Review: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists – George Eliot

011 - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

011 - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

Rating – 3*

I have wanted to read this little essay collection by George Eliot for a very long time, and I thought that now was as good of a time as any. It’s a punchy little book in the Penguin Great Ideas series and contains half a dozen essays alongside the titular one.

Silly Novels is a 35 page essay in which Eliot criticises less able female authors of the period in which she is writing. She writes on how many writers perpetuated negative stereotypes of women which only enhanced the subjugation of women in history. She essentially summarises most novels of the time in one sweeping statement which covers pretty much all romantic novels written by women: a beautiful main character who falls in love with a member of nobility under exceptional circumstances. She argues that all these ‘silly novels’ give a bad name to the female novelist in general, which in turn makes it impossible for the actually talented authors to get recognition for their work. Hence why Eliot herself wrote under a male pseudonym, as did all three of the Bronte sisters.

The titular essay had me laughing, because what she outlines as the issue with many female novelists is still largely something I can relate to, especially when reading books from the same period in which she wrote.

However, while I loved the first essay – the first essay was marvellous – the remaining 4 or 5 didn’t quite hit the mark for me. They were a lot more specific reviews and essays which were more period specific and, from my perspective, not as easy related to. I found them quite hard to enjoy when I hadn’t read any of the source material which inspired them. As a result, I did find myself skimming a lot of the other essays as they just weren’t keeping my interest.

The tile essay though is a perfect look at 19th Century feminism, and a really good step up from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women which was published around 50 years prior at the turn of the century. There is an essay in which Mary Wollstonecraft is referenced, which is quite a nice step between the two!

I’d say this is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in essay collections, early feminism, or George Eliot in general. I’d also say that if you’ve read A Room of Ones Own or A Vindication of the Rights of Women this is definitely a good essay collection to pick up as it bridges the gap between the two. Woolf cites Eliot as one of her favourite novelists, and one of the only ‘grown up’ writers – and reading this I really get where she is coming from.

Review: Felix Holt, The Radical – George Eliot

004 - Felix Holt

004 - Felix Holt

Rating: 4*

It’s no secret that I think George Eliot is one of the most incredible female authors of all time, and Felix Holt: The Radical only solidifies my feelings. It was the last full-length Eliot work I had to read, and while it was by no means my favourite of her books it was an enjoyable read, and very relevant in today’s political climate – something which I really wasn’t expecting.

This book is set around the Reform Act of 1832 and the local politics of the fictional town of Treby Magna. If there’s one thing Eliot can do it is capture a small town absolutely perfectly – she is so good at writing a novel which focuses in and around a whole community, with several people at the forefront of attention. As with Adam Bede though, the titular character isn’t really the main character (nor is he the most interesting), in fact as with all Eliot novels it is the female characters that take the crown as the most interesting character. Mrs Holt and Mrs Transome – the mothers of two of our main, male protagonists, are far more interesting than their respective sons. And Esther is, as with most of Eliot’s young, female protagonists, a young woman who want’s independence – she’s highly educated, some would argue too educated, for a preacher’s daughter in a small town.

Aside from it being a character study of life in a small town on the brink of political change, it does bring the question of do the electorate always get things right in to a Victorian setting. Obviously, that makes the book highly relevant to even today’s political climate – what with the result the electorates in the US and the UK in the last 18 months! Much as with today, the political climate is all over the place in this novel – the working class are frustrated and don’t agree with the ‘establishment’ but have no means to change it. Which is where radicalism came in to play. Felix Holt is one of our radicals, and he is an interesting character. He believes in empowering the working class from the bottom – starting with education. The coverage of the Reform Act is such a poignant reminder of how lucky so many of us are to have a vote. The Reform Act gave power to the people, not just land-owning, white men. Although it did still take 100 years for women to get an equal vote, education and the ability to vote was a start.

It is by no means her best book, and of her novels it definitely falls bottom-to-middle in my list of favourites but it was actually one of her most thought provoking for me personally. It falls in the middle of her career, and was succeeded by (arguably) two of her best books Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda – and that’s very clear for me when reading it.

So, if it wasn’t clear, while it was far from perfect, I can comfortably put it up there close, but not quite equalling, my two favourites – Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. I still want to re-read Middlemarch, because having read the rest of her works I do feel that that book will have a better impact on me. I will be doing a whole spotlight on my beloved George Eliot in the not so distant future, so if you’re interested, look out for that!

Review: Romola – George Eliot

019 - Romola

Rating – 3*

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know I adore George Eliot. This book, however, was a bit of a miss for me unfortunately.

