A book review of a book reviewer

Silly Novels by Lady Novelists
by George Eliot

This is another collection of essays from the excellent Penguin Great Ideas series. It has one of the series’ prettier covers, but is also the volume I have liked the least, so far.

I was disappointed to find no information in the edition about the origin of these essays, but a little internet research revealed that the titular essay (which you can read in full here) was published in October 1856 in the Westminster Review, which Eliot helped to edit before becoming a novelist. It seems likely that the other essays in this collection, mostly book reviews, are also from that journal. In fact, Wikipedia calls “Silly novels by lady novelists” Eliot’s manifesto that she set out for herself before she started to write her first novel.

But what are the essays like? Well…personally I found them a little harsh and not all that clearly written. There are a few instances where she appears to contradict herself but I think the actual problem might be a lack of editing. Which is a shame because she has some good, intelligent points to make.

Bearing in mind that these essays were most likely published under her real name, “Marian Evans”, while she was a little-known journalist and translator, there is a certain bravery to having written so apparently honestly and critically on the subject of women writers. And she makes some of the same, completely valid, points that I have read in Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf, but she doesn’t make them so clearly. She wittily attacks the various types of flimsy female-authored novel, but only slightly touches on why such novels should be considered problematic rather than just lesser art. Similarly in some of her book reviews she criticises at great length without really explaining why x or y has got her so riled. And she quotes at great length rather than pulling out specific phrases of interest or clearly explaining the significance of a passage.

Perhaps my favourite essay in this collection is a review of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Charles Reade’s It is Never Too Late to Mend and Frederika Bremer’s Hertha. Eliot shows enthusiasm, rather than just critical approval, for Stowe’s follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but questions the sagacity of “the absence of any proportionate exhibition of the Negro character in its less amiable phases”, which is a not-entirely-clear way of saying that, by having only thoroughly good black characters, Stowe damages her aim of presenting black people as equally human as white people. It’s a valid point because all Stowe’s black characters are slaves or former slaves, therefore, as Eliot (again unclearly) explains, this opens the door to the defence of slavery on the grounds that it makes people “better” human beings.

It feels a little presumptuous for an amateur book reviewer to attack the book-reviewing skills of one of the world’s greatest authors, but I do think that essay writing and novel writing require different skills and not every writer is good at both. Eliot was, I think, a case in point. Her essays contain the occasional good point or witticism but they are not well structured or particularly entertaining.

Published 2010 by Penguin Books.