The Afterlife of Enclosure
British Realism, Character, and the Commons
Carolyn Lesjak



Eliot, Cosmopolitanism, and the Commons

WITH CHARACTERISTIC APLOMB, Terry Eagleton sets George Eliot in sharp contrast to Dickens. If in Dickens, “you cannot be virtuous and have greasy skin,” in Eliot, “nobody . . . is either transcendentally good or wicked beyond redemption” (The English Novel 148, 163). “The worst that can happen to you in Eliot’s world,” Eagleton ventures, “is not spontaneous combustion or being battered to death by your vicious burglar of a lover, but ‘never to be liberated from a small shivering hungry self’, as she remarks of Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch” (163). This distinction echoes assessments of each writer by numerous other contemporary critics insofar as it positions Dickens’s universe as morally less complex, and less nuanced—“flatter,” in a word. But as we saw in the previous chapter, Dickens’s utopianism—his abiding belief in the remarkable and the many—contains within it a rich and suggestive vision of a world in which the ordinary and the extraordinary would be hard to tell apart, and in which commonness would bring with it (or breed) multiplicity and the pleasures Kincaid associates so compellingly with girth. Certainly Eliot rarely trades in eccentricity, or in the visual radical popular culture and caricature that leads to the kind of equation Eagleton makes between greasy skin and loose values; indeed, she works in a different idiom and ethos throughout her oeuvre. Measured, judicious, at once distanced from and close to her characters, she is a relentlessly careful writer, acutely aware of the ways in which language can be slippery, obfuscating, exhilarating, hard to control.1 Giddy from a trip to the seaside with George Henry Lewes, Eliot enthuses, “I never before longed so much to know the names of things as during this visit to Ilfracombe. The desire is part of the tendency that is now constantly growing in me to escape from all vagueness and inaccuracy into the daylight of distinct, vivid ideas “(Letters 2, 250–51).2 Likewise, the desire to “escape from all vagueness and inaccuracy into the daylight of distinct, vivid ideas” entails a consonant desire to manage or control interpretation itself, whether in the form of her characters’ interpretations of each other or her readers’ interpretation of those self-same characters—a desire, as Elaine Freedgood positions it, that results from Eliot’s recognition of the potentially limitless reach of interpretation. Significantly, though, her recognition indicates the intensity with which ideas can inhere in things, and the extent to which the range of such ideas cannot be anticipated: “[S]igns are small measurable things,” she writes in Middlemarch, “but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and coloured by a diffuse thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge” (quoted in Freedgood, The Ideas in Things 112).

In place of a world of excess and fat, of multiplying types and teeming casts of characters, Eliot provides a materialist view of “small measurable things,” of the particular rather than the abstract, that require a hermeneutics precisely because “interpretations are illimitable,” not only for sweet, ardent girls but also for novelists. As a result, Eliot’s thinking and her novels move by necessity from the small and measurable to the large and potentially limitless; from foreground to background, matter to knowledge and symbol to meaning—all subject to history. Or, as Jennifer Uglow stresses in her description of Eliot’s Ilfracombe journal, it “combines this delight in naming particulars with a desire to place the particulars against a general background; it is the crowded banks as well as the individual plant which she admires, the whole rock-pool as well as the individual sea anemone.” These connections, in turn, extend to include entire lifeworlds, “of man, of landscape and of marine life” (57–58). Less excess and multiplication than measure and relation, Eliot’s experiments involve calibrating and recalibrating rather than counting and cataloguing.

Yet despite these differences in tone and idiom, Eliot shares with Dickens the sense that the common and commonness are the ground for a politics that is equally an ethics of the public good. If Dickens finds this vision in his cityscapes, Eliot remains rooted, with a few exceptions, in the rural landscape of her own upbringing—a landscape in which she witnessed firsthand the destruction of the common and the profound transformations that came in its wake. Her childhood years, in the Midlands in the early decades of the nineteenth century, coincided with the height of John Clare’s career, a time, as we saw in Chapter 1, when rural life has been marked by the experience of the enclosure of common land, and described in Clare’s poetry in great naturalistic detail—an experience and mode of representing a changed landscape that Eliot shares with Clare.3 Eliot’s father, Robert Evans, worked as a land agent and manager on the large landed estate of Arbury, which, during Eliot’s childhood, was enclosed. Moreover, the “rate of enclosure” during this period “accelerated spectacularly,” leading to “the dramatic reduction or abolition of common farming lands . . . which had allowed agricultural workers to grow their own food and supplement the income they received from the squire” (Dolin, George Eliot 46–47). Tim Dolin points out that Arbury also housed a coal mine and produced textiles for export still largely woven by handloom weavers. Eliot’s earliest years thus came at a watershed moment, with Arbury on the cusp of the transition from hand weaving to steam-powered looms. These years were also marked by the struggles and resistance on the part of agricultural workers and weavers to preserve their way of life.

