Victorian Literature and Culture

Research Article

WAKING DREAMS: GEORGE ELIOT AND THE POETICS OF DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS

Beth Tresslera1

a1 Boston College

In a letter that she wrote to her childhood governess and religious mentor Maria Lewis in 1839, George Eliot describes a pervading and distressful mental anxiety – one that would come to greatly influence both the constitution and development of her fiction. Still within the throes of her evangelical ardor, Eliot laments in this letter that the “disjointed specimens” of history, poetry, science, and philosophy have become “all arrested and petrified and smothered by the fast thickening every day accession of actual events, relative anxieties, and household cares and vexations” (Eliot, Letters 1: 29). The letter illustrates more the disjointed nature of Eliot's own mind than the disjointed nature of the things occupying it. Apparently under the weight of some religious guilt, she retracts this complaint and apologizes for it; but, then she immediately contradicts her retraction and defends her struggle by expanding her own individual failure into the larger realm of universal human failure:

How deplorably and unaccountably evanescent are our frames of mind, as various as the forms and hues of the summer clouds. A single word is sometimes enough to give an entirely new mould to our thoughts; at least I find myself so constituted, and therefore to me it is pre-eminently important to be anchored within the veil, so that outward things may only act as winds to agitating sails, and be unable to send me adrift. (Letters 1: 30)

Possibly fearing a rebuke from Lewis, Eliot finds it necessary to call upon the evanescence of “our frames of mind” to characterize her early struggle with the painful inconsistency of her own consciousness. On the one hand, Eliot feels a sense of evangelical guilt that her consciousness can be so influenced by “a single word” that her household duties and her spiritual life suffer. She equates this aspect of her mind to a deplorable, moral failing that threatens to set her adrift from her religious foundation. But on the other hand, Eliot contradicts this sense of failure with her resentment at the household anxieties and everyday vexations that are able to smother and petrify the extraordinary workings of her mind. To prevent herself from “saying anything still more discreditable to my head and heart,” she imagines herself as a child “wand'ring far alone, / That none might rouse me from my waking dream” (Letters 1: 30). But Eliot awakes from this dream to the disheartening revelation of “life's dull path and earth's deceitful hope” (Letters 1: 30). For a time, this painful deceit compels her to remain solidly within the confines of her duty and faith, but it simultaneously begins to unravel the binding that so ardently holds her.

(Online publication May 18 2011)

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