The woman we now refer to almost exclusively as ‘George Eliot’ was born on this day in 1819. Imagine the bicentennial celebrations we’ll be having in a few years! I hope so, anyway. Remember all the hoopla for the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice? Surely the author of Middlemarch deserves at least as much fanfare — even if her books almost never leave us feeling altogether like celebrating.
I’ve written so much about George Eliot here over the years (and here — more than once — and here, and here) that it almost feels redundant to say anything more. And yet there always turns out to be more I want to say, which is one of the reasons I admire and appreciate her novels so much. Little did I know when I plucked a random edition of Middlemarch off the bookstore shelf for reading on the train during a youthful odyssey across Europe that the book would end up making more difference to my life than anything else I read or saw or did during those eventful six months. “Destiny stands by sarcastic,” as she said herself, “with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (Whatever your experience, she always turns out to have anticipated it in a wise, witty, or tender saying.)
I don’t know a more apt or moving tribute to George Eliot than Virginia Woolf’s:
Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her – sex and health and convention – she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.
I’ve never had the opportunity to lay a literal bouquet on her grave. The next time I travel to England, I hope finally to make it to Highgate Cemetery — my own modest pilgrimage in honor of a brave and brilliant woman whose work has been an inspiration, a provocation, and a comfort to me for almost three decades. Until then, my own writing — thin and inadequate as it inevitably is by comparison — is the best tribute I can offer.