Eliot, George (Poetry Criticism)
George Eliot 1819–1880
(Pseudonym of Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans) English poet, novelist, essayist, editor, short story writer, and translator.
While George Eliot is remembered first and foremost for her insightful novels set in rural England, she also wrote several works of poetry, some of which have been compared favorably with the poems of her contemporary, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and even with Shakespeare's dramatic verse. Although considered inferior to her novels, Eliot's poetry shares with them the author's interest in moral and philosophical issues as well as her realistic and penetrating approach to character.
Eliot was raised in Warwickshire, England, by her strict Methodist family, whose views she accepted until she befriended the skeptical philosophers Charles Bray and Charles Hennell. Eliot's association with these two men caused her to challenge and eventually to reject the rigid religious principles of her upbringing. This questioning of values also inspired her first published work, a translation of Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) by the German religious philosopher D. F. Strauss. The incident caused a rift with her father, but they later reconciled and she lived with him until his death in 1849.
After her father's death, Eliot moved to London and became acquainted with John Chapman, who hired her as an assistant editor on the Westminster Review and introduced her to his literary circle. This group included the philosopher Herbert Spencer, through whom Eliot met the versatile writer and intellectual, George Henry Lewes. Although Lewes was married (he refused to divorce his estranged wife), the two openly lived together until Lewes's death in 1878, defying the strict moral code of the Victorian era. Lewes's influence on Eliot's writing was great: it was he who first encouraged her to write fiction, and he acted as intermediary between the pseudonymous "George Eliot" and her first publisher, Blackwood's Magazine. Lewes also sheltered her from adverse criticism of her works, censoring letters and reviews from periodicals. Extremely sensitive to negative reactions to her writing, Eliot removed herself from any controversy surrounding her work.
Eliot's critical acclaim occurred early in her career, and by the end of her life she was regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of her time. Although her reputation declined shortly after her death, her works have been the focus of renewed interest and respect since the late 1940s.
Like her novels, Eliot's poetry reflects a variety of influences: her rural English background and family life; her travels abroad (particularly to Spain); and her study of Jewish customs and religious beliefs.
Eliot's sonnet sequence, Brother and Sister, was based on affectionate memories of her childhood. Her first book of dramatic verse, The Spanish Gypsy, was influenced both by the works of the Romantic poet William Wordsworth and by Greek tragedy. Here, her aim was to find a "suitable set of historical and local conditions" with which to give this tragic poem "a clothing." The novelist Henry James praised The Spanish Gypsy for its "extraordinary rhetorical energy and elegance." Although the poem was ultimately considered flawed, the memorable characters of Zarca and Don Silva are often discussed in literary scholarship. "Armgart," thought to be the best poem from the collection The Legend of Jubai and Other Poems, has also been lauded for its understanding of the psychological aspect of human characters and their internal conflicts and desires. Like The Spanish Gypsy, "Armgart" is a dramatic poem. It has been described as capturing the personal and public divisions of the female artist as well as Eliot's personal concerns about the exposure of recognition. Taken as a whole, Eliot's poetry is thought to highlight her sensitivity to the sound of language and her preoccupation with the thematic concerns of religion and morality.
Eliot's poetry has generally been assessed as significantly inferior to her novels. In fact, scholars have speculated that Eliot ultimately abandoned writing poetry as a result of unenthusiastic critical reception. Yet while her poetic career is most often deemed a "failure," The Spanish Gypsy has been praised for its authentic presentation of the struggles of the Jewish "gypsy" in Spain. This poem is thought to be fertile ground for her later novel, Daniel Deronda. The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems is similarly considered a necessary step toward Eliot's later novels and essays. Thus, study of her poems today is often undertaken to achieve a better understanding of her novels and the poetic qualities of her prose style.
