Sunday, 22 January 2012

Impressive Impressions

When it came to choosing a Victorian writer to contribute to my Women Writers Month, it was hard to go past George Eliot, even though I've already read (and, in many cases, reread) all of her more famous fiction.  I was originally planning to read The Mill on the Floss, when I remembered that I had a couple of her less well-known works on my Kindle - which brings me to today's offering...

Impressions of Theophrastus Such is one of Eliot's minor works of fiction, and probably one for the completist rather than the casual reader, but it's still an interesting little book.  It consists of a series of philosophical musings on a range of topics, by a friendly narrator called (I assume) Theophrastus Such.  Such is (in his own words) an averagely-intelligent middle-aged man who wants to tease out a few issues with regards to human behaviour.  Of course, this is just a front, allowing the formidable mind of George Eliot to dissect the foibles of the Victorian middle classes :)

In eighteen short chapters, Such discusses issues such as people who cannot bear other people's success, the perils of attempting to create new research whilst stepping on other men's toes, the horrors of plagiarism, and the possible consequences of technological advancement.  For the most part, the essays are written in a light-hearted manner, reminiscent of Jerome K. Jerome's Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, or Anthony Trollope's occasional quasi-philosophical asides to his readers, but as you can probably tell from the topics above, Eliot's serious side is never far from the surface, negating the humour a little.

Which is not to say that it's not humorous.  I spent half my time highlighting wonderful passages, some thought-provoking, others witty, the occasional line being laugh-out-loud funny.  One unfortunate man is treated as follows:
" Some listeners incautious in their epithets would have called Hinze an "ass".  For my part I would never insult that intelligent and unpretending animal who no doubt brays with perfect simplicity and substantial meaning to those acquainted with his idiom." p.47
When discussing another gentleman, the person whose jealousy won't allow him to appreciate anything done by anyone else, Such ponders:
"Why, then did he speak of the modern Maro or the modern Flaccus with a peculiarity in his tone of assent to other people's praise which might almost have led you to suppose that the eminent poet had borrowed money of him, and shown an indisposition to repay?" p.38
And there's one particularly wonderful quote, one which may hit close to home for the bloggers among us...
"And however unpractical it may be held to consider whether we have anything to print which it is good for the world to read, or which has not been better said before, it will perhaps be allowed to be worth considering what effect the printing may have on ourselves." p.102
Perhaps I'd better move on...

While Impressions of Theophrastus Such is a wonderfully-entertaining read though, it's not perfect.  You see, Eliot is such an intellectual giant that she occasional shoots too high, and the reader is likely to get lost if they are unacquainted with at least the rudiments of the classics and a firm grounding in modern foreign languages.  While I appreciated the humour of the articles published in the "Selten-erscheinende Monat-Schrift" ("Rarely-Appearing Monthly", p.30), I doubt that many others would.  Also, beginning one essay with half a page of untranslated French is unlikely to endear Mr. Such to many monolingual readers :(

Do stick with it though, because there are a couple of gems near the end.  In one, Such (in a discussion with a friend) predicts the rise of the machines and the disappearance of the human race in a disturbingly Terminator-esque portrayal.  In another, the most serious of the collection, Such (Eliot...) argues passionately for an end to prejudice against Jews, reliving the history of the race and showing how ludicrous society's treatment of them really is.  She truly was a woman ahead of her time...

So where can you get this work?  There don't seem to be any editions from the usual suspects, but The Book Depository has scanned and formatted it, offering a copy in its Dodo Press range for about AU$12.  However, this edition is also available as a free PDF, so you can just pop over to the site and download it onto the electronic device of your choosing in a matter of moments - how good is that?!

Before you rush off though, I'll leave you with one last nugget of wisdom from the writings of the irrepressible Such.  A while back I put forward Eliot as my champion to take on the rather unlikeable V.S. Naipaul after his nasty comments about female writers, and one sentence, taken from an essay about people who can't help giving their opinions, just sums up nicely why Eliot would be up to the task:
 "Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact..." p.37
There's nothing really to be added to that :)