ABSTRACT

In 1871 George Eliot (alias Mary Anne Evans) completed her epic novel of early nineteenth-century life, Middlemarch. The novel explored a complex web of different relationships in the fictitious Middle England town of its title, drawing out a wide range of social, political and religious issues in the process. The range and force of the ideas in the novel led Henry James Jr. to claim, in his 1873 review in the Galaxy, that Eliot’s “manner is more philosophic-more broadly intelligent, and yet her result is as concrete or, if you please, as picturesque” (James, H., Jr. 1873: 3). Middlemarch uses the characters to expound on, as Eliot says in her prelude, “the varying experiments of Time” (Eliot [1874] 1997: 3). The novel is set thirty years before the date of its publication and touches on the historical changes and social challenges. The character of Dorothea Brooke carries questions of the role of women inside social constraints and religious commitments, introduced as she is alongside St. Theresa and contrasted with her sister Celia’s worldly desires. The challenges of social change in relation to religion and science are also represented with such characters as the doctor Teritus Lydgate, pitching medicine against the imagination, and the elderly cleric Edward Casaubon wrestling with writing a book called A Key to All Mythologies (Eliot [1874] 1997: 154, 262-263).1 Henry James Jr. believed Middlemarch was a “treasure-house of details” but poignantly asked at the end of his review: “If we write novels so, how shall we write history?” Eliot’s work was saturated with social comment and thus it is not surprising that we learn from a letter of Henry James Sr. to Henry Jr. that William James was “debating about Middlemarch” (quoted in Matthiessen [1947] 2008: 123). Richardson (2007: 152) also comments on the letters of William James on the topic of Middlemarch to show William’s shifting views about the novel. But what is clear, as Matthiessen’s selections ([1947] 2008: 529-537) confirm, is that George Eliot and her works were part of the James household along with

many other literary voices of the time.2 Despite these biographical allusions, the significance of Middlemarch and Eliot to James have not been explored in any depth, and we may wonder at the nature of William James “debating about Middlemarch” and its influence on his thinking, published-as the novel was-at the time of James’s personal crisis and his Renouvierian resolution of his depression.