Richard French

August 27, 2017 Dickens, George Eliot, and Trust in Life Posted In: NOVEL

Several weeks have gone by since I last wrote a post for this blog, one of the longest times I’ve been away from it since I started it in the fall of 2009. A main reason for my silence is that my afternoon routine has changed slightly.

As therapy for my heart, I walk two and a half miles in 50 minutes five times a week. I sometimes used to think about blogposts during these walks, and by the time I finished a walk, I had an idea and several points ready to write. A few months ago, however, I bought a portable cassette player from Amazon and have been listening to taped abridgements I bought some years back of 19th century novels, four by Dickens, with “Barnaby Rudge” twice, and now I’m on a second novel by Geroge Eliot, “The Mill on the Floss”.

I’ve learned from talking with writing people in Toronto, where I live, that many folks don’t hold classic works of fiction in high regard, as earlier generations of readers did, and some expect the works of Dickens, Jane Austen, Geroge Eliot, too, and dozens of others to fall out of print soon and languish from now on in obscurity. I have a feeling that won’t happen.

Our culture has been built on respect for past achievements. Novels make up a small part of a large entity, but the novel-form as we have it rose out of masterworks from the 19th century and earlier that the writers built to last. Their work still has a lot to offer readers today. I’ll take Eliot and Dickens as examples, with another novelist in a postscipt.

Both writers understood ordinary life and portrayed rounded characters with insight and compassion. Their insights haven’t faded.
They took whole societies and communities into account, and while aspects from their personal lives undoubtedly slipped into their works, they never resorted to autobiographical self-indulgence.
They came from particular times and places that figure in their work, but the people they imagined and the stories they thought up have nearly universal appeal. Most anyone can understand and sympathize with the quandary of Maggie Tulliver, to take one exmaple, in “The Mill on the Floss”.
They were devoted to their work. Their skills allow readers to feel confident that they knew what they were doing and that time spent with their creations will be well rewarded. As well, they set examples for other writers to aspire to.
Yes, their novels are long. They can provide a welcome antidote to the hectic moments of our own day.
Some critics have called Eliot’s “Middlemarch” the greatest English novel. Here’s an except from the last page, where Eliot writes about her main character: “Her full nature… spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. 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.”

Brief Postscript

I’ve also been reading, in English translation, Goethe’s once-legendary novel, “Wilhelm Meister”. It’s about the title character’s education through experience. I find it more discursive and less penetrating than present-day work, but it has memorable features, like the female character Mignon and the following sentences from the end of the fourth volume:

“Our destiny often looks like a fruit tree in winter. Who would think from the sad appearance of the tree that these rigid boughs and jagged twigs could turn green again, be covered with blossom and then bear fruit? But we hope and know that this is so.”

It may be that some spokespeople for our present-day culture believe that creative folks on the scene now will produce works that supersede the classics. If that’s what actually happens, though I doubt it, new creations will have to be very good or else a cultural reversal will occur and people will replace slimmed-down, negative ways of thinking with generous, open-hearted, courageouse ones, because the age-old trust in life that supported the achievements of Dickens, George Eliot, and dozens of others is too important to lose.

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