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George Eliot and culture.

Mary Wilson Carpenter. George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History. Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. 246 pp.

Daniel Cottom. Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History, and Literary Representation. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 241 pp.

Alexander Welsh. George Eliot and Blackmail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. 388 pp.

George Eliot as a strikingly modern "historian"--as one who understands every history to be an interpretation, a fiction--emerges from the pages of Mary Wilson Carpenter's impressive first book, in which a solid understanding of Victorian biblical exegesis provides the basis for radical, often feminist readings. In this first critical work to seriously consider the extent to which George Eliot's youthful interest in "prophecy fulfilled and unfulfilled" may have influenced her mature thought and work, Carpenter contends that Eliot's representations of history are "always resistant to a single interpretation" (5) and proposes that a key to such representations may be found in her early schooling in English Protestant "continuous historical" exegesis of biblical prophecy.

George Eliot's early letters reveal that the young Evangelical was drawn to and quite familiar with the "continuous historical" school of interpretation, which "approached the Apocalypse of St. John as a mirror of 'continuous' history, its mystic scheme believed to signify the history of the western world from the beginning of the Christian era to the end of time" (3). Carpenter contends that this school shaped Eliot's first conception of history; thus, her eventual loss of faith led inevitably to a recognition "that every history maps the landscape of time by imposing an imaginary line on an otherwise inchoate mass, and that every history is therefore a fiction" (xi). According to Carpenter, this early recognition later resulted in narratives that "construct multiple 'fictions' of history through reference to various formal and symbolic systems of codification" (xi).

Those "systems of codification" on which Carpenter's theory rests consist primarily of formal divisions in the narratives that reveal Eliot's appropriation of apocalyptic structures and of apocalyptically significant numbers used often as chapter numbers. Carpenter's analysis convincingly reveals that sevenfold, or "septenary" structures, recalling both the chief structures of Revelation and the "seven ages of time" often outlined in Victorian family bibles, abound in Eliot's work, as in the visible seven-book division of The Mill on the Floss. In this "history of a witch," Carpenter says, Eliot uses the primary structure of the Apocalypse in order to represent "feminine conflict" in "the form of a bitter parody of apocalyptic history" (54). This ironizing of septenary structure contrasts with the visionary treatment of it in Romola, Eliot's historical romance based on the apocalyptic prophet Savanarola and the central work in Carpenter's study. Her formal analysis uncovers multiple apocalyptic structures embedded in the plot of Romola, the most significant of which seems to be the sevenfold division of Romola's "journey" from an age of innocence to the founding of a "New Jerusalem," a community of women and children "bound by 'feminine' values" (102). By appropriating the scheme of the Apocalypse but "revising it into a post-Christian and postpatriarchal vision of humanity" (61), Carpenter concludes, George Eliot "rewrites history as a sevenfold prophetic vision of 'the woman clothed with the sun"' (54).

Through her discovery of apocalyptic structures and numbers, Carpenter also provides original and intriguing new readings of Middlemarch (Eliot's satirical treatment of apocalyptic schemes), Daniel Deronda (Eliot's radical interpretation of Christian prophetic history), and the 1874 volume of poetry, The Legend of Jubal (Eliot's feminist and humanist revision of the patriarchal and elitist poems in John Keble's The Christian Year). But perhaps Carpenter's most startling conclusions come in her early chapter on Adam Bede, where she argues that chronology in this novel provides the key to "hidden hermeneutics" that produce a second, feminist reading--one that counters the surface narrative and its conventional happy ending in marriage with a "frightening gothic tale" (32) about "the deliberate silencing of women" (31). Carpenter's method here is to move from dates specified in the novel to "lessons" listed for those dates in the Anglican lectionary, exploring how those "interleaved" lessons deconstruct the surface narrative and undermine any comforting conclusions we might draw from it. As original and provocative as this reading is, however, Carpenter's method here contains inconsistencies that weaken her argument: she seems rather arbitrarily to select the one lesson that will support her reading from the several lessons provided for each date. The reader's credulity is strained also when Carpenter sometimes multiplies, sometimes adds chapter number and book number to reveal "suppressed" prophetic numbers which, she implies, Eliot intended her readers to discover. At such moments, she seems to be trying too hard to support a thesis that, given the much more convincing evidence she rallies elsewhere, makes an otherwise valid and valuable contribution to our understanding of George Eliot's fictional "histories."

"It does not leave everything as it is," says Daniel Cottom of the type of historical criticism he practices in his newest work (211). Undoubtedly, it will not leave George Eliot as she was in the minds of many readers. Social Figures, a powerfully subversive work of the "new historicism," presents a disturbing picture of George Eliot as a "sincere ideologue" (191) whose discourse was complicitous with the hegemonic project of the middle classes in nineteenth-century England.

Guided by Foucauldian assumptions that words are sites of a struggle "over meaning in society" (210) and that every act of discourse is "a political as well as a social act" (xix), Cottom sets out to analyze the rhetoric of liberal intellectual discourse, exemplified by the work of George Eliot, and to "evaluate its implications in terms of the historical relations that allowed this discourse to appear and have the power of meaning" (xx).

Cottom begins by defining the modern liberal intellectual: existing because of historical developments connected to the creation of a modern industrial nation and the rise of the middle classes, whose values they shared, liberal intellectuals nevertheless saw themselves as being above all constraints of class or politics and committed solely to the ideal of a classless, ahistorical, rational discourse--so committed, Cottom says, that they took the nature of their own social existence to be the "ideal for all humanity" (20) and the free circulation of ideas characterized by their rational discourse to be the essential nature of society. Equating their ideal of society with reality, they make it the "basis for morality and all other forms of social commitment" (25).

