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George Eliot and Thomas Hardy

From: fiveowls  (Original Message) Sent: 11/03/2008 18:08
What do readers think and feel about the novels of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy?

I have read a number of Hardy’s novels and, generally, have been gripped by them although sometimes finding his manipulation of the central characters a little too controlling. His frequent theme of mis-matched marriages and potentially enriching liaisons which prove circumstantially elusive can sometimes seem formulaic. I say this without detracting from my view that he is a very fine novelist, not least in Tess of the D’Urbevilles, Far From the Madding Crowd and Jude the Obscure.

How does Eliot compare to Hardy? I was first introduced to Eliot at school where I found Silas Marner quite a chore and, as a teenage boy, was not gripped by the characters or story. About fifteen years ago I read Middlemarch and was completely transfixed and just before Christmas I finished The Mill on the Floss and found it, on the whole, a most satisfying read.

One of the spin-offs of this last read, reinforced by The Big Readers’ Cup, is my plan to have an Eliotfest this year, re-reading Middlemarch, reading Daniel Deronda and, perhaps, re-engaging with Silas Marner.

I am just finishing Adam Bede and declare myself an Eliot addict. I frequently found myself comparing this book with Tess, in terms of the deeply rural setting, the finely drawn village characters, the exploitation of a country girl by the local gentry and a central character, in this case Adam Bede, who shines out through every adversity.

Let’s debate these two extraordinarily talented writer

From: HeHireDramaticJet Sent: 11/03/2008 19:25
Hello fiveowls,

I must admit that when I saw the title of your thread, my first reaction was "surely he means Laurel, not Eliot!" And it took a few seconds to realise you meant the authors!

I have posted here before on the very ambivalent feelings I have for Hardy. There are times when I find myself breathless with excitement and admiration: at other times, I find myself shaking my head and thinking this won't do. At the opening of The Return of the Native, for instance, we have the most wonderful evocative prose: the landscape takes on a personality of its own. And yet, only a few chapters later, we have some of the most aeful, turgid prose that can be imagined, overloaded at every turn with Biblical and classical allusions. And it's hard to believe that the same writer wrote both - within just a few pages of each other.

Often, Hardy could be heavy-handed, rubbing in points that have already been made. Perhaps the worst instance of this occurs in what I think of as his greatest novel - Jude the Obscure (although Tess of the d'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge are also strong contenders). The eldest son is clearly entally disturbed, but instead of depicting him in a realistic manner, Hardy calls him Old Father Time, and places on him a symbolic burden that the character just isn't strong enough to bear. And the lad is saddled with lines like these:

"I should like flowers very much, if I didn't keep on thinking they'd be all withered in a few days!"

As I mentioned in the Big Readers Cup thread, the other children merely exist as plot devices, and nothing more: they certainly aren't characterised.

And yet, few writers could evoke landscape as well as Hardy, and given it a character of it sown: the landscape is far more than merely a setting. Hardy also had a very strong grasp of the economic and social realities that shape peoples' lives - his novels are always set in a clearly defined economic and social landscape. He was aware also of the changes in these matters, and of how human lives are affected by them. And certainly the major characters, at least, are presented with a great depth and understanding. It is noticeable how readers tend to identify personally with so many of Hardy's protagonists.

My main problem with Hardy is his plotting, which is often very creaky, often relying on outrageous coincidence or on contrived misunderstandings. The plot wouldn't noramally matter so much, but in Hardy's case, I think it does, because he spends such a long time exlaining the mechanics of it. And when the tragedy ensues as a consequence of these contrivances, I get the impression not so much of these characters being the playthings of Fate or as helpless creatures in an indifferent universe, but merely as people who had bad luck. I'm sure this wouldn't matter much if I personally felt closer to Hardy, but I don't, on the whole, think I do. At best, he is an author I admire from a distance. And of all that I have read by Hardy, what I have liked best is the last section of Jude the Obscure - that depiction of what happens after that notorious scene. For that notorious scene is not the climactic point of the novel, as it could so easily have been in lesser hands: the climax occurs in the way the tragedy affects Jude and Sue. Sue's rejection of conventional morality had been comparatively superficial, and she returns to a sickly religiosity: but Jude's rejection was profound, and his tragedy is that he can't return to the solace religion has to offer. That scene in which Jude, raging with fever, trudges through the rain to see Sue for one last time, even though he knows that Sue is no longer in any state to respond to him properly, is one of the most vivid and powerful things I have read in any novel.

And yet, for all that, I do wish he had been less heavy-handed in his characterisation of the eldest child; and I wish also that he could have made something more of the other children than merely plot devices.