In this period of uneven development, old rural ways and forms of sociality overlapped with modern new technologies and new social formations, and highlighted the interconnectedness of country and city, making Eliot’s Midlands far from isolated and idyllic. The unevenness of this development is fully on display in the introduction to Felix Holt, where Eliot speaks of “passing from one phase of life to another,” from a village “dingy with coal-dust, noisy with the shaking of looms” to a “parish all of fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes,” or from a “manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades-union meetings” to another rural region—a mere ten minutes away—“where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of a new market for corn, cheese, and hay, and where men with a considerable banking account were accustomed to say ‘they never meddled with politics themselves’” (79–80). Eliot acknowledges that “it was easy for the traveller to conceive that town and country had no pulse in common” (80), but of course her narrative shows just how shared their pulse is, and will continue to be. In fact, as Dolin compellingly frames Eliot’s time and place,

In the Midlands it was not the advent of the railway that symbolized the advent of the modern: in 1825, the railway had hardly got going, and there were barely thirty miles of track in the whole United Kingdom. Rather, it was the radical transformation of the countryside, the transformation of the physical and social landscape, that symbolized the modern. (45)

These radical transformations predated the development of steam, “as rural populations increased in the eighteenth century and fell into grinding poverty, devastated by the loss of common lands, and subject to fluctuations in international trades.” And as Dolin underscores, “One of the most traumatic effects of this was also the least visible: the loss of localism” (45).4 In short, Eliot’s rural landscape in no way limits her ability to move beyond the Midlands to the “wider public life,” which, as she writes in Felix Holt, necessarily determines the private lives of her provincial characters (129). That wider public life, as I will argue, extends to the farthest reaches of the globe: the logic of the common inexorably carries Eliot from the local to the global and vice versa in the dialectical relationship she insists upon between the private and the public, the “small shivering hungry self” and the suffering of others, the latter refusal of which, to paraphrase Silvia Federici, forms the basis of the common.5

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Eliot shares something else with Dickens—namely, the belief that “everything is politics.” Dickens comically introduces this proposition in The Pickwick Papers: in one of the many plays on language that occur in the novel, Mr. Pickwick, in his interview with the Count, notes, “‘The word politics, Sir . . . comprises, in itself, a difficult study of no inconsiderable magnitude.’” The Count, happy with this description, and “drawing out the tablets again” to record it, replies, “‘ver good—fine words to begin a chapter. Chapter forty-seven. Poltics. The word poltic surprises by himself—’ And down went Mr Pickwick’s remark, in Count Smorltork’s tablets, with such variations and additions as the Count’s exuberant fancy suggested, or his imperfect knowledge of the language, occasioned” (207).

“Ver good—fine words to begin a chapter” on politics indeed. Mr. Pickwick’s definition of politics and the Count’s humorous mistranslation of his words perfectly capture how much politics is a matter of translation and how expansive and wayward its definitions can be. The exchange is a classic Dickensian moment and, in a more serious vein, it also identifies the not “inconsiderable magnitude” of politics and enacts its slipperiness as a term, the way it can move from comprising to surprising, from an object of study to a subject that takes on a life of its own—about which it becomes hard to say what isn’t politics. In fact, Georg Lukács links a recognition like Mr. Pickwick’s to the whole project of realism itself:

An unbiased investigation of life . . . leads easily enough . . . to the discovery which had long been made by the great realists of the beginning and middle of the nineteenth century and which Gottfried Keller expressed thus: “Everything is politics.” The great Swiss writer did not intend this to mean that everything was immediately tied up with politics; on the contrary, in his view—as in Balzac’s and Tolstoy’s—every action, thought, and emotion of human beings is inseparably bound up with the life and struggles of the community, i.e., with politics; whether the humans themselves are conscious of this, unconscious of it or even trying to escape from it, objectively their actions, thoughts and emotions nevertheless spring from and run into politics. (Studies in European Realism 9)

Lukács extends his claim by underlining that “the true great realists not only realized and depicted this situation—they did more than that, they set it up as a demand to be made on men,” demonstrating that the separation of “the complete human personality into a public and a private sector” was “a fiction of capitalist society” (9) and hence in need of debunking.

If it seems odd to link Eliot’s vision with Dickens’s, connecting her political views with Lukács’s might seem stranger yet. Not only is Eliot’s voice radically different from Dickens’s, but there is, for Eagleton, a politics to these stylistic qualities: “You can tell that George Eliot is a liberal by the shape of her sentences” (The English Novel 163).6 Likewise, Lukács’s Marxist politics seem a far cry from Eliot’s judicious, ameliorative politics, not to mention the added fact that Eliot, even more so than Dickens, is noticeably >absent from Lukács’s account of nineteenth-century realism. Despite these differences, however, Eliot, like Dickens and Lukács, shares a commitment to the belief that everything truly is politics, which, in turn, necessitates experimentation with form and character in order to find the means by which to demonstrate the deep relatedness of all aspects of social life.