Having situated Eliot within this discourse, Cottom begins analyzing the political implications of her discourse, stripping down what he calls Eliot's "social figures" to reveal such naked "truths" as these: that "the individual," seemingly so exalted in George Eliot's work, is conceived not as a unique product of class or society but rather as an "abstract negation of class divisions, aristocratic traditions, and social history" (72) reflecting the liberal intellectual's own conception of herself; that "feeling" is "individual experience that is not individual but essential and universal, just as individuals in general will be recognized as such only insofar as they recall the figure of society as a whole" (148); that "history" for Eliot is her own allegorical fable of the human spirit in progress--a version of middleclass progressivism; and that "sympathy" is pure ideology "dissimulated as the universal spirit of humanity" (191).

Perhaps Cottom's most disturbing revelation is how an art ostensibly meant to identify with "ordinary human life" could be even more exclusive than art within an aristocratic conception. By "mystifying" ordinary human life, by insisting on the impossibility of adequately representing it (because, of course, even the" quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity"), George Eliot effectively controls "the significance that would be allowed to that life" (105); this figure becomes a "vacancy for discourse" (62), an opportunity for "another application of the middle classes' idea of their own history to the nature of the world" (60). Finally, Cottom's convincing analyses reveal that all of her "social figures," in one way or another, refer to some aspect of George Eliot's own discourse, since "reality" itself for her is the nature of her own art, the figuration of an ideal rational discourse which, whether she was fully aware of it or not, was complicitous with the middle class hegemonic project.

While assenting to Cottom's conclusions--indeed, they have an undeniable ring of truth--readers who have long enjoyed "their" Eliot may be dismayed at Cottom's "sincere ideologue." Perhaps anticipating the disenchantment with Eliot his work might create, Cottom devotes much of his final chapter to a defense of his own brand of historical criticism and its purposes, claiming that his demonstration of "the politics of feeling" in Eliot's discourse "extends our capacity to desire, to feel pleasure, and, even in the most old-fashioned sense of the word, to appreciate literature" (212). Such a comment may seem overly optimistic to the reader who agrees with Terry Eagleton's comment in the Forward that Cottom's study is almost "too successful," for "it leaves us uneluctably" with one question: "Why, after this, read Eliot at all?" Perhaps Cottom himself provides one answer when he acknowledges that Eliot's work was "a complex exploration of ideology rather than a conventional reproduction of ideology" (199). As a "sincere" explorer, Eliot fully deserves the attention and admiration she continues to inspire.

A question that has long troubled many readers of George Eliot--the question of why this ultra-serious writer included such a "sensational" plot element as blackmail in her novels--is convincingly answered by Alexander Welsh in his most recent work, George Eliot and Blackmail. Welsh's answer is that in her use of blackmail or a related action in every novel she wrote after The Mill on the Floss, Eliot was influenced less by sensation novelists than by a wide cultural obsession with knowledge and secrecy that arose from the "information revolution" of the nineteenth century. Reputational blackmail, Welsh says, is "one unintended result of the information revolution" (29).

Deftly combining social history and literary analysis, Welsh reveals how a condition approaching widespread paranoia is created by a "culture of information," a condition that George Eliot and many of her contemporaries responded to in novels that "perhaps better represent the anxieties and displacements at work than the real thing" (29). In three successive, scholarly chapters that form a most valuable portion of the overall volume, Welsh surveys the growth in knowledge and developments in communications that led almost inevitably to an increased wariness of "threatening" publicity, a radical division between public and private life, a growing tendency towards concealment, and a recognition that individuals do not have control over the information that affects their reputations. These chapters brilliantly elucidate the connection between reputational blackmail and a culture of information--the culture bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century.

Although George Eliot's blackmail plots occur in her later fiction, Welsh first examines the three earliest works--Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss--in which, he notes, Eliot portrays continuous rather than discontinuous lives, creates worlds in which gossip and the closeness of community preclude blackmail, and insists on the value of openness and the potential destructiveness of secrecy. The famous Liggins episode (that blackmail-like event that forced Eliot to drop her incognito) marks a turning point in Eliot's fiction, according to Welsh: "Each novel written after this time treats secrets curiously if not sympathetically, and each novel proves less content with entire knowingness" (131).

In the fourth and longest section of his work, Welsh turns to what he calls Eliot's "Fictions of Discontinuity," discussing Silas Marner, Romola, Felix Holt, and Middlemarch in some detail but devoting three full chapters to Daniel Deronda, the "culmination of so much that is modern in George Eliot" (vii). The actions of all these novels contain "a marked discontinuity between the present and some experience of the past that has been deliberately or otherwise forgotten," Welsh says, and "all are concerned with establishing a continuity that has been broken" (159)--even when continuity itself seems threatening, as it does for such characters as Tito Melema and Bulstrode. Welsh's analysis further shows a growing cynicism in Eliot's attitude towards information and knowledge as she moves from Felix Holt to Middlemarch. Finally, in Daniel Deronda, she continues the severe critique of knowledge begun in Middlemarch but also, through Mordecai's ideas as they are embraced by Demnda, transforms knowledge into ideology, a "fusion of knowledge and feeling" which she offers as an "alternative to the commonplace and threatening exchange of information" (306).

In his closing chapters, Welsh suggests another way in which Eliot's achievement was predictive of the future: in her interest in consciousness, unconsciousness, and the problems of maintaining a personal identity over time, she anticipated the psychoanalytic movement that, Welsh says, "follows naturally from the first century of the age of information" (viii). By delineating the connections between psychoanalysis and fictional narratives, Welsh thus concludes by identifying one further way in which George Eliot's novels, considered as "acts of communication," still speak meaningfully to us today.

Susan Calovini

Ohio State University
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Author:Calovini, Susan
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Date:Dec 22, 1988
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