Why I Read Fiction or “George Eliot’s Done It Again!”


Carnforth, England

I had some difficulty finding the books I wanted to read at the library today, so I picked up Felix Holt: The Radical. I hadn’t gotten to it yet. I think most of us can recognize that feeling of homecoming but at the same time of unfamiliarity–like in a dream when we talk to a family member whose face has somehow changed–when we return to a favorite author. And most of my readers will remember that since age nineteen I have been in a relationship with George Eliot–and it’s not complicated.

Having read George Eliot’s preface, I’m feelings things that I usually only feel at the last page of a Hemingway novel. It’s the sensation of being arrested more than jarred. Not of being shaken but of being woken up. The light was turned on. The music was silenced.

Here are the concluding paragraphs to the preface of Felix Holt, coming at the end of a beautiful narration of a man’s journey northward by coach across the unfolding landscape (topographical, political, and religious) of an England whose culture (for better and for worse) has all but disappeared, where I imagine the narrator has just lifted her pen before setting it down to chart the most political of all landscapes–the human heart.

There is much pain that is quite noiseless; and vibrations that make human agonies are often a mere whisper in the roar of hurrying existence. There are glances of hatred that stab and raise no cry of murder; robberies that leave man or woman for ever beggared of peace and joy, yet kept secret by the sufferer — committed to no sound except that of low moans in the night, seen in no writing except that made on the face by the slow months of suppressed anguish and early morning tears. Many an inherited sorrow that has marred a life has been breathed into no human ear.
And then she keeps going:

The poets have told us of a dolorous enchanted forest in the under world. The thorn-bushes there, and the thick-barked stems, have human histories hidden in them; the power of unuttered cries dwells in the passionless-seeming branches, and the red warm blood is darkly feeding the quivering nerves of a sleepless memory that watches through all dreams. These things are a parable.

I’m almost too terrified to turn the page.