) who “wanted nothing for herself but a chair to sit in from which she can look down with those clear eyes at the poor mortals who pray to her” (768). She is a character from another realm, an incorporeal being who has condescended to visit this quaint, early-century town. To a lesser degree, Lydgate is as well—hence the “cry from soul to soul.” Henry James, again, called Dorothea and Lydgate “two suns in [Eliot’s] firmament, each with its independent solar system” (cite), and the metaphor is surprisingly apt. It is not just that both sit at the center of their own plots—orbited by their own subplots—it is that both belong to the airy heavens.

More than a soul, in fact, Dorothea is an old soul, come too late into this world. She belongs to a higher sphere and also a past life, and by that I do not mean the past of 1830 when the novel is set. The 1830s are already too late for her. Dorothea, herself, is just what her sister calls her, a dodo, an extinct species of human living a ghostly existence in a world unsuited for her kind. She belongs, in that sense, to the novel’s own past, to the rarefied world of “the country gentry of old time,” when the word noble could still credibly signify across moral and social lines. She is a dying, if not already defunct breed of aristocrat, a fantasy confluence of birth and worth. Which is why, when she meets Rosamond for the first time, the contrast of character is shorthanded as the more familiar contrast between old and new money, aristocracy and business, land and capital:

Let those who know, tell us exactly what stuff it was that Dorothea wore in those days of mild autumn—that thin white woollen stuff soft to the touch and soft to the eye. It always seemed to have been lately washed, and to smell of the sweet hedges—was always in the shape of a pelisse with sleeves hanging all out of fashion. Yet if she had entered before a still audience as Imogen or Cato’s daughter, the dress might have seemed right enough: the grace and dignity were in her limbs and neck; and about her simply parted hair and candid eyes the large round poke which was then in the fate of women, seemed no more odd as a head-dress than the gold trencher we call a halo. (432)

Dorothea enters as if from above. Her clothing is made of a kind of soft and perpetually sweet-smelling “stuff” that cannot be named and certainly cannot be bought. Its real beauty is gathered from the reflected glow of Dorothea herself, her “limbs and neck,” “her simply parted hair,” and the poke bonnet that looks, on her, like “a halo.” What is being echoed in this description is the signature claim of aristocracy, namely that nobility is not a matter of law but a matter of soul, a natural and eternal superiority that shines through the body and cannot be aped by mere fashion.

Rosamond, by contrast, is a model of petty and assertive grandiosity:

but imagine Rosamond’s infantine blondness and wondrous crown of hair-plaits, with her pale-blue dress of a fit and fashion so perfect that no dressmaker could look at it without emotion, a large embroidered collar which it was to be hoped all beholders would know the price of, her small hands duly set off with rings, and that controlled self-consciousness of manner which is the expensive substitute for simplicity. (432-3)

All value, this time, is a matter of price, measured in shillings and pounds. Where Dorothea is simple and radiant, Rosamond is self-conscious and ornate. Where Dorothea bears her wealth, Rosamond wears it. And where Dorothea is a paragon of nobility, Rosamond is an advertisement for capital. ‘You’d have to have a lot of money to look like me,’ is Rosamond’s tagline. Dorothea’s, in contrast, is: ‘It doesn’t matter how much money you have; you will never look like me.’ The values that Dorothea represents are the imagined values of the past, the hallmarks of a waning aristocratic order. Rosamond’s values are those of the present and the future. They are the values of conspicuous consumption and consumer capitalism, and more important than that, they are the distributed values of the social itself. Notice, in that regard, all the other people invoked in this description of Rosamond. What makes her dress perfect is the fact that “no dressmaker could look at it without emotion,” just as what makes her collar beautiful is the fact that “all beholders would know the price.” Value, in her universe, is a distributed phenomenon; it does not inhere in the individual but rather depends on the perception of others. Dorothea, the radiant sun, may be the source of all “grace and dignity” in her universe, but Rosamond is just a planet, casting no light of her own but finding herself occasionally lit up by some other celestial body.9

This contrast—between Dorothea and Rosamond, past and present, innate and distributed values—is actually something more than a contrast and something closer to a conflict, extending beyond these two characters and producing two distinct narrative universes.10 There is the universe of Dorothea and Lydgate, on the one hand, populated by independent souls and driven by grand ambition. On the other, there is the universe of collective Middlemarch, where worth is determined by the community as a whole and life is made up of petty, daily interaction.11 In shorthand, we could call them the universe of the soul and the universe of the crowd. They are the two competing principles in this novel, two conceptions of value that continuously clash against one another.

