1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse
George Eliot, Middlemarch
George Eliot framed Middlemarch as an inquiry into the determining effect of "the conditions of an imperfect social state" upon the individual's nature and potential. She went on, in an oft-quoted passage, to explain her novelistic practice to be a consequence of historical change:
A great historian, as he insisted on calling himself, who had the happiness to be dead a hundred and twenty years ago, and so to take his place among the colossi whose huge legs our living pettiness is observed to walk under, glories in his copious remarks and digressions as the least imitable part of his work, and especially in those initial chapters to the successive books of his history, where he seems to bring his arm-chair to the proscenium and chat with us in all the lusty ease of his fine English. But Fielding lived when days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evenings. We belated historians must not linger after his example; and if we did so, it is probable that our chat would be thin and eager, as if delivered from a camp-stool in a parrot-house. I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, 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.
Eliot's "particular web" is less an adequate description of her literary method than it is a defense of her right, as a "belated historian," to revolutionize her method. Contrary to her assertion, Eliot does disperse her light "over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe." For all the self-deprecatory language of contraction and diminution, Eliot assumes an authority equal to Fielding's. She can do so because, as she forcibly asserts, her universe is not Fielding's; the times demand different spatial, chronological, and economic measures. Thus it is history that Eliot calls upon to prove that she need not parrot Fielding to follow Fielding. It is history that enables her to rival his novelistic practice by altering the form of the novel. Similarly, in painting in mocking strokes the portrait of a colossal, patriarchal Fielding presiding over Tom Jones, Eliot asserts her right as a "belated historian" to revolutionize the novel's content. The domestic life of Dorothea Brooke, an obscure, would-be St. Theresa, contains more of import to Eliot's historical moment than the misadventures of Fielding's well-intentioned but irresponsible young man.