The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem 1868
Brother and Sister 1869
The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems 1874
Other Major Works
The Life of Jesus [translation] (essay) 1846
Scenes of Clerical Life (short stories) 1858
Adam Bede (novel) 1859
"The Lifted Veil" (short story) 1859
The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860
Silas Marner (novel) 1861
Romola (novel) 1863
"Brother Jacob" (short story) 1864
Felix Holt (novel) 1866
Middlemarch (novel) 1872
Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876
Impressions of Theophrastus Such (essays) 1879
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SOURCE: Review of The Spanish Gypsy, in The Nation: A Weekly Journal, Vol. VII, No. 157, July 2, 1868, pp. 12-14.
[In the following excerpt, the critic considers The Spanish Gypsy unsuccessful as a poem.]
[George Eliot is] one of the best of English writers; she is, incidentally to this, an excellent story-teller—a real novelist, in fact—and she is, finally, an elegant moralist. In her novels she had never struck us as possessing the poetic character. But at last, to-day, late in her career, she surprises the world with a long poem, which, if it fails materially to deepen our esteem for her remarkable talents, will certainly not diminish it. We should have read George Eliot to but little purpose if we could still suppose her capable of doing anything inconsiderable. Her mind is of that superior quality that impresses its distinction even upon works misbegotten and abortive. The Spanish Gypsy is certainly very far from being such a work; but to those who have read the author's novels attentively it will possess no further novelty than that of outward form. It exhibits the delightful qualities of Romola, The Mill on the Floss, and even Silas Marner, applied to a new order of objects, and in a new fashion; but it exhibits, to our perception, no new qualities. George Eliot could not possess the large and rich intellect which shines in her writings without being...
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SOURCE: A review of The Spanish Gypsy, in A Century of George Eliot Criticism, edited by Gordon S. Haight, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965, pp. 55-64.
[In the following review, which was originally published in The North American Review in October 1868, James comments on the inferiority of Eliot's poetry in comparison with her novels.]
I know not whether George Eliot has any enemies, nor why she should have any; but if perchance she has, I can imagine them to have hailed the announcement of a poem from her pen as a piece of particularly good news. "Now, finally," I fancy them saying, "this sadly overrated author will exhibit all the weakness that is in her; now she will prove herself what we have all along affirmed her to be,—not a serene, self-directing genius of the first order, knowing her powers and respecting them, and content to leave well enough alone, but a mere showy rhetorician, possessed and prompted, not by the humble spirit of truth, but by an insatiable longing for applause." Suppose Mr. Tennyson were to come out with a novel, or Madame George Sand were to produce a tragedy in French alexandrines. The reader will agree with me, that these are hard suppositions; yet the world has seen stranger things, and been reconciled to them. Nevertheless, with the best possible will toward our illustrious novelist, it is easy to put ourselves in the shoes of these hypothetical detractors....
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SOURCE: Review of The Spanish Gypsy, in London Quarterly Review, Vol. 31, No. LXI, 1868, pp. 160-88.
[In the following assessment of The Spanish Gypsy, the reviewer argues that the poem "must be considered rather as a highly poetic work elaborated in the prose method, than as a production strictly poetical in all respects."]
Hitherto she has kept just on the verge of verse, at the extreme pitch of poetry in prose; and this is, perhaps, one of her greatest merits in workmanship. In writing high-toned and intensely-poetic prose, a besetting difficulty is to avoid breaking into rhythm. To one with a thorough command of language, the mere transit from prose to blank verse would present no difficulty whatever, and would often be a great relief; but the great feat, when under the excitement of working prose artistically, is to keep it thoroughly true to prose principles; and, at the same time, it is absolutely essential that no effort be betrayed in keeping prose prose. Still, George Eliot has done this; and the grand outline and features of her art show nowhere any distortion of struggle or hard repression. At length, however, the rhythmic impulse has got the upper hand, and we have a work from George Eliot in verse….
Without entering upon a discussion of the minutia of morality involved in this story, we may remark that the philosophical resources of the plot are made...
