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Book Lover's Day: George Eliot

Writing for grown-up people: George Eliot and the Oxford English Dictionary

At one point in Middlemarch, the character Doctor Lydgate is described as having “no longer free energy enough for spontaneous research and speculative thinking”. It seems appropriate that this should be the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of free energy, because Marian Evans – born Mary Anne, and better known by her pseudonym George Eliot – certainly was not lacking in it. In an age where female novelists were largely expected to stick to sentimental writing, she produced seven novels and numerous books of poetry, religious translations, and short stories.

At sixteen her formal education stopped, but she educated herself in the classics in the library of the estate on which her father worked. This shines through in her work: only one of her novels can be printed correctly without using a Greek typeface. Classical influence is also very clear in the list of entries and senses for which she is the first source in the OED. Alongside weighty phrases like exceptis excipiendis (“with proper exceptions”) and horribile dictu (“horrible to relate”), we find Lydia in Daniel Deronda making a Medusa-apparition to frighten Gwendolen. A keen translator, French (jeu de paume) and German (Leberwurst) scatter her writing as well.

But Eliot was famously down-to-earth, too. Much of her work was set in a keenly-observed rural England, or Loamshire – a fictional county like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. The peak is the masterpiece Middlemarch, described by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Through her characters’ speech, she demonstrates a perceptive ear for dialect. The memorable word queachy (meaning “queasy”) first appears in print in this sense in Adam Bede, although it was presumably in common local use before then; and mere noises colour her dialogues too: psh! and tchu! both make their printed debuts in Eliot’s novels. She had a genius for switching between common and intellectual speech, picking out the best words, magpie-like, to convey both.

Despite her talent, she was constantly racked with misgivings and depression. It is probably reading too much into a few words to conclude much from compounds like self-rebuke, self-lacerating, self-betrayal, self-disapproval, and so on. But her books and letters supply the first known use of many of these. They were apparently quite characteristic: she underwent a painful transition from evangelism to religious doubt in adulthood. Luckily, her lows in confidence were not permanent. Bucking oppressive, strongly patriarchal Victorian society’s ideals, she quickly became known as one of the sharpest minds of her time.

Maybe her peers forgave her supposed transgressions on the advice from Middlemarch, which gives us the first printed appearance for that eternally useful phrase: what the hell.

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