In “The Natural History of German Life,” George Eliot complains of the idealized portraits of the peasantry that so often appear in the arts. She argues that in order to truly fulfill their calling “of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (110), artists who depict the Other of the lower classes must do so accurately. As she writes, “our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representations is a grave evil” (110).
This standard of creating “Art [that] is the nearest thing to life” (110) is high, and places the calling of the artist in a noble light. Her role becomes more than that of creating things that are beautiful to the senses; instead, she must also be accurate at a historical, sociological level in order to expand the experience of the one who is enjoying her work of art.
We can assume that Eliot held these criteria for her own artistic creations as well as those of others. Indeed, the subtitle of her novel Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, indicates that she approached this work at least as an opportunity to consider and critique the real experiences that her novel depicts. But does Eliot measure up to the standard of accurate reflection that she has set?
There is one scene in Middlemarch that is especially relevant to and in which Eliot seems especially aware of the standards that she set out in “The Natural History.” In this particular scene, Mr. Brooke approaches the homestead on his property that he has leased to the degenerate Dagley family. The narrator remarks at the opening of the scene on how “it is true that an observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freedman’s End” (327). The farm itself seems to match perfectly those found in the “idyllic literature” that Eliot critiques in “The Natural History” as “always express[ing] the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life” (109).
However, as she continues with the scene, it becomes evident that the hardships of the Dagleys are anything but delightful to the members of the family. The Dagley family is not composed of the happy, healthy, clean and cooperative peasantry that the picturesqueness of the scene might initially suggest. Mrs. Dagley is “[o]verworked … a thin, worn woman whose life pleasures had so entirely vanished that she had not even any Sunday clothes which could give her satisfaction in preparing for church” (329)—very far from the “usually buxom” depictions of peasant women to which Eliot objects (“Natural” 108). Mr. Dalgey himself is brusque and irritated with his landlord. He refuses to listen to Mr. Brooke’s (perhaps unreasonable) complaint of his son’s poaching, insisting that “you’d better let my boy aloan, an’ look to yoursen, afore the Rinform has got upo’ your back” (Middlemarch 329-30). In fact, Dagley is, after a meal at a public house of which he has partaken much to his wife’s chagrin, rather drunk. And the jovial Mr. Brooke, after mentioning this fact, you know, retreats with the promise of returning another day.
Though Eliot thus succeeds in presenting the socioeconomical Other in a (presumably) accurate light, her depiction of the national Other slips into the same over-dramatized stereotyping that she protests against in “The Natural History.” This is evident in her account of Lydgate’s first love interest Madame Laure, the French actress. Though the majority of Eliot’s characters are realistically complex, Madame Laure is nothing more than a beautiful “Provençale, with dark eyes, a Greek profile, and rounded majestic form” (Middlemarch 145)—and a murderously independent character. In this case, rather than painting a realistic portrait of the Other, Eliot falls into presenting the stereotypical French character that was common in contemporary novels.
Thus, though Eliot appears to be aware of the value of accurately presenting the socioeconomical Other, she fails to carry her conviction of the necessity of accurate artistic representations of the lives of others into other forms of Otherness. As a result, though Middlemarch may help to widen the reader’s experience of social classes in Victorian England, it should not be consulted if one desires to understand anyone outside that particular context.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Ed. Gregory Maertz. Orchard Park: Broadview, 2004. Print.
—. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.