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Review of The Legend of Jubal and other Poems, in The Spectator, Vol. 47, No. 2395, May 23, 1874, pp. 660-61.
[In the excerpt below, the critic contends that the majority of poems in Eliot's collection The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems, though eloquent, lack imagination.]
[Certainly] it is an even greater transposition from one to another province of the realm of Art, which our great novelist has experienced in writing these poems. Verse supplies her with a fresh, unhackneyed material in which to shape her more delicate conceptions, and lends to it the special fascinations proper to the new mould. The volume is, of course, a study in itself, if only because it shows where the great novelist seemed to feel most the need for recourse to poetry, and the kind of poetry to which, under these circumstances, she has recourse,—and this we could hardly have learnt from a long poem like The Spanish Gipsy, where she was committed to the poetic form throughout the story. Nevertheless, one feels in reading the volume that remarkable as these poems would be from any unknown hand, they are not the most impressive, though they may be the most characteristic expressions of the great mind that produced them,—nay, that they are only in one sense even the most characteristic, namely, in Mr. Browning's sense, that their author here deliberately prefers, instead of blowing "thro' brass," "to...
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SOURCE: "George Eliot's Poetry," in George Eliot's Poetry and Other Studies, Funk and Wagnalls, 1885, pp. 9-23.
[In the following excerpt, Cleveland contends that Eliot's verses lack the lyricism and vision which, she argues, are marks of genuine poetry.]
I come at once to the consideration of George Eliot's verse in the mention of two qualities which it seems to me to lack, and which I hold to be essentials of poetry.
The first of these two qualities has to do with form, and is a property, if not the whole, of the outside, that which affects and (if anything could do this) stops with the senses. Yet here, as elsewhere in this department of criticism, it is diffcult to be exact. I ask myself, Is it her prosody? and am obliged to find it faultless as Pope's. There is never in her metres a syllable too much or too little. Mrs. Browning's metre is often slovenly, her rhymes are often false. Yet, explain it who will, Elizabeth Browning's verse has always poetry and music, which George Eliot's lacks.
What was work to write is work to read. Ruskin's dictum—"No great intellectual thing was ever done by great effort"—I suspect to be wholly true, and that it is pre-eminently true in the production of poetry. Poetry must be the natural manner of the poet, and can never be assumed. I do not mean by this to ignore the aids which study gives to genius; I only mean to say that...
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SOURCE: "George Eliot in the 1860's," in Victorian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, December, 1961, pp. 93-108.
[In the following excerpt, Allott argues that Eliot's fascination with Greek tragedy is reflected in her poem The Spanish Gypsy.]
George Eliot's imagination … is from the first most at home in a region where the sense of tragic entanglement is acute and her "meliorism"—her philosophy of moral betterment—faces its stiffest challenge. By the mid-1860's she was sufficiently familiar with her own methods to recognise that the tragic mode was the one which came most naturally to her. "It is my way (rather too much so perhaps) to urge the human sanctities through tragedy," she wrote during the summer of 1866, when she was brooding over her unfinished tragic drama, The Spanish Gypsy. It was sometime during this period that she put together her "Notes on The Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General," a short essay which provides a valuable guide to her thoughts and feelings during these years.
She explains in this document that the original inspiration for her poem came from an Annunciation seen in the Scuola di San Rocco at Venice. This was probably in June 1860, and it seems appropriate that she should open this decade by finding even in so familiar a theme—she "had seen numerous pictures of this subject before"—-still further evidence of the intransigence of the...
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SOURCE: "Byronic Egoism and George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy," in Neophilologus, Vol. LVII, No. 4, October, 1973, pp. 388-400.
[In the following excerpt, Newton asserts that Don Silva, a rebellious character in Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy, is a strong example of a Byronic egoist.]
