Ruby V. Redinger, Novelist and Biographer, 1915–1981

1978 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE

It is strange to think that some of the most unforgettable citizens of early 19th century England never really existed. At least in the conventional sense. The hapless linen weaver Silas Marner; the lovesick carpenter Adam Bede, whose sweetheart got pregnant by another man; Dorothea Brooke, the passionate and idealistic heiress ignored by her studious husband, the Rev. Mr. Edward Causabon; Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the brother and sister who quarreled over an old mill and were re-united in death during a flood—all of them were imagined by the great novelist George Eliot. But then Eliot himself never existed either, in the conventional sense.

As most high school graduates learned, if they were paying attention, the novels ascribed to the non-existent Mr. Eliot were actually written by a middle-aged woman with the rather disappointing name of Mary Ann Evans.
A very remarkable woman, it is now universally acknowledged: Virginia Woolf considered Evans/Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, to be one of the few English novels written for grownups; and TIME magazine ranked it among the 10 greatest books of all time.

So who was this woman, this Mary Ann Evans, and what had happened to her in the long decades before she could no longer resist putting her vivid imaginings down on paper and setting them before the public—under someone else’s name? It was these questions, more than her much-studied and argued-over novels, that obsessed Ruby Redinger, and led the Baldwin-Wallace College English professor to spend 15 years of her own life writing a single book. When George Eliot: The Emergent Self, was published in 1975 by Alfred Knopf (distributed by Random House), it was widely reviewed. Some critics dismissed it as “Women’s Lib” claptrap (this was, remember, the 1970s). But others, like Thomas Pinney, writing in the journal Nineteenth-Century Fiction, recognized it for what it was: “an account of the process whereby Mary Ann Evans, a passionate, egotistic, anxious, and frustrated person incapable of sustained creative effort, became George Eliot the successful author.”

It was a painful love affair, Redinger showed, as were the lessons learned from it that brought Evans face to face with her passionate nature and illuminated “the conflict between the instinctive and the reflective” impulse, said Knopf, and taught her to revere “the truth of feeling.”

Redinger found overlooked clues in two lesser, generally ignored works by the author, the brief Brother and Sister sonnet sequence and the short story “The Lifted Veil.” Redinger traces Evans’s life and growth from a na´ve and conventionally raised country girl “with a conservative, indecisive father, a semi-invalid yet dominating mother” and a brother, Isaac, who scorned Mary Ann’s vivid imagination and put down her ideas, through her affair and disastrous marriage to her final emergence as “a woman prepared to accept scandal as the price of a generous emotional life.” The unhappy girl who distrusted novels as “egotistical and delusional” exercises would, by confronting her demons, become a great novelist whose works are “permeated by a rare grandeur of mind and magnanimity of soul.”

In presenting Redinger with the 1977 Cleveland Arts Prize, the Committee also recognized her own semi-autobiographical novel, The Golden Net (Crown Publishers, 1948), a portrait of campus life at a mid-western college. Its heroine is a young English teacher who is more concerned about the people in her life than the characters in the books, and is stung to realize that one female student she has envied for her efficiency (“because she managed her life without personal ties”) sees her as “remote, independent, and aloof.”

After Redinger, who also won the Strosacker Award for Excellence in Teaching, retired in 1980 after almost 30 years on the faculty of Baldwin-Wallace College (B-W), an annual prize was established in her name. Awarded to the graduating senior in English with the highest grade point average in English courses taken at B-W, the Ruby V. Redinger Prize has been claimed, fittingly, by a series of remarkable young women.

—Dennis Dooley

 


Love, Guilt and Daydreaming

In 1873, when she was fifty-four, George Eliot wrote to [her publisher] John Blackwood in response to a letter from him in which he had described his son and daughter on a picnic: “A good while ago I made a poem in the form of eleven sonnets after the Shakespeare type, on the childhood of a brother and sister—little descriptive bits on the mutual influences on their small lives. This was always one of my best loved subjects.” 

. . .Sonnets I-V . . . depict a leisurely scene, that of children starting off from their home and mother, carrying a rod and line and a basket of food; the time is generalized so that it could be any summer morning.

By virtue of his age, sex, and size, the brother is the leader, and the sister the trusting, worshipful follower.

    I thought his knowledge marked the boundary
    Where men grew blind, though angels knew the rest.
    If he said “Hush!” I tried to hold my breath;
    Wherever he said “Come!” I stepped in faith. . . .

This (so George Eliot thought in 1869) was the seed-time of all her after life, and especially did she see it as the source of her power to love as a mature woman.  . . .The sister sits on the bank, absorbing through her senses the sights, sounds, and fragrances around her, happily unaware that near-disaster is at hand. . . .

With the fifth line of Sonnet VII the time abruptly becomes specific in such a way as to suggest that the preceding sonnets have been gradually leading up to this episode, which might thus be considered the heart of the series:

    One day my brother left me in high charge,
    To mind the rod, while he went seeking bait,
    And bade me, when I saw a nearing barge,
    Snatch out the line, lest he should come too late.

 


    Proud of the task, I watched with all my might
    For one whole minute, till my eyes grew wide,
    Till sky and earth took on a strange new light
    And seemed a dream-world floating on some tide. . . .

Sonnet VIII reveals that she almost paid a great penalty for her daydreaming:

    But sudden came the barge’s pitch-black prow,
    Nearer and angrier came my brother’s cry,
    And all my soul was quivering fear.  . . .

Then, miraculously, not only did she succeed in lifting the line out of the way of the barge, but on the hook was a silver perch, so that her “guilt that won the prey, / Now turned to merit, had a guerdon rich / Of hugs and praises.” Her “triumph reached its highest pitch / When all at home were told the wondrous 
feat. . . .” This was pure glory, for only the brother could have done the telling. Nevertheless, although the joy of hearing him praise her to others relieved her of the “quivering fear” of his anger, she stayed uneasily aware of her “guilt.” 

. . .This simple little story exposes an important part of the psychic dilemma which for many years prevented George Eliot from writing creatively. . . . Even if she invented it to serve as an exemplum, in Brother and Sister  it clearly discloses that in her own mind guilt and daydreaming were associated, and that this association was in turn linked with her brother.

George Eliot: The Emergent Self (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975)

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