Henry James on George Eliot (updated 8/06)

Henry James wrote several reviews and essays about George Eliot, whom he admired and considered  an inspiration. Two of his most famous pieces contain references to Daniel Deronda.  His main review of the book (1877) took the highly unusual form of a short play – a “Conversation” between three readers whose views differ widely about the book and George Eliot.  Then in 1885, upon the posthumous publication of the first biography of the writer, James wrote a longer essay evaluating Eliot’s work.  (James famously considered Middlemarch, like Deronda, a failure, and, inexplicably to our tastes, regarded Romola as her masterpiece.)

I post below these two pieces of Jamesian criticism:  as you might expect from the author, they are not short.  Be aware that “The Conversation” reveals most of the plot of the Daniel Deronda and the more of the book you’ve read, the more sense you’ll make of the varied nuances of interpretation the characters discuss.  Likewise the more you know of Eliot’s work generally, the better you’ll follow James’ commentary in his review of George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals edited by her husband, John Cross.

Addendum 8/8:  I’ve located a rather unusual piece by James – a short notice published in The Nation shortly after Daniel Deronda started appearing in serialized form.  It’s a kind of literary “heads-up” alerting readers to Eliot’s novel and anticipating that it’s likely to be very interesting.  I’ll place it first in the links below since it was the earliest of James comments about the book.

Henry James’ note about ‘Deronda’ at the start of its serialization (Feb. 1876) [less than a page]

“The Conversation” – a review of Daniel Deronda by Henry James (1876) [10 pages]

James reviews George Eliot’s Life as Related in her Letters and Journals, edited by John Cross (1885) [9 pages]

George Eliot, Richmond profile sketch 1881

Sketch by Richmond drawn from memory in 1881 after George Eliot’s death

For the sake of completeness (but at the risk of acting like a graduate student in English), I’ll post here the very first piece of criticism Henry James wrote about George Eliot, an unsigned review of Felix Holt: Radical, published in The Nation in 1866.  James was twenty-six at the time, had not yet published his first novel and had begun making a name for himself as a writer by turning out over two dozen book reviews. This partly explains his occasionally acerbic tone. I confess to be intrigued enough by the vitreol in parts of James’ review to track down a nicely-written (if, naturally, a bit pedantic) piece in The George Eliot Review that critiques James’ critique – and by so doing adds a few more insights into James’ relationship with his sometime Muse.

Henry James reviews ‘Felix Holt’ (1866)  [3 (double) pages]

Critiquing the critic:
Towards a Critical Reputation – Henry James on ‘Felix Holt’ by Christine Richards (2000)
  [9 (single) pages]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s