Monday 8 April 2013


Dreadful weather. The cherries are trying hard to bloom but the cold, wind and rain hold them back.

I thought for a change I'd talk about my heroine George Eliot. For the NHK World television programme Booked for Japan I was asked to choose a book that had inspired me. A difficult question. What would you choose? There are books I read in my youth that changed my life: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring,  Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch - but for sheer enjoyment I would choose the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot, and the more I learn about the latter the more I admire her. In the event the reading was cut from the programme so I'll take the liberty of imposing it on you now!

George Eliot (1819-1880) took a man’s pen name because she said she wanted to be taken seriously. Middlemarch is her longest novel, set in a small town in mid England around 1830 against a backdrop of the Reform Bill which widened the franchise and the construction of the railways. The main character is Dorothea who’s attracted to a scholar much older than her and has an unhappy marriage. And the main theme is dreams and reality. When we’re young we  dream of being famous and then in our 20s we realize we’re just going to live ordinary lives. The book is about how the different characters cope with that reality. She’s been criticized by feminists as allotting a mediocre life to women but I disagree. Her observations of the human psyche are universal, they're not just about women. For her time, she was remarkably free-thinking. Self-taught, she supported herself in London as assistant editor of the Westminster Review and as a translator. She lived openly with George Lewes a divorcee, which was scandalous for the time, yet their home became a salon for the new liberal ideas of the time. The British Humanist Association includes her among its 19th Century Freethinkers. And the thing that endeared me most to her was when I read that Lewes used to hide bad criticisms from her as he knew she would lose the confidence to write. What a wonderful man! Here's the quotation I chose. It's the last paragraph in the book. Talking of Dorothea,

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Such delicious prose. Such typical English understatment. And she is so learned. I must have skipped that reference to Cyrus a dozen times but for once I looked it up. In the 5th century BC, Cyrus, King of Persia, set out to capture Babylon. According to Herodotus, he lost one of his sacred white horses in a mighty river and was so enraged that he swore he would break the strength of the river. He sent half his army to the other side and had his soldiers on both sides dig myriad channels effectively diverting the river. He then marched across the dry river bed and eventually took the city of Babylon. What a poweful image. So you and me, like Dorothea, all doing our best, in unhistoric and diffusive acts, together have the power of a mighty river.

For the past five years I've been so busy and not inclined to read fiction. George Eliot took me on a journey to another world and gave me insights into my own life. Tomorrow, back to Fukushima!

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