EVEN by Victorian standards George Eliot was an exceptionally copious correspondent; between 1836 and 1880 she wrote a sufficient number of letters to keep Gordon S. Haight busy between 1954 and 1978 editing them in nine volumes. The present massive but elegant book represents a condensing (Haight's word) of these on a principle accurately conveyed in its title: here are both complete letters and some hundreds of others from which passages of inferior interest have been excised. In the one case as in the other, now a brief and now an extended introductory note serve to provide a continuous biographical thread for the general reader. These notes carry the authority of George Eliot: A Biography, which Professor Haight published in 1968. No Victorian writer has been better served by a dedicated scholar than has George Eliot by Gordon Haight.

The earliest letters present us with a country- bred girl, Mary Ann Evans, of modest parentage and little formal education, advancing with confidence and astonishing speed upon the main intellectual citadels of an age. Her early standpoint is robustly Evangelical and mildly egalitarian as well. We have a "little humbug of a queen"; "decayed monarchs should be pensioned off" or kept in a "sort of Zoological Garden"; the clergy of the Anglican church are for the most part "insipid sticks." As for imaginative literature, we have to be wary of according it any sort of status as a moral agent. "The weapons of the Christian warfare," this stern young woman declares, "were never sharpened at the forge of romance." And although Shakespeare has, it may be admitted, a higher claim on our attention than have Byron and Cervantes, "we have need of as ne a power of distillation as the bee to suck nothing but honey from his pages."

Walter Scott is given a particularly rough ride. "The spiritual sleep of that man was awful," we are told. "All biography is interesting and instructive. Sir W.S. himself is the best commentary on the effect of romances and novels." When she wrote this in 1839 Mary Anne was already very well read in Waverley and its successors -- as indeed she was in English literature at large. And her judgment, although momentarily it may appear absurd, is in fact the product of a rapidly maturing critical intelligence. Walter Scott wrote himself (and at Abbotsford built himself) into a fantasy of his own contriving, and the result, although it kept him heroically at his desk by candlelight far into the small hours, does reveal itself as a kind of slumber when brought beneath the beam of high literary art.

THE LETTERS, although from the first so abundant, afford comparatively little information on Mary Anne's movement from faith to doubt. It must have been, in essence, a lonely intellectual journey, and it climaxed in a commonplace family row. In her 23rd year the young woman refuses to go to church with her widowed father, but affection obliges her to accept a morally dubious compromise: she is to continue to be seen in church with her father, but may believe or disbelieve at her pleasure. This state of affairs continues for some six or seven years until Robert Evans dies. She then at once goes on a continental tour with sober-living but free-thinking friends, and for a time remains by herself in Geneva -- where, "as the fruit of the revolution . . . people of a really high tone of manners and education receive pensionnaires."

Her observation of individuals sharpens in this cosmopolitan society, and there are numerous letters in which the eye of the future novelist is plainly at work on what surrounds her. But she herself is already a woman of outstanding intellect and quite unusual acquirements ("Spinoza and I have been divorced for several months"), and the society in which she finds herself, as well as being described, has to be appraised by her own standards. M. de Herder "would be a nice person if he had another soul added to the one he has by nature"; "the squinting Marquis is the most well-bred, harmless of men"; Mademoiselle Rosa "is rather a nice creature, but with a mere woman's head and mind"; Mme. de Ludwigsdorf is "really remarkably destitute of animalism," and may be described as "a person of high culture according to the ordinary notions of what feminine culture should be." As for Mrs. Wood, she is "a very ugly but ladylike little woman who is under an infatuation as it regards her caps, always wearing the brightest rose-color or intensest blue, with a complexion not unlike a dirty primrose glove."

The last phrase here might come from Virginia Woolf, and all hint at a lurking discontent. But then, in a letter written early in December 1849, we have this:

"I can only think with a shudder of returning to England. It looks to me like a land of gloom, of ennui, of platitude, but in the midst of all this it is the land of duty and affection, and the only ardent hope I have for my future life is to have given to me some woman's duty, some possibility of devoting myself where I may see a daily result of pure calm blessedness in the life of another."

The hope was to be realized abundantly in her lifetime's devotion to George Henry Lewes, and the key word is "duty." Long afterwards it recurs in a famous place in which F.W.H. Myers records a walk taken with George Eliot in 1873 in the Fellows' Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge:

". . . she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet- calls of men, -- the words 'God,' 'Immortality,' 'Duty,' -- pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the 'first,' how unbelievable the 'second,' and yet how peremptory and absolute the 'third' . . . I listened, and night fell; Her grave, majestic countenance turned towards me like a sibyl's in the gloom."

Beside this we may place a letter to Francois D'Albert Durade, a friend from her Geneva days, after the publication of Adam Bede. "My books are deeply serious things to me, and come out of all the painful discipline, all the most hardly-learnt lessons of my past life." After long years during which she "seemed to serve no purpose of much worth," she has been "at last blessed with the sense that she has done something worth living and suffering for." It is of this self-dedication -- as of a whole soul in activity -- that we are aware in reading Middlemarch. Here is an English novel in which we feel overpoweringly a rich distillation of personal experience and conviction to combine with the workings of a capacious intellect, and which is thus alike in kind, although not equal in range and power, to the greatest European novel of all, Tolstoy's War and Peace.