Indeed, if anything unites Dorothea and Lydgate, it is their shared desire to escape from the world of the crowd, to avoid the mundane pressures of everyday Middlemarch life and find their world apart, free of the gossip, the courtesies, and the petty concerns. Such an ideal is precisely what draws Dorothea to Casaubon. He is “unconscious that trivialities existed,” and “To Dorothea this was adorable genuineness, and religious abstinence from that artificiality which uses up the soul in the efforts of pretence” (33). Lydgate’s reasons for settling in Middlemarch are much the same. He aims to “keep away from the range of London intrigues, jealousies, and social truckling” (145), and he is consequently quite staggered to discover that even in a provincial town one often feels “the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions, and their frustrating complexity” (180). In both cases, staying clear of petty reality is the precondition for greater idealism. If Lydgate and Dorothea are going to be more real than reality, they must first get free of the superficial entanglements of everyday life.

Of course, they cannot. The world of 1830 belongs to the crowd and for these old souls there is no escaping the pull of that vortex. Lydgate’s failure is the more complete, brought low as he is by the shallow vanity of his wife and the twittering superstition of a whole network of patients, ill-wishers, and professional gossips. He is chastened by the crowd and made, essentially, to accept their ideal and their system of values.

I must do as other men do, and think what will please the world and bring in money; look for a little opening in the London crowd, and push myself; set up in a watering-place, or go to some southern town where there are plenty of idle English, and get myself puffed, – that is the sort of shell I must creep into and try to keep my soul alive in. (768)

This same character who, at first, sought to prove the “independent value of his work” (145) finds himself, in the end, desperate for “a little opening in the London crowd.” To do “as other men do” is the only ambition left. Having learned that he cannot shine out on his own, he will try to become one among many, and perhaps even a successful one at that. He knows that Rosamond has found some fortune that way—beautiful in the eyes of others, well-regarded by the many who speak of her—and now he will have to do the same. He will have to give himself over to the crowd and allow his true value to be determined from the outside, by the distributed assessment of the community at large. His soul he can keep, if he likes, but it will be useless to him, a kind of vestigial organ that can subsist, meaninglessly, inside his new shell.

Dorothea is less easily cowed. Having resisted the admonitions of friends and relatives before marrying Casaubon, she continues to ignore their advice long after circumstances have proved them right. “Sitting alone in that library at Lowick,” Mrs. Cadwallader says to her, “you may fancy yourself ruling the weather; you must get a few people round you who wouldn’t believe you if you told them. That is a good lowering medicine” (537). Dorothea’s response is defiant and not entirely untrue: “I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion” (537). There is no simple way to resolve this disagreement, because ultimately Dorothea and Mrs. Cadwallader are expressing two fundamentally different epistemologies. Where Mrs. Cadwallader trusts collective knowledge and believes it necessary to regularly check your beliefs against those of your neighbors, Dorothea trusts herself and thinks that checking with one’s neighbors is likely to sully one’s keenest insight. Against the wisdom of the crowd, Dorothea once again articulates the fading idea that the noble individual is the ultimate repository of value.

Despite her self-certainty, however, Dorothea never gets to test her convictions. “I never could do anything that I liked,” she says to her sister. “I have never carried out any plan yet” (820). She may not bow to the Cadwalladers and the Chettams, but in the end she too puts her soul in storage, abandoning her ideals and ambitions in favor of a modest marriage and a move to London. Like Lydgate, she stows her own stubborn self and becomes “absorbed into the life of another.” That other, of course, is the much-debated Will Ladislaw, whose doubtful status in the text has long troubled readers. What makes his character so slippery, I would add, has very much to do with this broader conflict between souls and crowds.12 Does Will belong to the world of 1830, the world of distributed values and distributed knowledge? Or does he belong to the older, lingering world of noble individuality? Is he sufficiently like Dorothea to be wedded to her? Or is the marriage a condescension?

