A Fortnightly Review of
Heathen and Outcast Scenes in the Life of George Eliot
Broadlands Books, 2011. 208 pp £9.99 $14.99
By Rachel Mann.
IN ONE OF the most well-known passages in Middlemarch, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) describes the effect of a candle reflected in a pier-glass:
Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement… (Chapter 27)
The pier-glass presents the same “multitudinously scratched” surface to all viewers, but each individual determines what he or she sees in that glass by the light held up to that glass and reflected back. “These things,” Eliot writes, “are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent….” Eliot immediately goes on to apply her words to that beautiful and dangerous creature, Rosamond Vincy. However, her parable is also applicable to another topic: works of fiction which take as their main characters and subjects the great authors of the past, including Eliot herself. Extending the parable thus, the “scratches” or “events” become occurrences within a life (to be checked against biographic record or imagined), while the candle’s light, its signified “egoism,” is the selfhood of the person who led that life. In newly imagining that life, its events and their connotations arrive in a new “flattering illusion” and “arrangement.”
To take on the voice of any highly esteemed and famous author seems daunting at best and foolhardy at worst. Perhaps there is a gradation of difficulty in adopting such an authorial voice: is it more difficult to imagine simply taking on the voice of one of those great authors or trying to imagine new futures for that author’s characters? People have been trying to further the trajectories of canonical authors’ stories for hundreds of years; today’s literary marketplace is saturated with continuations of Austen novels and insertions of zombies, sea monsters, vampires, and other gory figures into public-domain classics. More infrequent are the fictional works that focus on the lives of these authors, and still fewer are the works that describe these lives without limiting their subjects to romance.
TWO SUCH RARE works are Tom Lowenstein’s From Culbone Wood and Robert Muscutt’s Heathen and Outcast, both narratives that illuminate authors’ minds and lives. The subject and narrator of the former is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while the most famous of the latter’s narrators, and its subject, is George Eliot.
At first, pairing these two books might seem odd, considering one’s subject is a male Romantic poet and the other a female Victorian novelist. Despite overlapping in the nineteenth century, Eliot and Coleridge’s genders and preferred genres would seem, at least superficially, to separate them.
Yet read in tandem, these books and their subjects resonate unexpectedly; the works, as different as they and their subjects are, possess some intriguing similarities of genre and of form. Both invite readers to question what type of texts they are reading and where such texts fall in the range of accepted literary genres. Lowenstein claims From Culbone Wood is a “flying notebook/fantasia genre… [and…] a series of prose poems, much of it about poetry”; Heathen and Outcast, writes Muscutt, is a “combination of fiction and biography.” Lowenstein unveils scenes from a notebook to evoke Coleridge, while Muscutt provides scenes from a life to invoke Eliot.
Each author is careful to note the distinctions between truth and imagining. In both his presentation of Coleridge as narrator and his authorial insertions into the text, for instance, Lowenstein emphasizes that it can be “disrespectful to impersonate so a great writer” and that he “didn’t want to attempt speaking [on the topics Coleridge knew well] for a mind that could express itself supremely for itself.” Muscutt, in his turn, distinguishes between fact-based and fictional writing.
Heathen and Outcast begins when Eliot is not close to the height of her powers. Indeed, Eliot’s first-person narrative does not emerge until the book’s seventh chapter. Prior to that, several narrators provide context: the briefly seen Edith Simcox; the irritating Maria Lewis, whom Eliot mistrusted; and the entertaining Charles Bray. These characters show us Eliot as writer and as woman, their descriptions steeped in biographical detail and attention to Eliot’s personhood.
By the time Eliot’s character took over the narration, I was longing for her voice and deeply curious about it. During her narration, this Eliot takes readers to London, where she works and lives with John Chapman prior to meeting and falling in love with G.H. Lewes. Unfortunately for me, the book ends before Muscutt starts envisioning her as she writes Middlemarch or the other full-length classics for which she is so justly famous—which seems the most difficult part of Eliot’s life to imagine, and yet, to this reader, the part that could be the most interesting. Muscutt completes his work with the tantalizing phrase “End of Book One,” so it is to be imagined that another book or other books, which I hope will include these periods of composition, will be forthcoming.
FROM CULBONE WOOD, in contrast, is set at perhaps Coleridge’s most interesting and mysterious compositional moment: the aftermath of the vision that produced “Kubla Khan,” and the workings of the mind that produced such a vision. Rather unexpected, for me, was this mind’s focus on the body and its functions, particularly those of the bowels. The narrator’s “incontinence” comes up frequently in the book’s first few segments, perhaps because, as he writes, “We approach the sublime through darkness and faeces,” the sublime applying to his writing as well as that of others. As Coleridge explains of the process by which he wrote “Kubla Khan,” “I have brought forth, as though from the interior of my body, this object [the poem] and I am made glad by it… just as Eva must be formulated from her future husband’s rib… so this poem issued from my person. I am tempted to jest – from the flux of my intestine!”
While these mentions of common bodily functions at first seem at odds with the narrator’s erudite and complex prose, these moments also serve to ground this speaker’s esoteric ruminations and bring them down to earth, reminding us that inasmuch as this Coleridge possesses a truly remarkable mind, so too is he limited by the base necessities of the body encapsulating that mind. (While this is a limitation extending to all authors, it is not one that is written of or dwelt upon by Muscutt in his vision of Eliot; this character must overcome other, societal hardships connected to the body.)
Muscutt gives us Eliot the essayist and editor; Lowenstein presents Coleridge as author, poet, and footnote-maker of his own diary (which is then doubly annotated with Lowenstein’s endnotes). This Coleridge is as apt to break out in Latin or quote any number of classical writers in a variety of languages as he is to muse on the role of a single apple in the development of man’s universe. For this Coleridge, an apple is never just an apple. It is a portal to poetry.
NO DOUBT ELIOT could match this erudite language and complexity of thought; in Muscutt’s book, we see her steadfast genius continually churning through language, scholarship, and music, seeking constant improvement and doing so in an environment or environments less friendly or conducive to such rumination. Not for Eliot the cozy setup in Shropshire, where Coleridge reflects on his inspiration, where children’s laughter occurs offstage, and where a maid wanders by, singing like a simple bird. During all this, the poet-genius (and, of course, the man) rests, eats, dreams, and elucidates. For Eliot, as Muscutt reminds us, there is recurring struggle: to make herself heard; to overcome enemies, even among those who should be closest to her; and to face the responsibility of earning her living, a problem that quite patently does not touch Coleridge.
Yet Eliot, it strikes me, would be the ideal reader for From Culbone Wood. For her, the continual music of allusions, which seem to be woven together as some kind of dense literary cape, would sound like the litany of old friends; the turns into fragments of Latin, German, and French (not to mention the wide-ranging fluency with which the speaker races through English vocabulary) a challenge to which she could easily rise.
For all this linguistic dexterity, in From Culbone Wood we learn more of Coleridge as a writer than a person. I do not mean to suggest that the two are separate; in both books it is quite clearly being a writer, or embodying or being recognized as an author, that informs personhood for both Coleridge and Eliot. With Coleridge as envisioned by Lowenstein, we see more of the process: here are the allusions, here is the inspiration; here is what Coleridge-as-author imagined, here is the poetic foot he used or recognized. With Eliot as viewed by Muscutt, we see more of the business of being a writer. What seems difficult for Eliot is not the writing: that comes naturally, is consuming, and is her passion and fulfillment. For her, the difficulty, which is evident in Muscutt’s portrayal of her, lies in getting her writing out to the world, being published, managing her promiscuous editor and his unusual family, and being taken seriously as a writer and as a person.
From Culbone Wood and Heathen and Outcast both require commitment, interest, and perseverance of their readers. Ultimately, these two works are to be recommended for the considerable and various worth they add to our understanding of Eliot and Coleridge – and for the impulse they instill in readers to seek out the works of their subjects, who inspired such meditations on authorial life and the creative process.
Rachel Mann received her PhD in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she specialized in nineteenth-century British narrative. She is a freelance writer, editor, and instructional designer.
Note: These excerpts from From Culbone Wood have previously appeared in the Fortnightly: