Blog # 180: On Seeing Middlemarch Behind To the Lighthouse

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, and George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter—the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek.

A Room of One’s Own

Beware! Today’s entry has almost Casauboned me with scholarly details and pedantic possibilities, and my “small hungry shivering self” feels singularly “scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.” Judge for yourself.

On Sunday, Jan 26, 1919, while beginning research for an essay about George Eliot, Virginia wrote to Lady Robert Cecil: “so far, I have only made way with her life, which is a book of the greatest fascination, and I can see already that no one else has ever known her as I know her.” While she quickly qualified this statement by adding “However, I always think this whatever I read—don’t you?” Virginia had every reason to feel that she possessed particular insight into George Eliot’s life and mind.

For one thing, Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, had known George Eliot and was an expert on George Eliot. Not only did he write about her in Hours in a Library, but he also wrote her DNB entry, and in 1902, two years before his death, he published George Eliot in the English Men of Letters series. This latter volume, which did much to restore Eliot’s waning reputation, included remarks such as “That the father was one model is undisputed; and one remark is suggested by the portrait, namely, that in spite of her learning and her philosophy, George Eliot is always preeminently feminine” and “they may possibly have dared to hope that she might develop into a Mrs. Chapone or Miss Carter–capable of writing letters ‘upon the improvement of the human mind,’ or possibly, in time, of translating Epictetus.” Virginia almost certainly drew on her father’s material–as well as letters between her father and Eliot–while writing her 1919 “George Eliot” essay; and though she must have bridled at the patronizing and sexist tone of some of her father’s observations, she also—as her A Room of One’s Own Carter remark indicates—absorbed and accepted many of his views about Eliot.

There were also strong biographical parallels between the two women. Education to start with. Beyond their early teens, both lacked formal academic education and were, with some tutoring support, largely self educated; Virginia benefiting from access to her father’s library, just as Eliot had benefited from liberal access to the Arbury Hall library. Like George Eliot, a 19 year old Virginia Woolf could easily have described her mind as “an assemblage of disjointed specimens of history, ancient and modern; scraps of poetry picked up from Shakespeare, Cowper, Wordsworth, and Milton; newspaper topics; morsels of Addison and Bacon, Latin verbs, geometry, entomology, and chemistry; Reviews and metaphysics–all arrested and petrified and smothered by the fast-thickening everyday accession of actual events, relative anxieties, and household cares and vexations.” In later life, both women felt and resented their lack of university education. Both also supported Girton College; Virginia by giving one of her A Room of One’s Own talks there in 1928 and George Eliot by making a donation of fifty pounds and, as Virginia was to note when reviewing Emily Davies and Girton College, by serving as an ethical consultant on the matter of whether or not young women should be allowed to wear men’s clothes when acting scenes from Shakespeare.

Virginia also knew George Eliot through parallels in family experience. Both were raised in blended families with older half siblings. Both lost their mothers when they were teenagers; George Eliot was 16 when her mother died and Virginia Woolf 15. Both had very close relationships with older sisters. Both were born to older fathers (Robert Evans 46 and Leslie Stephen 50), and both took on responsibilities for helping to look after their fathers, including nursing them through their final illness. Incidentally, yet significantly, both fathers were deeply passionate about Waverley, and both daughters read Waverley to their fathers. Of her father, Mary Ann Evans wrote: “What shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone. I had a horrid vision of myself last night becoming earthly sensual and devilish for want of that purifying restraining influence.” For her part, in 1928, reflecting on her father and on the writing of To the Lighthouse, Virginia wrote: “Father’s birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one has known; but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books–inconceivable.”

Both writers also suffered from occasional bouts of severe depression. Significantly, in her 1919 essay on Eliot, Virginia quoted from a letter by Caroline Bray which remarked on Mary Ann’s health: “Poor thing, I do pity her sometimes, with her pale sickly face and dreadful headaches, and anxiety, too, about her father.” Both women were liberated by the death of their fathers, and it was only after their fathers died that they were able to create independent lives. Both started their writing careers as reviewers and essayists. Both chose Bohemian lives. Both found partners relatively late by the standards of their day, partners who were socially marginalized by race or by life style. Their partners were also alike in that both were bright, stable, loving men, who provided intellectual and emotional encouragement and support, and who were proud and highly supportive of their partner’s writing careers.