These are the question that first erupt on that fateful day when Dorothea happens upon Will and Rosamond. To see them together is to feel that they both belong to the same Middlemarch crowd. “Why,” Dorothea asks herself afterward, “had he not stayed among the crowd of whom she asked nothing—but only prayed that they might be less contemptible” (787). Why, in other words, did he even enter my world, if his interest lay with Rosamond and the baubles of Middlemarch. For his part, Will feels that very same divide:

Until that wretched yesterday …all their vision, all their thought of each other, had been as in a world apart, where the sunshine fell on tall white lilies, where no evil lurked and no other soul entered. But now—would Dorothea meet him in that world again? (804)

Previously, when Will and Dorothea met, it was in that same ethereal space James envisioned—free of “evil” and full of golden “sunshine” and pure “white lilies.” In that “world apart,” Will and Dorothea were themselves two characters apart, two souls raised briefly above the petty details of Middlemarch society. No people came to disturb them, because no people could inhabit such a world. Only other souls can, and Will assures us that “no other soul entered.” On that wretched yesterday, however, when Dorothea witnessed the intimacy of Will and Rosamond, Will lost his pass to the idealized world. He became, in Dorothea’s eyes, just one more face “among the crowd.” Of course, this is not the final word. Dorothea and Will do end up meeting again, and marrying. But, as I said, that marriage has always seemed problematic, and the reason is precisely because it takes place in the crowded, humdrum world rather than in this world apart. Will does, it is true, bind himself to Dorothea “by a love stronger than any impulses which could have marred it” (835). But she, in order to give “wifely help” (836), has to accept Rosamond’s values and learn, as she says “what everything costs” (812).

Ultimately, that is, Dorothea’s second marriage follows the pattern of Lydgate’s. She too must accustom herself to the petty pressures of social life, a once-glowing sun now just another spiraling orb. She is thrust out of the noble past and dropped into the crowded present of the 1830s, where she never belonged.13

All of which makes Dorothea and Lydgate something less than “guignons,” to return to Baudelaire’s term. After all, the curse that falls on those ill-fated artists is one of isolation and solitude, the burden of toiling alone—albeit with the comforting knowledge that there are other lonely toilers, slowly preparing the ground for a new kind of community. Neither Dorothea nor Lydgate is willing to accept such a lonely fate. Instead, they choose capitulation over isolation. Choose to give up their ideals, to accept the responsibilities of marriage, and to find their way through the modern crowd.

Progress and Nostalgia

If this is true, however, and if the values of the crowd rule all destinies in Middlemarch—triumphing over Dorothea’s noble soul and Lydgate’s grand ambition—that does not make this a book about the triumph of the crowd. No one, not even the Middlemarch crowd, actually desires that outcome. To the very end, there persists a belief that it should not have happened, that Dorothea in particular should have found a way to fulfill her noble purpose and keep herself immune to the distributed values of petty society:

Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done …(836)

This is the sentiment of the crowd; it is what the “many who knew her” thought about her fate. And they think it is a shame she should be one of them. Too “substantive and rare” for such a common lot, Dorothea deserves better than to be “absorbed into the life of another” and “only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother.” Admittedly, they cannot say exactly what “she ought rather to have done,” but they are certain she ought to have done something grander and more noble.

Even in victory, the sympathies of the crowd lie with Dorothea, and the same could be said of the novel more generally. To the very end, its sympathies lie with its two great failures, Dorothea and Lydgate, those who “ought to have done” something more. On this point, Eliot’s readers and reviewers were adamant in their agreement. This was a tragic story, they insisted, a tale of two grandly idealistic figures brought low by shallow circumstance. Blackwood’s Magazine was struck by the “remarkable tinge of melancholy” (737), The Times by Eliot’s refusal to “lighten the general gray of a sky which novelists usually make it a point of honor to flood with sunshine at the final hour” (3). St. Paul’s Magazine thought that the book was “almost over-weighted with sadness” and insisted, further, that the burden of that sadness fell heaviest on the most heroic souls:

The principal sufferers are those who have heroically striven, and who bear about them evidences of the struggle. …it is your spirits like Dorothea, which are bound in a sphere too narrow and too gross, and who are taught to feel the insufficiency and unsatisfying nature of the lot which has been assigned them. (610)

Middlemarch is a book, chiefly, about the exceptional suffering of those, like Dorothea, who struggle against circumstance in the name of their impossible ideals. It is manifestly not—as it might be—a book about the quixotic and futile idealism of those, like Dorothea, who eventually learn that to achieve anything in this life they must work within society, rather than floating above it. Plot alone could justify either of these readings. The difference between them is essentially a matter of of sympathy and allegiance, and overwhelmingly the novel’s allegiances rest with Dorothea and Lydgate—against the chastening force of the crowd.14

The one repeated complaint, in fact, was precisely that the tragedy of Middlemarch needn’t have been so absolute. “If there be one phase of [Eliot’s] nature in which she does not meet the need of the times,” concluded St. Paul’s, “it is in her utter hopelessness” (616). And the Quarterly Review, for its part, was even more insistent:

