I wasn’t that interested in George Eliot while reading for my first degree in English. In my second year at Birmingham University I dutifully read Silas Marner and Middlemarch, but I had already decided that my heroes were Charles Dickens and W. M. Thackeray. Eliot, though championed by my tutor, seemed to me over-written and ponderous; compared with Dickens she was humourless, and her characterization, I decided at the age of nineteen, was philosophical rather than intuitive, the product of language and over-analysis, rather than insight. How much about human nature did she really know, I wondered? And wasn’t her writing about rustic characters a bit patronising? Another member of my tutorial group insisted that Middlemarch was the greatest of English novels, a work she had read numerous times, but I remained unconvinced. Urged upon our generation by the moralizing of F. R. Leavis, whose judgements now seem quaintly old-fashioned, Eliot’s books were a chore I did my best to avoid.
This situation continued into my late twenties, when I began collecting illustrated literature and first editions of the period. Like all collectors, the pleasure lay in finding rare items in second-hand and antiquarian books – a pursuit now practically destroyed by the internet – and my rediscovery of Eliot came about as a product of this interest. The Eureka moment was sometime in 1983 in a bookshop in Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire, which was run by Harold Checketts. Harold was the archetypal antiquarian bookseller: well-informed, particular about the quality and condition of his books, and (most of all) generous and easy-going, he encouraged me to search his reserve stock in a curious room in buildings a few minutes’ walk from his shop. It was here, while perusing his as yet uncatalogued stock, that I came upon a great find: the first bound edition of Middlemarch, in four volumes, clad in leather (alas, not in the original cloth), but in perfect order. Intrigued as I never had been, I turned over the title page and started to scan chapter one, with its unflattering portrait of the ‘remarkably clever’ Dorothea. Within a few minutes I had decided that I was going to read the novel anew – and not just any copy, but this copy. The book was unpriced, and assuming it would be far too expensive for my limited pocket, I carried the four heavy volumes back to the shop through a thunderstorm. In short, Harold sold it to me for £80 – a lot at the time, but not as much, proportionately speaking, as the £1000 or more it commands today.
Thereafter, my engagement with Eliot began in earnest. As planned, I re-read Middlemarch and decided that it was indeed one of the greatest English novels. Her other works followed in quick succession, and I also managed to acquire a first edition of The Mill of Floss.
This time round it all made sense, and I was enthralled. Eliot’s characterization, I now understood, is rich and complicated, a writer struggling to make sense of the contradictions of identity; her capacity to create a narrative around overlapping lives is at least as great as Dickens’s; and her ability to evoke a time and a place, with all of its moral contradictions, both accomplished and engrossing. How could I ever think otherwise and be so completely mistaken in my original judgements? As Eliot herself observes, life is full of such unexpected turns, with the possibility of change and redemption making good the errors of youth. Like Fred in Middlemarch, I had been on the wrong track, and only found my way on the basis of a chance encounter in the back-room of a bookshop, on a rainy day in Upton.
Created 6 August 2019