Features / Fiction / In Their Own Words / Nonfiction

In Her Own Words: George Eliot

As this week’s feature by Rob Jacklosky reveals, George Eliot led a fascinating life, and produced a rich and lasting body of work. The following pieces of wit and provocation, taken from her novels and letters, reveal that work’s central concerns—the trials of youth and the wisdom of middle age; the truth and dimensions of human imperfection; and, above all, the obligations human beings have to one another—all treated in her characteristically dry, intelligent, compassionate style.

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“My own experience and development deepen every day my conviction that our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathise with individual suffering and individual joy.” —Letter to Charles Bray, 1857

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“It never will rain roses: when we want / To have more roses we must plant more trees.” —“The Spanish Gypsy” (1868)

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“Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us—whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” —The Mill on the Floss(1860)

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“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.” —The Mill on the Floss

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“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.” —Adam Bede (1859)

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“Certainly the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.” —Middlemarch

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“Retribution may come from any voice: the hardest, cruelest, most imbruted urchin at the street-corner can inflict it: surely help and pity are rarer things—more needful for the righteous to bestow.” —The Mill on the Floss

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“…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” —Middlemarch (1872)

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“My books are deeply serious things to me, and come out of all the painful discipline, all the most hardly-learnt lessons of my past life.” —Letter to François D’Albert Durade, 1859

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“The middle-aged, who have lived through their strongest emotions, but are yet in the time when memory is still half passionate and not merely contemplative, should surely be a sort of natural priesthood, whom life has disciplined and consecrated to be the refuge and rescue of early stumblers and victims of self-despair. Most of us, at some moment in our young lives, would have welcomed a priest of that natural order in any sort of canonicals or uncanonicals, but had to scramble upwards into all the difficulties of nineteen entirely without such aid.” —The Mill on the Floss

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“Unwonted circumstances may make us all rather unlike ourselves: there are conditions under which the most majestic person is obliged to sneeze, and our emotions are liable to be acted on in the same incongruous manner.” —Middlemarch

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“I am not sure that the greatest man of his age, if ever that solitary superlative existed, could escape unfavorable reflections of himself in various small mirrors; and even Milton, looking for his portrait in a spoon, must submit to have the facial angle of a bumpkin.” —Middlemarch

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“If the ethics of art do not admit the truthful presentation of a character essentially noble, but liable to great error—error that is anguish to its own nobleness—then, it seems to me, the ethics of art are too narrow, and must be widened to correspond with a widening psychology.” —Letter to John Blackwood, 1860

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“When I remember what have been the successes in fiction…I can hardly believe that the public will regard my pictures as exceptionally coarse. But in any case there are too many prolific writers who devote themselves to the production of pleasing pictures, to the exclusion of all disagreeable truths, for me to desire to add to their number.” —Letter to John Blackwood, 1857

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“Those who have known me best have always said, that if ever I loved any one thoroughly my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly.” —Letter to Herbert Spencer, 1852

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“The strongest principle of growth lies in the human choice.” —Daniel Deronda (1876)

Bloom Post End

Homepage image: Portrait by Francois D’Albert Durade (1850)

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