Ok, time to start getting out the good stuff. Enough with the childish. We’ve got to talk about George. It’s just I have this feeling that if I start I might not be able to stop. Going to keep this first mention of her short. Think of it as taster.
I’ve been sewing all day, a long rhythm of creative play with bits of cloth, cutting and looking and stitching in silence. And while I’ve been working, in silence, I have been thinking about this list and all lists of great books, and about George Eliot. But I’m not ready to write about her books yet. This post is just a memory, a fragment of thought.
I first tried to read Middlemarch when a teacher recommended it with the intriguing line ‘You should read Middlemarch, it’s the watershed of the English novel.’ What the hell is a watershed, I wondered. Does something good happen in there? And why ‘should’? I was bolshy: ‘should’ didn’t attract me. And yet I obeyed.
So I set off with a copy from the library. I’d be doing ‘A’ levels, at that time, maybe about 23 years old. My daughter aged four. I’d be living in or just come out of Lysistrata Coop, a women’s commune. I had pretty much only been reading women for past three or four years. But working my way through the Brontes (of which much more, much later) Jane Austen (yes, we’ll get to her), all contemporary women fiction writers, and The Female Eunuch (will I include it in this list? I don’t know yet) plus Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto (Google it, young things, but have a sick bag with you) and everything by Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Jean Rhys, Iris Murdoch and even Barbara Pym. Shelf miles of Women’s Press and Virago paperbacks. The Yellow Wallpaper.
But George Eliot? She had not featured, and I don’t think I saw her on anybody’s shelves. Did we think she was a man? It’s highly possible I did. Did we disapprove of a woman taking a man’s name to write – you bet (Yeah yeah but Currer Bell was androgynous). We were wimmin, we lived in boiler suits.
Ok – when I say ‘we’ I am talking mainly about myself.
So, the watershed of the English novel. Hum. Girl in it, bit of Christian prig, I know I’m not interested. Hum. Now there is a doctor. Oh, I see, they are going to get married. How predictable! Page 60 – I can see what’s going to happen, I can’t be bothered with this. I closed the book, ‘ the watershed’. What one earth did that man mean? Why didn’t he say ‘It’s about a girl who is a bit like you, a bit mad. Likely to go wrong. It’s about how it goes wrong.’
Well, he didn’t and more to the point, I didn’t see it coming, so another 3 years had to go by before I read Middlemarch and that was pity. Because there was a lot of information in that novel that I needed to get into my head as soon as possible and I missed it. That kind of thing – me at 23 needing George Eliot and passing her up, and looking back now from a distance of 35 years and seeing the shape of my missing it and its effect on young me – that kind of thing is what great novels record: that is the kind of data great literature collects and analyses.
If George Eliot had been a man – but of course, it is impossible to imagine those books written by a man, they are utterly womanly. And as intellectually innovative as Marx or Darwin. But they don’t look as if they are, because they are novels, and that kind of data isn’t much acknowledged in the public world. Which is – even now – quite man’s world.
Women: read George Eliot.
Men: read George Eliot.
Be human. She will explain everything.