For Eliot, I argue, this belief finds expression in her commitment to the common and the commons, a commitment grounded in a materialist view of character that both draws on older eighteenth-century practices of character-building and refashions them in response to the pressures of a globalizing mid-nineteenth-century world and the new kinds of social bonds it brings into being. In its emphasis on the collective nature of “character,” in both senses of the word, moreover, her politics of the common is irreducibly ethical and political and forestalls the critical tendency to see them as competing emphases. In Middlemarch, Dorothea asks, “What should I do—how should I act now?” (788), succinctly revealing the ethical and the political as inseparable, as the question of how to act follows from the ethical imperative of what should be done. Suzy Anger identifies Dorothea’s question—asked as well through many of Eliot’s other characters—as that which “had become the central question of modern ethics” (79). She goes on to comment that “[m]oral behavior requires what George Eliot regards as a kind of impartiality, an ability to maintain ‘that sense of others’ claims’ [from Mill on the Floss] against ‘clamorous selfish desires’ [from Scenes of Clerical Life, ‘Janet’s Repentance’]” (80). While Anger’s focus is on Eliot’s ethics, the “sense of other claims,” as I will argue, invariably contains a politics of the common, as this passage in Middlemarch when Dorothea looks out her window on the following scene showcases:

On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining. (788)

Significantly, it is not only the capacity to sympathize with suffering and those less fortunate that constitutes “moral progress” for Eliot. One must also be able to sympathize with others’ joy: “My own experience and development deepen every day my conviction that our moral progress may by measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joy” (Letters 2, 403). By foregrounding the materiality of Eliot’s realism—that “involuntary palpitating life” that cannot be disavowed, either by distance or by turning inward—and by extension her politics, I decouple the de rigueur association of her writing with a predictable liberalism and suggest some of the ways in which she is more relevant to twenty-first-century readers than she has appeared to be.


1. A. S. Byatt reminds us though that Eliot’s range is more varied than many accounts that emphasize her judiciousness allow for. Writing about the major essays Eliot wrote between 1854 and 1857 for the Westminster Review, Byatt clarifies that these essays “were written for money, but they were also written with a new intellectual authority, freedom and sense of excitement. It is usual for critics of George Eliot to look for the weighty, the sibylline and the scrupulously just. But these essays are also at times savagely ironic, often very funny, and have a speed and sharpness that is less frequently remarked on” (Eliot, Selected Essays xii).

2. Jennifer Uglow ties Eliot’s enthusiasm in the journal directly to her desire to write fiction and, more precisely, to “an awareness of how she wants to write,” noting that, for Eliot, the holiday “brought her to the brink of ‘a new era in my life, for it was then I began to write fiction’” (57).

3. Hugh Witemeyer writes of Eliot’s “penchant for topographical specificity in landscape” and of the “ecological dimension” of her descriptions of landscape. Commenting specifically on a passage in her Ilfracombe journal, in which she likens humans to epizoons and compares the shells of mollusks to houses on a hillside that “look so tiny against the huge limbs of Mother Earth” that “one cannot help thinking of man as a parasitic animal—an epizoon making his abode on the skin of the planetary organism,” he speculates that “[i]t is difficult to know whether these words came originally from George Eliot or from Lewes, since they appear almost verbatim in Sea-Side Studies. But the ideas were in any case shared. Man, the figure in the landscape, becomes a mollusk or epizoon when viewed from a biological perspective” (134).

4. Dolin lists some very material ways in which Eliot and her contemporaries experienced how “local concerns are never just local, but are mediated by national or global conditions” (46), including the fact that Eliot’s friends, the Brays, lost their ribbon business due to changes in the American cotton market, and that, more generally, local time and local dialects were replaced by standard time and standard English, respectively. Here too can be seen the homogenizing effects of modernity that we saw character books trying to offset in their production of difference and eccentricity.

5. In Adventures in Realism, Matthew Beaumont also highlights the dialectical nature of Eliot’s realism. Eliot’s “formal games” in the opening passages of Adam Bede exemplify for him the necessarily experimental nature of realism, given its attempt to navigate the historical changes—industrial and agrarian—taking place in the nineteenth century. As a result, “the concept of realism that Eliot operates is a distinctly dialectical one . . . in addition to a democratic one. It is a dynamic force field rather than some static phenomenon” (6). Overall, Beaumont aims to counter simplistic views of realism that assume that “all realism is a species of trompe l’oeil, an act of representation that, in replicating empirical reality as exactly as possible, dreams of attaining a complete correspondence to it” (4).

6. Eagleton, for example, notes that “whereas Dickens’s prose is declamatory and impressionistic, Eliot’s sentences unroll like undulating hills, full of wry asides and scrupulously qualifying sub-clauses” (163).