About none of her other writings was there such a profound despondency. Truly it would be the most melancholy and forlorn historical situation (if actual and historical it were), that in which a reflective reader, rising from a study of George Eliot, might be inclined to place modern society …We repeat, and lay all possible stress upon, our protest. It is not the moral nor is it the artistic purpose of a work of fiction, (or indeed of sound literature at all) to produce this state of mind and to invite such afterthoughts. (365)

These reviewers both feel that Middlemarch is needlessly “melancholy and forlorn.” Literature, they insist, is not supposed to induce such hopelessness; it is supposed to elevate. That is its ultimate “artistic purpose.” The fact that Eliot’s novel is realist—as these reviewers elsewhere recognize—does not in any way alter that purpose. It would change nothing if Eliot said that her novel was “melancholy and forlorn” because the world was “melancholy and forlorn.” Her responsibility as a realist artist is not only to present reality but to present reality and be inspiring, regardless of what she actually sees.

Those two demands may sound contradictory but in fact they are entirely consistent with the general understanding of English realism that I sketched earlier. As George Levine, Suzanne Graver, and Amanda Claybaugh have understood it, realism is both descriptive and didactic, squaring verisimilitude with its own reformist impulses. If that is the case, however, then Middlemarch must be something other than a realist novel. After all, the chief lament of its early reviewers is that Eliot’s work lacks a didactic element, that it fails to elevate and remains, instead, trapped in the gray mire. And no less a critic than Raymond Williams has since agreed with them.15 For Williams, the whole structure of Middlemarch reflects its failure to imagine a remedy for the sadness that it everywhere describes:

The real step that has been taken is withdrawal from any full response to an existing society. Value is in the past, as a general retrospective condition, and is in the present only as a particular and private sensibility, the individual moral action …All that is left is a set of personal relationships and of intellectual and moral insights, in a history that for all valuing purposes has, disastrously, ended. (180)

In Williams’ view, the only didactic element in Middlemarch is a brand of “individual moral action” so circumscribed as to have no historical force. It is the weakest, most feeble kind of politics, too defeatist to be effectual and too humble to be meaningfully reformist. If that is true, the novel would seem to be too melancholy to be properly realist, lacking as it does the didactic element which Levine et. al. ascribe to English realism.16

If I must choose, à la Kebbel, between denying the realism of Middlemarch or rejecting this definition of realism, I too trust to Eliot. Middlemarch is still realist, even if understanding its realism requires us to do away with the idea of a necessary didacticism. I do not mean to suggest that Eliot’s realism is somehow free of unreal elements, that it is a pure or impersonal kind of realism, as Flaubert was wont to imagine it. Indeed, we have already seen that the characteristic response to Middlemarch was to say that it was more real than reality, hyper-real in some indefinable sense. Eliot’s realism is not pure mimesis; it involves a very clear admixture, only in her case that admixture has to do with history and progress, rather than reform and politics. This is where the connection between realism and history comes back to help us. I argued earlier that what enables Eliot’s hyper-realism is its entanglement with history, the ease with which her representation of ‘reality as we have never known it’ comes to look like ‘reality as we no longer know it.’ And that confusion of hyper-reality and past reality is the key to understanding her unique style of realism. Ultimately, that is, Eliot writes nostalgic realism, and her provincial novels, in particular, activate a complex kind of a longing for an imagined time when the world was as palpably real as the more-than-reality she shows us.

I say complex because the feeling of nostalgia is never a simple one; it is tortured and intricate, and it can include a variety of competing emotions. At its core, nostalgia is a kind of temporal homesickness, the yearning for a past which we imagine to be somehow more complete. In Svetlana Boym’s account, it “is a longing for that shrinking ‘space of experience’ that no longer fits the new horizon of expectations” (10).17 Once upon a time, there was more room for existence; today, we are left with something less. That is the whispered story that nostalgia tells. Eliot’s version is similar enough that we need to keep the word nostalgia, but distinct enough to require its own elucidation.

