A little while ago I manage to acquire the last four years worth of In Our Time, a Radio 4 panel discussion that covers every subject under the sun in a very engaging and thoughtful manner. I’ve been working my way through the archives, usually alternating between topics that sound interesting (e.g. Agincourt, Tea) and those that don’t (e.g. Rutherford, Architecture and Power). I do this out of some bizarre autodidactic desire to learn about stuff that I really don’t care about but probably should know the basics on.
Today I had one of those ‘uninteresting’ topics that I felt I should listen to: Victorian Realism. I have to say, topics don’t sound much more uninteresting than that. But here’s the predictable twist – I really enjoyed it. This was partly because the panelists were all interesting and disagreed with one another (which, depressingly, happens far more often on humanities than scientific topics), but mostly because of George Eliot, whom I have never read before.
A. N. Wilson made the interesting point that George Eliot’s ‘realistic’ novels are “every bit as artificial as the novels of Dickens, or for that matter, every bit as artificial as Alice in Wonderland. This is the paradox of talking about realistic fiction, which is by definition, fiction isn’t real.” Prof. Philip Davis then carried this forward with a very powerful passage:
But this artifice is used as a means of trying to penetrate deeper into reality than we normally manage to do, and that’s why the realist novel is a great help to us in doing our thinking. Let’s think about the voice of George Eliot in Middlemarch. She says this:
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
All ordinary human life – we can’t fully hear it. We can’t fully see it. We’re in it, but we can’t get hold of it. We need the novel to increase our realisation of our situation, and when George Eliot says, if we could fully understand all human life, not only would it be boring, but it would blow our minds. We’d die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. By that I take it she means, if you as you look at your neighbour and could actually hear all the stuff going on inside him or her, it would be incredible.
Despite the fact that I was in the middle of a long row at the gym, it struck me as a very profound insight into human life. I don’t hear them very often at all.
Being forced to read semi-realist novels at school banished any possibility of my exploring the genre of my own will, but I may have to now. I also didn’t know that George Eliot was a fan of Darwin, and that Middlemarch was influenced by it, but that’s another story.