Though almost all critics of George Eliot have recognized her concern with egoism, she is not generally considered among those nineteenth-century writers who were interested in the Byronic egoist, the character who had emerged from Gothic literature and the Sturm und Drang and who came to the greatest prominence in the works of Byron. This figure played an important part in nineteenth-century literature and was used by numerous writers to signify revolt or egoistic aspiration. Perhaps the fundamental attribute of the Byronic egoist is that he refuses to recognize any external source of authority which can define him. He either defies all sources of authority which try to assert their superiority over the self, like Byron's Manfred, or else he thinks he can create his own values by an act of will quite independently of all generally accepted moral sanctions. A reading of the novels alone might suggest that George Eliot was not greatly interested in Byronic egoism, though there are several characters who possess some Byronic attributes, notably the Princess Halm-Eberstein in Daniel Deronda. But Byronic...
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SOURCE: "The Lifted Veil,' Romola and The Spanish Gypsy" in George Eliot and Judaism, Universität Salzburg, 1975, pp. 81-116.
[In the following excerpt, Baker considers the sources of Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy.]
Romola… provides evidence of the development of George Eliot's Jewish interests and knowledge of history, and her increasing readiness by comparison with "The Lifted Veil" to put them to fictional use. Her dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy on which she began work in 1864, … a year after finishing her Italian novel, shows these developments at a further stage, and, in addition, provides further evidence of a thorough pre-occupation with values and desires which are to find their fictional fruition in Daniel Deronda. An examination of the sources of the poem helps in an assessment of George Eliot's Jewish knowledge after 1864, illuminates it, and provides background material for a discussion of her last novel.
The philosophical and moral basis of the poem have not gone unnoticed. G. W. Cooke in his George Eliot: A Critical Study of her Life, Writings and Philosophy (1883) writes that George Eliot's "faith in tradition, as giving the basis of all our best life, is perhaps nowhere so expressively set forth … as in The Spanish Gypsy." He points to the works of Comte as an important source for George Eliot's ideas and believes that...
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SOURCE: " Armgart—George Eliot on the Woman Artist," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 75-80.
[In the following excerpt, Blake argues that the poem "Armgart" centers around the conflict between love and art that exists for female artists.]
A more indefatigable and psychologically adept husband-therapist of a woman's creative drive than George Henry Lewes cannot be imagined. George Eliot dedicated her Legend of Jubai and Other Poems (1871) "To my beloved Husband, George Henry Lewes, whose cherishing tenderness for twenty years has alone made my work possible to me." And yet Jubal contains the dramatic poem "Armgart," which like Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda (1871-72, 1876) poses the incompatibility of love and art for the artist who is a woman….
"Armgart" is … very divided about the female artist who is "not a loving woman." The poem is quite resolute in supporting Armgart against the threats posed by men and motherhood, but it introduces another version of the conflict of love and art for a woman, one even more foundering, and fascinating.
"Armgart" is a dramatic poem that Henry James thought the best of the four long poems in the Jubal collection but that, like the rest of Eliot's verse, is almost completely unrecognized by criticism. As James says, it is difficult not to overrate or underrate the...
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SOURCE: "George Eliot and Wordsworth: The Power of Sound and the Power of Mind," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 20, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 675-94.
[In the following excerpt, Mann examines the importance of Wordsworth's influence on George Eliot's poem "The Legend of Jubal, " and shows that both writers consider sound a powerful metaphor for the human imagination.]
George Eliot's appreciation for Wordsworth's poetry extends from her earliest evangelical years to the end of her life; and the simplified Wordsworth of nature and rural goodness has often been recognized as an influence upon her work. What is perhaps less noticed is the degree, to which Wordsworth and George Eliot share a similar conception of imagination as the crucial faculty of mind…. [The] Romantic conception of imagination as the central faculty of mind is not so much negated by George Eliot as re-examined in the light of a different aesthetic form, with its own, new perception of the importance of imagination. Wordsworth is the figure who is most important for George Eliot here, although sufficient evidence of the influence of Coleridge and Shelley is apparent. After a general discussion of the similarities between Wordsworth and George Eliot concerning the nature and results of "the power of mind," I will indicate how a single, dominant metaphor for that power—sound—is transferred by George Eliot from the work of the...