The most important change, in Eliot, is that the idealized past happens not to be all that idyllic. There is too much obvious pettiness in the world of the 1830s—too many ignorant gossips and overbearing neighbors. Too much, in a word, of the crowd. Of course, there are also those few noble souls, but they are already old souls, residues of an earlier, more aristocratic past; they linger in the world of the 1830s, but they don’t shape it. In fact, they fail conspicuously in all of their several efforts to build, for themselves, lives of modern idealism. Paradoxically, though, it is precisely this failure which appeals to Eliot. She is nostalgic for something other than the time when Lydgate and Dorothea might have fulfilled their grand ambitions; she is nostalgic for a time when they no longer could, when ambition had been forcibly shrunk down to the size of the average and the ideals of the soulful were tightly bound by “the meanness of opportunity” (3). It is not the greater “space of experience” that makes the past enticing, but rather the greater space of tragedy. Nor was notion this unique to Eliot. It is something we find elsewhere in Victorian literature, and notably in Tennyson. “The Lady of Shalott,” for instance, is a poem very deliberately set at a heroic, indeed epic moment in British history. But it too is more tragic than epic, a soulful elegy whose significance the knights at Camelot cannot fathom. Even Idylls of the King, which has a more traditionally epic structure, is wildly slanted towards tragedy. The rise of Arthur covers one book, the strength of Camelot two, and then nine full books on the slow-wending decline. This may sound like a peculiar kind of nostalgia—this looking back to a time of fuller tragedy rather than a time of greater happiness, but it is also peculiarly apt, carefully crafted for an age of progress. This is simply what nostalgia looks like when we trust the future more than the past.

Like Tennyson, Eliot believed in progress, believed that society had moved, was moving, and would continue to move in a desirable direction. She was hardly an ideologue on this score, but she was acutely conscious of the advances of industrialism and generally optimistic about the long term. She felt that humanity was “slowly, slowly, growing out of barbarism” (Letters IV. 292), and she was convinced, as she wrote in one of her more famous essays, that “the life of collective mankind is slowly swayed by the force of truth and not of twaddle; our views may be hissed to-day, but in the next century they will be held too undeniable to be applauded” (Essays 391). As is customary with Eliot, these descriptions are global and gradual. Progress, for her, was a slow and uneven process made visible by long time-horizons and wide geographical spaces.

Ironically, one of her more emphatic defenses of progress comes precisely in a section of Theophrastus Such entitled “Looking Backward.” There, with some disdain, she condemns the vogue for admiring the distant past: the only reason remote times seem halcyon, she insists, is because they are remote. To compare the present with a more freshly memorable historical moment is to face the undeniable improvements of recent years:

…it would be really something original in polished verse if one of our young writers declared he would gladly be turned eighty-five that he might have known the joy and pride of being an Englishman when there were fewer reforms and plenty of highwaymen, fewer discoveries and fewer faces pitted with small-pox, when laws were made to keep up the price of corn, and the troublesome Irish were more miserable. Three-quarters of a century ago is not a distance that lends much enchantment to the view. We are familiar with the average men of that period, and are still consciously encumbered with its bad contrivances and mistaken acts. (Essays: Impressions 265)

It is impossible, Eliot here suggests, to be genuinely nostalgic for the recent past. It is too familiar, and more than that, too backwards. Her contemporaries were perfectly aware—because they remembered—that 75 years earlier politics were less democratic, smallpox more menacing, travel more dangerous, and foodstuffs more expensive. That era was filled with “bad contrivances” and “mistaken acts,” which no sane individual would want to revisit or revive. Indeed, the humor of the passage plays against the possibility that some foolish young poet might indeed indulge in such an absurd kind of nostalgia. And yet, what I am essentially arguing is that Middlemarch is shot through with just this kind of nostalgia, the nostalgia for a “life of mistakes” and a world strictly limited by its “meanness of opportunity” (3). If anything, Eliot is even more bold than her imagined young writer, willing to look less than three-quarters of a century into the past to a time that was only more obviously preparatory to her own. What keeps her nostalgia, then, from drifting into absurdity is that it is adapted to the conditions of industrialism. In her provincial novels, she found a way to refit nostalgia for a world in progress.

Eliot understood that those terms—nostalgia and progress—were not incompatible. Certainly, the more familiar, nostalgic idea that life was better in the past is no friend to the progressive idea that history is the story of humanity’s advance. However, there is no contradiction between the belief that humanity is advancing and the belief that the past, too, had its value. Nostalgia, in that case, is simply the desire to remember treasured aspects of the past that the brighter future threatens to erase. Such, for instance, as the idea of noble individuality. Industrial progress, itself, made little room for individual action; on this point, virtually all of its major theorists were in agreement. Progress was an impersonal phenomenon, driven not by the concerted and purposeful activity of a few world-historical individuals but rather by an abstract, diffuse, and distributed system of interactions. With an eye to Middlemarch, we might say that it drew its energy from the wisdom and work of the crowd, rather than the stirring idealism of noble souls. For just that reason, though, it seemed to trivialize the impact of the individual. And part of the value of Middlemarch for a society in progress was precisely its ability to reanimate the noble individual. Through characters like Dorothea and Lydgate, Eliot’s novel helps keep alive a comforting memory of the individual as the ultimate locus of value and the center of social significance, even as the crowd has become the real engine of history.

