November 29, 2023

Shakespeare and George Eliot “In the Company of Good Books”

By Stuart Mitchner

It was while exploring “In the Company of Good Books: From Shakespeare to Morrison” at Princeton University Library’s Milberg Gallery that I found myself face to face with George Eliot. An hour later when I walked back into the light of day from this 400th anniversary celebration of the “First Folio of 1623” and other Firestone Library rarities, an unmissable show that I very nearly missed (it closes December 10), all I could think about was the woman gazing out at me from Frederick William Burton’s charcoal drawing, a preparatory study for his fuller, more detailed, but less intriguing colored chalk portrait in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Eliot would have been 44 on February 14, 1864, when, in the words of her journal, “Mr. Burton dined with us and asked me to let him take my portrait.” According to the curator’s note, the fact that Burton was a friend “may account for the closely-cropped, full-frontal and altogether more intimate portrayal of her face.”

Maybe it was the aura of intimacy that drew me in and held me, so serenely sympathetic were her pale blue eyes, the only color in the drawing; at the same time, I knew I was in the presence of the author of this remarkable sentence, from her masterpiece Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”


Of the authors’ faces on view in the exhibit, George Eliot’s was the most elusive; you had to look and look and keep looking; she seemed at first to be fading from sight. Not so the other faces. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s quiet beauty might have warmed the heart of a real-life Simon Legree. Toni Morrison’s presence was magnetic, powerful. The three Brontë sisters had the aura of the Yorkshire moors. Dickens and Milton looked terminally exhausted, Dickens only months away from death.

At home I found the passage in Middlemarch where Dorothea Brooke is weeping in Rome, six weeks after her wedding, which is when Eliot brings in the “roar on the other side of silence.” One of those primal imaginings like Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,” it has followed me through the years, surfacing whenever the world turned upside down, as it did on November 22, 1963.

After Dallas

George Eliot was born on November 22,1819, in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire, which is why she was on my mind even before I saw her at the exhibit. She’d have had a place in last week’s review, along with my hometown hero Hoagy “Stardust” Carmichael, born November 22, 1899, but there was no room — no room even for a spur-of-the-moment 600-mile drive through the night to Washington, D.C., followed by a bleary-eyed viewing of the funeral procession, the riderless black horse with the backward-turned boots and the funeral caisson and the eerie-against-the-silence clacking of hooves and creaking of the stirrups and wheels, and then the violent beauty of the sunset in the western sky.

A month later I rented an apartment a block off Central Park on West 87th, where I spent my last nine months as a resident of the city I’ve often written about here. Among the ramshackle archive of manuscripts, photos, and letters I’ve been plowing through the past few weeks I found a typed letter to my parents, dated March 7, 1964, about writing a new novel, discovering Shakespeare, and risking my life: “Friday night we drank a pint of whiskey and tightroped the Brooklyn Bridge, on a slippery ledge about a foot wide, with snow coming down and the wind blowing, and steady traffic on one side and a 200-foot drop to the river on the other [it’s actually more like 125] and nothing to hold on to but a series of stanchions. I was so scared that by the time it was over, I was stone sober.” That walk across the void with my best friend was another world-tilting “roar on the other side of silence” derangement. A look back at the moment in Middlemarch reminds me of how rudely Eliot brings the vision down to earth: “As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Shakespeare’s Forehead

Having returned to the Milberg Gallery via the digital tour, I’m looking at the face on the title page of the First Folio, the default image of Shakespeare, the one most susceptible to caricature, the head found on numerous pub signboards. Who else but Herman Melville (his copy of Milton’s Poetical Works among the items in the exhibit) could find a semblance of the white whale in the Bard’s brow? “Few are the foreheads which like Shakespeare’s or Melancthon’s rise so high, and descend so low, that the eyes themselves seem clear, eternal, tideless mountain lakes; and all above them in the forehead’s wrinkles, you seem to track the antlered thoughts descending there to drink, as the Highland hunters track the snow prints of the deer.”

Of all there is to absorb in the Milberg exhibit, the most haunting fact is that had Heminge and Condell and others not gathered the scattered texts of 36 plays into a single volume, there would be no Macbeth, no Tempest, no Twelfth Night, no Winter’s Tale.

“You and Me”

I found a clue to my connection with George Eliot last week. It’s in the last sentence of Middlemarch. Imagine coming to the end of a prodigious work of fiction, your claim to a place among the immortals, a work as learned as Moby-Dick, which ends with the reader hanging for dear life on to Queequeg’s coffin with Ishmael, the orphan found by “the devious-cruising Rachel” searching for her children.

Eliot’s Ishmael is Dorothea Brooke, and as the last paragraph begins, her vision of the character is lofty and alluisive: “Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth.” Then the last sentence. “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.” At the end, the labyrinthine human comedy of Middlemarch comes down to “you and me.”


For the digital tour, visit — but only as a virtual preview of the real thing, which is on the first floor of Princeton University’s Firestone Library through December 10. Scheide Librarian and Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts Eric White collaborated on the exhibition with Librarian for Modern and Contemporary Special Collections Jennifer Garcon and Librarian for American Collections Gabriel Swift.