A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Williams’s library in London, where the Eliot-Lewes library is held. I was doing work on Philip Wakem’s hunch back and hoping to find some very exciting underlining in the books she read on the physiology of the spine. I’m not sure what I was imagining—maybe something like “spinal curvature!! fascinating.” Oh dear. Most likely I was looking for Eliot to guide me through the mass of medical literature I was quickly becoming mired in with no clear way of figuring out what was important. I was just too early on in my work to tell at that point.
What I found were a few chaste pencil marks—the truth is, almost everything Eliot touched has been so well-documented that I was unlikely to turn up anything major. William Baker’s catalogue details even the marginalia. What wasn’t Eliot reading while she was writing The Mill on the Floss? The latest developments in science and medicine, popular novels—she read them all. Sometimes, I think you could put “While Eliot was writing Middlemarch, she was reading X” for almost anything and be right. This could save research time!
I may not have come out of the library with the perfect nugget for my chapter, but I did come up with what might be my most major insight about Eliot to date: if she had been born 100 years later, she would have been an academic instead of a novelist. The underlining—never mind the passion for German translation—proves it, don’t you think?
William Baker, The George-Eliot George Henry Lewes Library: An Annotated Catalogue of Their Books at Dr. Williams’s Library, London, Garland Reference, no. 67.