At the same time, Eliot’s peculiar brand of nostalgia sets a limit to its own seductive force. It flirts with the recollection of nobility, but it does no more than that. The story Middlemarch tells is that of the decline rather than the ascendancy of the noble individual. Sadness and melancholy was felt to be the dominant mood, and it is precisely this sadness that nurtures Eliot’s nostalgia. It is what keeps nostalgia subordinate to progress, ensuring that the reader’s attachment to Dorothea and Lydgate does not distract from the more important forward march. We get to remember the glory of noble individuality, but not so triumphantly as to make us want to go back. The lights of the past must be bright enough to reach us but sufficiently dimmed that they pale beside the glow of the future. And Eliot’s nostalgia for failure ensures just that relation. It draws our attention to the book’s noble souls, but it also guards against a too-strong attachment by parading their failures.

The delicacy of this imbalance—between nostalgia and progress, souls and crowds, past and future—is beautifully exemplified by the famous, final passages of Eliot’s text. As the “Prelude” opens, so the “Finale” closes, with a comparison between Dorothea and St. Theresa, a recognition that the ambitions of a Theresa can have, today, no proper outlet

A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know. (838)

The central contrast in this passage is between the “ardent deeds” of the distant past, when Theresa and Antigone lived their (real and fictive) lives, and the more limited opportunities of what we might loosely call today, after such deeds have become impossible. “We” are irrevocably severed from that time (and, in answer to our opening question about whether Eliot’s settings count as the past, this “we” seems to compass both the populace of the 1830s and the readers of the 1870s). Somewhere between then and now, Eliot tells us, history slipped out of the hands of even the most heroic individuals, leaving the world awash with “we insignificant people.”

This triumph of the insignificant might seem bad enough, but in fact it is only the minor side of the tragedy. Today’s world is not only full of insignificant people; it is also dotted with significant people who are doomed to discover the impotence of their own distinction. Even in the fallen present, Theresas and Antigones continue to be born, but their only destiny is to be crushed by the insignificant crowd. Dorothea, we are told, is one of those—but only one, and not the saddest. There are many such “Dorotheas,” impotently-significant people with the bearing of grand, noble souls and the lot of inflated, imprisoned ones. What this penultimate paragraph tells us is that, one way or another, these Dorotheas will keep being born, and just as surely they will keep being sacrificed.

Of course, if this is just the penultimate paragraph that means there are still a few final lines in which to reimagine the fate of these Dorotheas:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (838)

Something certainly has changed, in these last lines. Whereas, just before, Dorothea was conclusively set apart—the epitome of rare distinction and rare suffering—now she rests with the insignificant, in the very same cemetery; she has lost her nobility and found a common grave. Eliot’s closing words harken back to Gray’s elegy and the lines that Baudelaire borrowed for “Le Guignon.” “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,” Gray wrote, and by that he meant both unseen and ineffectual. The forgotten dead who people Gray’s cemetery might, in other circumstance, have made their mark on history, but as it happened they did not. Eliot, however, means something different. In Eliot’s graves lie those who shaped history despite their lack of opportunity. Their “unhistoric acts,” though unhistoric, still ripple through time and space, being in fact so “incalculably diffusive” that they touch even upon “you and me.” And by joining them, Dorothea too gains a weak kind of causal power, an ability to make small, but not-quite meaningless, contributions to the “growing good of the world.”

Why, though, should there be such a difference between these last two paragraphs? How can Dorothea be, at one moment, extraordinary and impotent and, at the next moment, ordinary and potent? Is she unlike everyone else, and therefore doomed to a life of unfulfillment? Or is she exactly like everyone else, and therefore capable of some grand, diffuse agency? These are the questions that linger at the end of Eliot’s novel, and they are also the ones that point back from the text to its industrial context, linking issues of character and closure with concerns about change, history, and above all progress. Middlemarch‘s split conclusion is a residue of Eliot’s split allegiance; the penultimate paragraph a last nod to nostalgia and the final one a last paean to progress.

