George Eliot on Writing and Narrative via Middlemarch, Illustrated

George Eliot Illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

George Eliot’s Middlemarch could have been about anything. At least, judging from the omniscient narration, Eliot could have told a story about anything, anywhere, at any time in the universe. As a blurb on the Shmoop website points out, “The narrator of Middlemarch doesn’t just know everything about everybody in the novel … she seems to know everything about everybody, ever.”

Nathan Gelgud George Eliot Illustration

Last week, to mark Eliot’s birthday, my editor at Signature had a copy of Middlemarch sent my way in hopes of finding some inspiration for some drawings about Eliot and her work. Although the narrative voice is distinctive, scouring Middlemarch for quotable digressions isn’t the easiest thing. The style of Middlemarch is vast, but it isn’t bloated with too much third-person philosophizing, always propelled by its characters’ actions and dialogue. And when that omniscient voice does make itself known, it often takes the form of first-person commentary: “I am sorry to add that she was sobbing bitterly,” “I will not dwell on Naumann’s jokes at the expense of Mr. Casaubon.”

The back of my copy of Middlemarch describes it as an “epic in a small landscape,” and this hints at one of the motifs in the narration. While the narrator regularly points out the quotidian nature of the story being told, the voice seems to come from somewhere in the cosmos. At times, it’s almost funny, as Eliot has the narrator almost exhausted by the duty to filter out all of the information that could be filling the book: “I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots … that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”