Both writers published their first novel relatively late, Eliot when she was 40, Woolf when she was 33. Virginia showed herself to be very conscious of how late Eliot started her writing career when, writing to Madge Vaughan in June, 1906, she noted “And so perhaps I may get something better as I grow older. George Eliot was near 40 I think when she wrote her first novel—the Scenes.” Both, too, wrote novels which in which one of the central characters was closely modeled on the father, even if George Eliot did say of Adam Bede that “Adam is not my father any more than Dinah is my aunt.”

But why Middlemarch? Why always Middlemarch? In her 1919 essay on Eliot, an essay slightly revised and republished as part of The Common Reader in 1924, Virginia famously referred to Middlemarch as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” In a 1934 letter to George Ryland’s she also referred to it as “the first modern novel.” How and why did Middlemarch come to have such a hold over Virginia?

As well as Leslie Stephen’s 24 volume Cabinet edition of The Works of George Eliot (Blackwood, 1878-86), which contains Middlemarch in three volumes, Virginia Woolf had three editions of Middlemarch in her library: an 1871 four volume edition with the copies signed by her “Virginia Woolf,” a one volume 1891 edition, and a 1913 three volume edition inscribed “Virginia” with “ex Post Facto” written below the name. “Ex post facts” means something like “after the facts,” and usually applies to laws which have been retroactively changed. What the phrase would mean in a gift to Virginia is wildly conjectural. If the book was given to her in 1913, it might refer to her completing (though not yet publishing) The Voyage Out. If so, or if the book was given to her at a later date, particularly if that date was after the publication of To the Lighthouse, the inscription might be read to suggest that Virginia’s own writing changed how George Eliot was to be read. It would be, for Virginia Woolf obsessives like myself, interesting to know who gave this three volume edition to her, and perhaps one day a handwriting expert familiar with the writing of those close to Virginia will establish who the donor was.

Virginia’s copies of Middlemarch raise the interesting question of which edition Minta was reading. If Minta was reading a typical four volume edition, her leaving the third volume on the train would mean that she had only read up to, or a little beyond “Three Love Problems,” and her reading would have ended somewhere in the “The Dead Hand” or “The Widow and the Wife” chapters. If she was reading the 1913 edition, her reading would have ended somewhere in “The Widow and the Wife,” “Two Temptations,” and “Sunset and Sunrise.” The point is relatively trivial, yet all the same Minta’s possible end point may have had thematic relevance in Virginia’s mind. Thematic relevance or not, there is historical relevance in thinking about which edition Virginia had in mind. Also, if Virginia thought of Minta as reading the 1913 edition, the actions of the first section of To the Lighthouse can be dated to the summer of 1913 or 1914. Admittedly, such a dating presupposes a degree of realistic attention not at all compatible with realistic inconsistencies easily visible elsewhere in the novel, geographic and demographic inconsistencies for instance.

Scholarly, Casaubon type concerns aside, the importance of Middlemarch in To the Lighthouse seems to me to be four-fold. First, the presence of the book is an act of tribute, an acknowledgement of George Eliot’s importance to Virginia Woolf. George Eliot is someone on who’s grave we must lay “whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.” To the Lighthouse is such a laurel. Secondly, given the biographical aspect of To the Lighthouse, and Leslie Stephen’s deep interest in Eliot, it makes sense to connect Mr. Ramsay to Middlemarch. Thirdly, the leaving of Middlemarch on the train carries with it the idea that modernity, embodied in that train, is making aspects Middlemarch obsolete. For Minta, Middlemarch, with its examination of marriages and of the limited options open to idealistic young women, is no longer necessary. She will, as we see from the glimpse of her handing tools to Paul, be quite comfortable living in an open marriage. She will not feel the social pressures which Mary Ann Evans felt so painfully in living with George Henry Lewes.

Most importantly, the reference to Middlemarch challenges the reader to rethink To the Lighthouse against George Eliot’s novel, and to see that George Eliot is to Virginia Woolf as Fanny Burney was to Jane Austen, or Eliza Carter was to George Eliot. The ties between Eliot’s great novel and Woolf’s great novel are far stronger than the plots and the characters suggest. Virginia is doing much more than asking us to see Mr. Ramsay as a variant of Casaubon or Mrs. Ramsay as a Dorothea. Thoughts of Middlemarch challenge us to see Mrs. Ramsay, Lilly, and Cam as George Eliot heroines, heroines in whom “The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems…to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something—they scarcely know what—for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence.” By invoking Middlemarch, Virginia breaks open the tomb “that Mr. Cross built over her” and resurrects elements of Eliot’s “sensitive and profound mind” to be midwife for her own masterpiece.

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