Indeed, in that last paragraph, the description of industrial progress is both subtle and precise. Eliot gives us a literary version of that same, impersonal engine that Darwin and Spencer imagined: an abstract force with no sure conductor, a vague but potent mechanism for channeling trivial acts into powerful movements. History, here, is not governed from above but fed from below, propelled by a myriad of hidden lives that somehow add up to an “incalculably diffusive” historical current. Eliot’s last lines involve a magical kind of addition which precisely mirrors the magic of progress itself, building the consequential out of the common, and the epochal out of the everyday. If, in the end, Dorothea can be finally influential, it is only because she finds herself in a paragraph which celebrates the attenuated impact of the small and the many. Resting, now, in an unvisited tomb, she joins that resistless agent of modern history, the crowd.

Yet, even as Eliot implies that the “growing good of the world” is “dependent on unhistoric acts” she says only that it is “part dependent on unhistoric acts.” And though she wants to insist that things are better with you and me “owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life,” what she writes is “half owing.” Progress was something Eliot believed in but it was never something she could whole-heartedly embrace; it was too inhuman for that. Though it seemed to have a magical ability to turn the trivial into the tremendous, it also seemed to demand that we all, first, become trivial. Dorothea, for instance, can only find her “incalculably diffusive” impact after she has found her way to a common grave. And that troubled Eliot, as it did her contemporaries.

The value of nostalgia lay precisely in its ability to ease that concern. This, essentially, is what the next-to-last paragraph of Middlemarch is for: balancing the costs of industrial progress with a weak nostalgia. In these not-quite-last lines, Dorothea has no grand diffusive influence, hers being instead a life of great, if sad sacrifice. But at least her sacrifice is not trivial. Quite the contrary, Dorothea is elevated above everyone else, freed from the world of the insignificant and likened, instead, to a few, select heroines. She is removed from her forgotten grave and granted a rightful place among the great souls of the past. And though this apotheosis has its own price—stripping Dorothea of her diffusive power and dooming her to a life of ardent impotence—that is simply the cost of Eliot’s peculiar brand of nostalgia; it requires that the world of the past be both more human and less contented, rich and round and doomed and impotent. If Dorothea is distinguished, it is not because she succeeds where others have failed; it is simply because she has found a way to fail more grandly. And the poignancy which suffuses her story derives from that grand failure, from noble sadness rather than greater happiness.

Progress and the crowd are allowed their triumph, but Middlemarch does not care to look in that direction, and neither did its readers. They looked, instead, at the grandeur of the tragedy, and held to the idea that there was something valuable for them in the memory of a stifled nobility of soul. It was not something they could put into practice nor, being tragic, was it something that they wanted to revive, but it was something human that they could recall as they were driven forward by the inhuman force of progress. That, essentially, is how Eliot’s nostalgia works, by activating a new kind of longing for a time that was not happier but was still, in some ways, more richly human. If, as I have been arguing, industrial progress was composed of one great hope and many smaller fears, and if that one hope still minimally outweighed those many fears, then any redress would have to be delicately-balanced—soothing the many small fears without undermining the one great hope. This is precisely what Eliot’s work manages to accomplish. Her warm, human, and still communal images of the past—full of soulful Dorotheas—help make industrial progress bearable, providing a comforting memory of a vanishing time. But they are also carefully calibrated so as not to become too comforting; not just in Middlemarch but throughout Eliot’s provincial novels, nostalgia always cedes its place to progress, accepting its position as the second-best solution in the second-to-last paragraph. Her communities may be warm and personal, but they are also full of great suffering and great disappointments. They are enjoyable to read about, but not idyllic enough to strive for. To put it most succinctly, they make us long for a time to which we do not want to return. And that strange longing which has no interest in consummation is itself a direct response—indeed Eliot’s most direct response—to the changes unleashed by industrialism.

Industrialism did not just intensify the operations of industry; it accelerated all of economic history. And in so doing, it produced a newly ambivalent conception of progress. What Eliot’s work offered was a powerful, literary counter-ambivalence, a weak strain of nostalgia which, precisely because it was weak, could ease the pain of industrial progress without, however, threatening the pace. And from that example, we can better understand why the Victorians at large were so enamored of the past. It was not simply because they thought the past held the secret for a brighter future; progress was taking care of that. More often, it was because the past held some fading, but still cherished values that they wanted to remember. They did not look back because they thought the answer to their pain lay in the past; rather, they looked back because looking back, on occasion, was the only possible answer.


1 Rosenberg provides an excellent account of Victorian society’s long lament for the loss of the past, and the influence this had on literature. In contrast to my own, forward-looking attentions, Rosenberg thinks that “much of the most moving literature of the English nineteenth century is one long song of mourning” (4).

