Pause for thought: George Eliot

Eliot“I have talked of the Ilfracombe lanes without describing them, for to describe them one ought to know the names of all the lovely wild-flowers that cluster on their banks. Almost every yard of these banks is a ‘Hunt’ picture – a delicious crowding of mosses and delicate trefoil and wild strawberries and ferns great and small. But the crowning beauty of the lanes is the springs that gush out in little recesses by the side of the road – recesses glossy with liverwort and feathery with fern. Sometimes you have the spring when it has grown into a brook, either rushing down a miniature cataract by the lane-side, or flowing gently as a ‘braided streamlet’ across your path. I never before longed so much to know the names of things as during this visit to Ilfracombe. The desire is part of the tendency that is now constantly growing in me to escape from all vagueness and inaccuracy into the daylight of distinct, vivid ideas. The mere fact of naming an object tends to give definiteness to our conception of it. We have then a sign which at once calls up in our minds the distinctive qualities which mark out for us that particular object from all others.”

George Eliot’s Life, Vol. I. Ilfracombe Reflections, June 1856.

Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), better known as George Eliot, was one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She is the author of eight novels, including The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1871–72).

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

2 thoughts on “Pause for thought: George Eliot”

  1. Indulge me an anecdote, now that I have reached what I claim as my anecdotage.
    I studied George Eliot’s Romola as part a third year BA course on English prose at the University of Queensland in the 1970’s, when subjects were year long and there was time between tutes to spend hours in the refectory engaging in redundant but fun intellectual argument . The topic of the first essay in the course, (one of only two required across the year) was “Is Romola dead or alive?” Romola, as you know, is one of Eliot’s more intellectual novels. I was also studying bioethics at the time, so I began my essay by saying, “it all depends on whether one marks life by whether the heart is beating or the brain is sparking. If it’s the first, Romola is dead. If it’s the second, it’s very much alive.” I think I got a distinction for the essay, but it was the first time in the history of my developing intellect that I realised one could make connections across different fields of thought, and the first time I ran with those connections. To mix a metaphor, having found my intellectual wings, I flew into the second essay requiring an analysis of a chosen piece of literature, with an essay on “The literary philosophy of Charlie Brown,” which also got a distinction, as I recall. George Eliot taught me how to fly.

    1. George Eliot is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London (not far from Karl Marx). By chance I visited her grave while we were there this summer and I am in the process of reading her letters – which are very thoughtful and entertaining.

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