Romola takes place in late 15th century Italy; Florence mainly. While Romola is the titular character of this book, as I have come to expect with Eliot’s work this book is much more of an ensemble piece and there’s so much more to it. Tito is, for me, definitely the main character – and an interesting, deep character he is! This book is an exploration of his character, how he descends in to morally ambiguous behaviour; Tito is truly one of the most well explored ‘villains’ in literature. Even though he was the bad guy, following his journey through this book to see him get to that point was complex, and on the whole enjoyable. I’m glad I read this book if only to ‘meet’ Tito.

On the other side of the coin we have Romola. Romola herself was disappointing for me, compared to Tito – who was portrayed in Technicolor –  she was very grey-scale.  I found myself getting frustrated; with characters like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss I knew that she was capable of creating a female protagonist who fights against societal norms. I thought, at points, we would see Romola rebel, but we didn’t. Instead she submits to Tito, endures his abhorrent behaviour. She feels like a caricature of Victorian virtue – and that frustrated me to no end. She didn’t feel fully formed, she felt very halfhearted and where there was a deep study of Tito, I don’t feel as a reader I ever got any insight in to Romola.

The scope of this novel is amazing, and the research that she must have put in to it is incredible. Italy came alive, and when reading this I did feel like it was a sunny afternoon on the continent. I felt like I was in 15th century Italy. And while this had all of the key things I adore about Eliot’s work; beautiful prose, locations that come alive, (on the whole) interesting characters, I felt a lot of it was lost on me. While I admire the amount of research that went in to this book, it often lost me or frustrated me. I can understand why she is thought to have said this was her best book, her favourite book – because it is incredible – but to enjoy it fully I think you have to be a 15th century scholar.

George Eliot is still my favourite 19th century female author. The woman can do no wrong in my eyes. However, this is definitely not a place to start with Victorian literature, George Eliot, or classics in general. It’s definitely a book which required patience, and a dedication that only someone who loves either the Victorian novel generally, or George Eliot more specifically, can get a modicum of enjoyment out of. That and maybe 15th century scholars.

So, yes, I liked this book. Not my favourite Eliot by far, but one I may revisit in the future!

Review: Adam Bede – George Eliot

25 - Adam Bede

Rating – 5*

Adam Bede was Eliot’s first published novel and that youth in her writing is tangible throughout. But like most debut novels, what it lacked in literary rigour, it made up for with passion in the writing. This was, I felt, a novel which the author put her heart in to and I really, really enjoyed it. The more I read of Eliot, the more I love her work, and I found it very difficult to find fault with this because I just love every word.

It has echoes of Far From the Madding Crowd in the start – maybe because it’s a quiet farming community – and pre-dates it by 20 years. For me, I preferred Eliot’s take on the quiet farming town life to Hardy’s, Eliot was a lot more brutal in plot and her characters were far superior. While Adam is the titular character of this novel, Hetty Sorrel is definitely equally as much of a main character, and the side characters are equally as rich and full of life – something which I have found a theme across all of the work of Eliot’s I have read so far.

The plot is quite sparse in the first half, it is instead full of life and the hustle and bustle of everyday village life. We follow the hard-working Adam, and he’s quite a dull man, but is diligent and, unfortunately for him, madly in love with the narcissistic Hetty – who is aware of his feelings but does not reciprocate. Hetty has longings for the finer things in life and desires to get away from the village; this is a common theme among books of the era and I imagine it was a (sadly) common theme in reality. Hetty was definitely the shining show of this book, even though intensely dislikeable in terms of how she treats Adam, I empathised with her and felt her pains, especially in the second half. If it wasn’t for the first half, where as a reader you build a relationship with the people of this village, that intense building of character made the second half hit me, as a reader, so much harder. I don’t want to spoil it, so I urge you to be patient if you decide to try this and work your way through the slow burn of character building in the first 300 or so pages.

One thing I’m noticing about Eliot’s work is her focus on religion – in Daniel Deronda she focused heavily on Judaism. In this book, she focuses in on the Methodist faith with the character of Dinah, and in part Adam’s brother Seth. I find the insights in to religion in different periods of history really interesting, and while some people found this book a little preachy I actually found it really interesting.

While not as enormous as Daniel Derdonda, or indeed Middlemarch, this book is nonetheless incredible for very different reasons. I find it hard to do anything but give a George Eliot book 5* now, I really do. So naturally, this was a 5* read. After a really pretty bad beginning with Middlemarch (which I must reread this Summer, after reading nearly all the rest of her work this year!) George Eliot has fast become one of my favourite authors of all time – and I intend to finish her bibliography this Summer and do a bit of a spotlight on her.

I leave you with parting words: do not judge this book by its cover because – frankly – this edition is hideous; just do not let that detract from what is inside.

Purchase this book on The Book Depository