2 Suzanne Graver and Henry Auster have both done excellent work on the social organization of Eliot’s fictional universe.

3 I say “few critics” because there have been a few. Rene Wellek, in his excellent diagnosis of 19th-century realism, considers including “historistic” as one of the genre’s defining feature—before deciding that it would exclude too many patently realist authors. In the case of Eliot, Neil McCaw has talked about her “historico-realist” style, though without sufficiently noting the tension between those terms. And Graver has shown how insistently the relation between past and present is foregrounded in the opening set-pieces of Eliot’s various works.

4 Realism in general and English realism, in particular, has attracted an enormous amount of scholarship. The foundational works are those of Auerbach and Watt, with excellent elaborations by Barthes, Wellek, Brooks, and most recently Fredric Jameson.

5 Tennyson would have agreed. In painting at least, he thought that realism had no excessive obligation to reality. In talking to John Everett Millais about the “limits of realism in painting,” he offered the following advice: “if you have human beings before a wall, the wall ought to be picturesequely painted, and in harmony with the idea pervading the picture, but must not be made too obtrusive by the bricks being too minutely drawn, since it is the human beings that ought to have the real interest for us in a dramatic subject picture” (rpt in Ormond 133).

6 To a large degree, French realism has been reduced to a straw man in these accounts of the distinctiveness of English realism. Suffice it to say that French realism was never casually dispassionate or grandly impersonal. Culler and Weinberg have both produced excellent work on the specific conventions of French realist writers.

7 The following, quite similar claims are from Saint-Paul’s Magazine, the Spectator, and the Examiner , respectively: “the coat of mail in which men and women resolutely attempt to encase themselves has been removed in all these people, and we know them almost as they knew themselves.”; “Her characters are so real that they have a life and body of their own quite distinct from her criticisms on them”; “GE gives us just such insight into the lifelike characters of the people of her story as, if we were clever enough, we might obtain for ourselves during a short stay in the mid-England district in which her scene is laid.”

8 In the same vein, Q. D. Leavis called Dorothea, “a product of George Eliot’s own ‘soul-hunger’—another day-dream ideal self (102).

9 Butwin provides an excellent account of how the figure of the crowd operates not just in Middlemarch but through Eliot’s work.

10 D. A. Miller has written beautifully about these competing perspectives, or what he calls a “scheme of reference and values” (109). Rather than souls and crowds, however, he thinks of the contrast between individuals and the community—a useful perspective but one that expands the category of soulful individuality too far and thus obscures the deep distinction between Dorothea and Lydgate, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other.

11 Alex Woloch’s The One Vs. the Many provides another way of thinking about this conflict. Despite the fact that Middlemarch presents a familiar character-space, one dominated by a few vivid individuals, it reverses the pattern of representation as exploitation. The main characters in this novel are oppressed by the great collective weight of their minor offshoots.

12 Gordon Haight has provided a useful summary of the many critics uncomfortable with Dorothea’s choice of second husband.

13 There is at least one other kind of sympathy, distinct from these two and leading to a quite different resolution. It involves Mary and Fred, and it is Eliot’s bland tribute to the possibility of living happily between the two dominant ethics. Non-noble individuals.

14 D. A. Miller makes a similar point. “Paradoxically,” he writes, “it is also obvious that the text values the feckless enterprises of its main characters far more highly than it does the cleanly enforced ‘achievement’ of its community. In a double ambivalence fraught with psychological and ideological antagonisms (parent versus child, community versus romantic individualism), the text shows a respectful courtesy to what it clearly resents, while persecuting with clearheaded insight what it profoundly seems to cherish” (130).

15 Williams is hardly alone in recognizing this political knot. Leo Bersani has described Eliot as refusing to “abandon the dream of structured significance, even if she has to sustain it by the vague doctrine of individual goodness finally, in some way, affecting the course of history, or by the more desperate move of showing how the very subversion of her protagonists dreams is itself a proof of the interconnectedness in life” (rpt in Furst 249).

16 As a corrective to Williams’ argument about Middlemarch , it should be said that the idea that industrialism narrowed the space for leisure is simply untrue and so can hardly serve as a just framework for reading Eliot’s text.

17 Boym’s rendering of the experience of nostalgia is probing and subtle, if a bit slippery. And though our models are different, she too believes that nostalgia and progress are intimately related: “Nostalgic manifestations are side effects of the teleology of progress” (10).