George Eliot's writing is more understated. I have only read four of her novels - Silas Marner (which I thought was slight, but charming); The Mill on the Floss, which I thought was wonderful till the closing section, where it seemed to go off the rails; Middlemarch, which I think is an unqualified masterpiece; and Daniel Deronda, which left me puzzled.

Daniel Deronda has two main strands. There's a strand involving Gwendolen Harleth, and her unhappy marriage. This strand is absolutely wonderful. It clearly was an influence on Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and the insights at every turn mark out a novelist of the first rank. The seciond strand concerns Daniel, his growing awareness of his Jewish identity, and his commitment to the cause of a Jewish homeland. This strand is dreadful. That's not a comment on the politics of it - but on the poor characterisation, the lack of either internal or of external conflict (as a consequence of which there's no real drama), and the endless repetition. Eliot had a wonderful opportunity here of depicting the London Jewish community of this era, and I came away with no real picture of it at all. If only a surgical operation could be done on this novel!

Middlemarch is a profound and subtle novel, and one I think I need to read again to get a better measure of it. Its principal theme seems to me that of the disappointment of life. The characters don't rage on the heath, as in Hardy's more tragic vision: they go on living with it, making the best of what there is.

I recently read an essay by Lucy Newlyn on Wordsworth's The Prelude (it's in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth), and at one point she compares a passage from The Prelude with one from Middlemarch, commenting on the parallels between these two remarkable works. here is the passage from The Prelude (1805 text, IV, 330-45):

The morning was, a memorable pomp,
More glorious than ever I had beheld.
The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and on the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn -
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And labourers going forth into the fields.
Ah, need I say, dear Friend, that to the brim
My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me: bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be - else sinning greatly -
A dedicated spirit. On I walked
In blessedness, which even yet remains.

This is what Wordsworth called a "spot in time" - what Joyce was later to call an "epiphany" - a moment that seems to reveal more than is merely obvious on the surface. Lucy Newlyn comments on the diction, which slips from Miltonic grandeur to the everyday as the eye moves from the mountains in the distance to the human figures in the foreground. And we get the first end-stopped line after the prosaic "and labourers going forth into the fields".

She compares this to a passage in Middlemarch where Dorothea Brooke is beginning to gain an understanding of her place in the greater world, of how modest it is really is:

She opened her curtains, and looked out toward the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving - perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was a pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

Here, the mind's journey is in the other direction: where Wordsworth's had climbed down from the mountains to the human figures, Dorothea's climbs up from the human figures to the "bending sky" (Wordsworth would have loved that phrase!) as, in both cases, the siginificance of human presence in the context of the world's natural grandeur and of the spectator's place in the greater scheme of things, are realised, and absorbed.

I can't say much more about this without reproducing Lucy Newlyn's entire essay here, but having reading that essay I feel that I need to re-read both works in conjunction (if "conjunction" is the word I'm looking for, which I doubt ... at any ratem read them one after the other, and be aware of the many parallels between them).

On the whole, Eliot's understated account of discovery one's place in the greater scheme of things, and the melancholy acceptance of this, I find more to my taste than Hardy's tragic rages on Egdon Heath.

From:  fiveowls Sent: 11/03/2008 21:24
Thank you for that, Himadri. Yes, a thread on Laurel and Hardy might have been a more timely and lighter thread in the face of our discussions in the closing stages of the Big Readers' Cup.

I found your reflections on aspects of Hardy's writing and on the delectable understatements in Eliot clarifying. I particularly appreciate the similarity and dissimilarity between Lucy Newlyn's extracts from The Prelude and Middlemarch. I can't wait to re-read the latter.

From: RaunchyduckySent: 24/04/2008 20:18
As a result of some poor scheduling and a lack of knowledge of bus timetables I found myself an hour early for an appointment at Goodison Park in Liverpool yeaterday afternoon and to try and kill some time I chose to take a stroll by the lake in Stanley Park and enjoy the alarmingly good weather we have been having recently. Finding a suitably clean bench I took a seat and decided to pass the time in finishing off a re-read of Jude the obscure. I don't know why but after I read under the greenwood tree a few years ago I was put off Hardy to a large extent and it's only recently that I have decided to try and read through his major novels again. I had forgotten just how amazing Hardy's descriptive passages really are. Like others I do get angered by Hardy's fortunate twists of fate at key points in the novel (The same thing that still irks me about Jane Eyre as a matter-of-fact). Anyway sitting under the trees with the sun shining and the lake beside me was just the absolute perfect way to spend an afternoon (So much so I almost missed my appointment), all I needed was Vaughan-Williams pastoral symphonies and a pint of ale at my side to complete the experience.
I know a lot of people dislike Hardy but I find for a quintessentially English novel revelling in the natural beauty of our green and pleasant land there really is no other writer to rival Hardy and his beautiful evocative descriptions of the verdant beauty of England in summer.

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