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SOURCE: "The Spanish Gypsy and Other Poems," in A George Eliot Companion, Barnes and Noble, 1981, pp. 166-78.
[In the following excerpt, Pinion closely examines The Spanish Gypsy as well as individual verses in The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems, observing that while much of Eliot's poetry is flawed, there are also those poems which display deep feeling and dramatic power.]
George Eliot's notes on The Spanish Gypsy stress the 'irreparable collision between the individual and the general' in tragedy. For Mrs Transome the 'general' is moral tradition; for Maggie Tulliver it is a conjunction of moral tradition, hereditary nature, and loyalties; with Fedalma and Don Silva it turns on hereditary obligations. 'Silva presents the tragedy of entire rebellion: Fedalma of a grand submission, which is rendered vain by the effects of Silva's rebellion', George Eliot writes. Although she finds tragedy in Zarca's 'struggle for a great end, rendered vain by the surrounding conditions of life', it makes little dramatic impact on the reader; he is an inspiring and intractable power which Fedalma finds irresistible in his presence, but which she can hardly sustain when he is dead. Yet, in conjunction with symbolism, the struggle between the individual and the general creates the most dramatic tragic scene in the whole work. Fedalma, whose gipsy instinct makes her yearn for the open air and...
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SOURCE: "The Madonna and The Gypsy," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 44-54.
[In the following excerpt, Neufeldt compares The Spanish Gypsy with several of Eliot's novels in order to trace the emotional and spiritual progression of Eliot's heroines.]
It has been suggested that Romola marked a turning point in Eliot's development as a novelist. And indeed, Cross later recalled his wife's telling him that "the writing of Romola ploughed into her more than the writing of any of her other books. She told me she could put her finger on it as marking a well-defined transition in her life. In her own words, 'I began it as a young woman—I finished it an old woman'" [George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, ed. by J. W. Cross, 1885]. I would argue, however, that in at least one respect her next work, The Spanish Gypsy marked an equally significant turning point for Eliot. Romola ends with the heroine finding fulfillment in the role of a Madonna; Middlemarch ends with a would-be Madonna finding fulfillment as a wife and mother. In between Eliot depicts a heroine, variously denominated as angel, goddess, and priestess, who finds only frustration and futility. The progression denotes Eliot's growing realization that the claims of public duty and responsibility must not be satisfied at the expense of personal...
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SOURCE: "A Brief Glance at George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 184-90.
[In the following excerpt, Marks argues that Eliot's novels and her poem The Spanish Gypsy explore similar themes and delineate similar characters.]
In a footnote to their discussion of George Eliot, the authors of A Literary History of England observe that her long dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy "to which she devoted only too much labor and learning, has sunk out of sight under its own weight." Another modern critic called it "a long-winded narrative in pedestrian blank verse about the destiny of the gypsy race during the Moorish struggles in Spain, [which] now seems virtually unreadable." Yet The Spanish Gypsy appears less of an oddity when viewed in the context of George Eliot's total canon, particularly when we see its kinship to the themes, situations, and characters found in the novels, where most of the scholarly attention has been directed….
In its time, The Spanish Gypsy was successful. The reviews were not unfavorable and several editions were published, including one in the United States; by 1878, Eliot had earned £1000 from its sales. It is difficult to account for the lack of popularity of the poem today. One possible reason is that it is a hybrid work which does not successfully blend the...
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SOURCE: "Art and Egoism in George Eliot's Poetry," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 22, No. 3, Autumn, 1984, pp. 263-78.
[In the following excerpt, Lisle argues that while Eliot's poems are flawed, they are nevertheless worth pursuing as avenues to understanding George Eliot and her novels.]
