Melissa Anne Raines, George Eliot’s Grammar of Being


Melissa Anne Raines, George Eliot’s Grammar of Being (London: Anthem Press, 2011), xxiv + 208 pp. Hb £60.00, Pb £25.00. ISBN: 9781783080748

Melissa Anne Raines’s George Eliot’s Grammar of Being emulates, if not exceeds, Eliot’s famously careful attention to phrasing and grammar. Raines takes her cue from a line in Eliot’s introduction to Felix Holt - “vibrations that make human agonies are often a mere whisper in the roar of hurrying existence” - and suggests that, throughout her oeuvre, Eliot’s punctuation as well as word order and lexical choices deliberately deliver “nervous shocks” (xxiii) to readers’ nervous systems, triggering our sympathy for the pains, anxieties, and sorrows of Eliot’s characters. Eliot’s immersion in Victorian physiological theory, particularly the writings of Herbert Spencer and George Henry Lewes, enabled her scientifically inflected psychological realism, as Raines argues. As such, Eliot’s prose is remarkable for its consistent attention to and utilization of a language of shocks, vibrations, channels, currents, tissues, threads, and pathways that accounts for the materiality of characters’ thought patterns.

Raines convincingly shows that, in order to realize Victorian neurological theory in the practice of novel-writing and reading, Eliot strategically designed her prose to allow readers an ever-closer understanding of her protagonists’ intricate inner lives. For the reader to grasp characters’ motivations fully, Eliot’s grammatical choices physically impact the reader’s perception via nervous pathways, their resonances guiding emotional and intellectual understanding. Thus, hardly perceptible “syntactical vibrations” (ix) at the sentence-level, that is, Eliot’s virtuoso manipulation of grammar’s rhythms and cadences, ideally induce readers’ nerves to vibrate like the strings of a musical instrument, resonating with and amplifying our sense of characters’ feelings. Raines proposes that “microscopic nervous impulses” (xxiii), entirely permeating Eliot’s prose, were placed in the service of the reader’s education in sympathy. After successfully engaging Eliot’s work, the appropriately sensitive reader realizes that the “grammar underneath the story becomes analogous to the subtly influential private world just beneath the public face” (xvii-iii). The impact of this realization is monumental, Raines concludes, because Eliot’s realism is, in fact, structured by a “grammar of being that mirrors the complexity of existence itself” (84).

Grammar has therefore a poetic function for Eliot. For instance, a dash can simultaneously illustrate and mimic Maggie Tulliver’s “confused pulse or throb of desire” (14), whereas the semi-colon, staging correctly measured thought, serves the formal marker of realism when Maggie has rejected Stephen. Raines provides dozens of such surprising and interesting readings, highlighting how syntax and punctuation can help raise readers’ intuitions about the text into awareness. Raines spares her reader specialized grammatical jargon despite closely analyzing Eliot’s careful placement of words and punctuation marks. She compares available versions of Eliot’s manuscripts, page proofs, and printed texts and makes a convincing case for Eliot’s hyper-precise editing practices.

Beginning with The Mill on the Floss and moving chronologically to Silas Marner, Romola, Felix Holt, Adam Bede, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda, Raines traces the evolution of Eliot’s psycho-narration over the course of Eliot’s career to show that Eliot helped invent a language of empathy before the concept itself or its neurological theories had emerged. A chapter on Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington briefly interrupts the chronology, mainly to highlight the differences in Trollope’s and Eliot’s narrators’ psychological depth. Whereas Trollope’s “straightforward” (121), linear story-telling tends to describe his characters’ display of emotion, thereby limiting the reader to witnessing rather than experiencing emotional turmoil along with them, Eliot’s grammar is less transmissive than Trollope’s, allowing the reader to trace - and feel for themselves - characters’ complex thought processes.

Raines’s study is at its strongest when it follows characters’ decision-making processes through insightful and patient analyses of grammatical usage and word choice. Although Raines’s introduction claims that the book rehearses Victorian scientific theories regarding the nerves, later chapters pay little to no attention to historical context. What is more, Raines’s central assumptions remain unexplored in the context of recent approaches to neuroscientific reader response theory that could have usefully supported her book’s fascinating main claims, especially concerning the phenomenological or physiological processes that allow for the deep interactions between reader and text. When Raines suggestively writes that the “incomplete connections [between characters as well as between text and readers] in George Eliot’s work are like misfiring synapses in the nervous system” (87), the neurological interpretation operates at the level of analogy. If the goal of Eliot’s prose is to create “the potential for full sympathetic connection” (87) or even “full identification” (xxiv), as Raines writes, it remains unclear how syntax mediates or delimits the reader’s physical experience of engaging with the text. In the absence of historical contextualization in the later chapters and of contemporary neurological theory throughout, the book’s implicit claim to relevance for medical humanities research must be somewhat qualified. Raines is more interested in syntax’s power to amplify the content of Eliot’s prose, and painstakingly chronicles the ways in which grammatical features can themselves act as metaphors for or illustrations of characters’ thought processes. When Raines repeatedly posits that readers “instinctively,” “subconsciously,” or with “almost extra-sensory” ability absorb Eliot’s syntactical virtuosity, she offers no theory of how such processing would be made possible.

Furthermore, Raines tends to conflate Eliot with her narrators or even protagonists, implying that it was Eliot’s goal that readers should ultimately fully identify with the novels’ author herself. As such, “the George Eliot narrator” (a term Raines uses throughout), as well as Maggie Tulliver, Adam Bede, Dorothea Brooke, and Daniel Deronda become Eliot’s avatars operating at Eliot’s level of sensitivity - if not reflecting the author’s own nervous configuration - rather than remaining fictional and deliberately designed characters. Here, Raines’s argument perhaps might have benefitted from stronger narratological theorization, especially with regards to such established concepts as focalization and voice. As Raines references Gérard Genette’s work otherwise in her monograph, this omission is rather striking.

George Eliot’s Grammar of Being, showcasing an original mode of unusually intensive close reading, is nevertheless a relevant and valuable resource for Eliot scholars, particularly for students of Eliot’s revision process and her adoption of scientific thought into her novel-writing practice. Further, anyone interested in nineteenth-century scientific theories of sympathy and such theories’ influence on the shape of fictional texts will find a thorough and provocative guide in Raines’s study.

Doreen Thierauf, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill