SELECTIONS FROM THE LETTERS OF GEORGE ELIOT by George Eliot
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SELECTIONS FROM THE LETTERS OF GEORGE ELIOT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Nine daunting volumes boiled down to one minor classic. Haight, who is Professor Emeritus of English at Yale and the world's leading expert on George Eliot, originally edited her massive correspondence (1954-78) and offers the non-specialist a fine sampling from it, with helpful notes and a capsule biography. GE--Mary Anne Evans-Lewes-Cross (1819-1880)--was not a great letter writer, in the same class with, say, Keats, Byron, or Flaubert. But she was too great an artist and too noble a character for this intimate glimpse into her life not to prove richly rewarding. There is, first of all, the pleasure of watching GE develop from what Irving Howe called ""the pious little missy, stiff as a board"" into a profound and penetrating mind, surely the greatest Victorian autodidact. Thus, she will casually note apropos of Renan's Life of Jesus, ""We can never have a satisfactory basis for the history of the man Jesus, but that negation does not affect the Idea of the Christ either in its historical influence or its great symbolic meanings""--which neatly summarizes about two centuries of New Testament scholarship, much of it done after her death. The remarkable thing about GE's transition from devout Evangelical to secular humanist and novelist is the way she managed to balance both rigorous intellectual honesty and a kind of prophetic moral earnestness. In the latter vein she writes, at age 28, that in the future there will be a cult honoring ""the memory of every man and woman who has had a deep 'ahnung,' a presentiment, a yearning, or a clear vision of the time when this miserable reign of Mammon shall end. . ."" Beyond this, GE's letters show her in her many roles: the disappointed admirer of Herbert Spencer, the loving (and later grieving) wife of George Henry Lewes, the kindly ""Mutter"" to his children, the humble (careful thank-yous for every cheek) but totally self-possessed employee of publisher John Blackwood, the acute, stimulating correspondent of friends like Sara Hennell, the philo-Semite, the conservative (in her later years), the slightly hypochondriac genius. GE's style doesn't coruscate, and her wit doesn't bubble, but her letters, like her novels, reveal the workings of a uniquely sympathetic and energetic intelligence.

Pub Date: April 17th, 1985
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press