One of the greatest English novelists, George Eliot remains at best a second-rate poet. That the poems are so pedestrain, in fact, may tempt us to overlook their real importance. George Eliot insisted that "every one … represents an idea which I care for strongly and wish to propagate as far as I can. Else I should forbid myself from adding to the mountainous heap of poetical collections" [The George Eliot Letters, 1954-78]. Whatever their dubious merits as verse, the poems embody "ideas" that afford us insight into the writer and her fiction.
George Eliot's poetry can help us particularly to understand her troublesome insistence on marriage as the only happy ending available to her heroines. Perhaps the most obvious alternative to the "home epic" is the one George Eliot herself chose—the life of the artist. Art offers the ardent spirit a way of connecting with others, of transcending the limitations and obscurity of domesticity, yet the novelist refuses to allow her heroines this privilege. For all their passionate sensibility, women like Dorothea Brooke and Maggie Tulliver possess no artistic...
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SOURCE: '"Where No Man Praised': The Retreat from Fame in George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 55-74.
[In the following-essay, Krasner explores the personal costs of "exposure" as defined in George Eliot's poetry.]
As she was completing her long dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy, George Eliot responded to an inquiring publisher by drawing attention to the difference between this work and her novels:
The book I am writing is not a novel, and is likely to be dead against the taste of that large public which a publisher is for the most part obliged (rather unhappily) to take into account [The George Eliot Letters, 1955].
While it seems rather self-defeating for an author to warn a publisher that her new work will never sell, it is typical of George Eliot's attempt, at this point in her career, to distance herself from the fame and publicity surrounding her literary success. Much of George Eliot's poetry deals with the tension between fame and artistry, and The Spanish Gypsy offers a particularly trenchant portrayal of her attempt to absolve herself of the guilt she associated with public exposure. In the character of Fedalma, George Eliot offers us a public heroine who deplores publicity, a celebrated artist who retreats from her celebrity, and a...
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SOURCE: "Writing Spanish History: The Inquisition and 'the Secret Race'," in Figures of Conversion: "The Jewish Question" and English National Identity, Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 127-73.
[In the following excerpt, Ragussis explores the idea of woman as the daughter, or preserver, of a race, and the historical implications of Jewish culture in Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy.]
Fedalma in George Eliot's The Spanish Gypsy is a portrait of the heroism of the female heart. The entire project of The Spanish Gypsy was framed from the beginning by an attempt to understand in what ways the genre of tragedy could function as a category of the feminine—that is, as a representation of a specifically female action. The project began with Eliot's meditation on a painting of the Annunciation, as she records in her "Notes on the Spanish Gypsy and Tragedy in General":
It occurred to me that here was a great dramatic motive of the same class as those used by the Greek dramatists, yet specifically differing from them. A young maiden, believing herself to be on the eve of the chief event of her life—marriage—about to share in the ordinary lot of womanhood, full of young hope, has suddenly announced to her that she is chosen to fulfil a great destiny, entailing a terribly different experience from that of ordinary womanhood. She is chosen, not by any momentary...
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Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. London: Clarendon Press, 1968, 616 p.
Regarded by many as the definitive biography of Eliot.
May, J. Lewis. George Eliot. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1930, 359 p.
Early biography of Eliot which aims to revive interest in the author and her works.
Redinger, Ruby V. George Eliot: The Emergent Self. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, 540 p.
Approaches Eliot's life and work from a psychoanalytical point of view.
Bloom, Harold, ed. George Eliot. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, 260 p.
Collection of essays on Eliot's novels by well-known critics such as F. R. Leavis, Dorothy Van Ghent, Barbara Hardy, and J. Hillis Miller.
Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985, 163 p.
Brief overview of Eliot's life, followed by analyses of the themes and aesthetics which dominate her work, particularly her novels.
Godwin, Gail. "Would We Have Heard of Marian Evans?" Ms. 3, No. 3 (September 1974): 72-5....
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