English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 26 (1995) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (26)


The thesis of this book is as follows. In her early life George Eliot experienced a number of bereavements: the deaths of her baby twin siblings in 1821, after which her mother withdrew emotionally from her life; her mother's own death in 1836, when she was sixteen, and her father's death in 1849. Failing to complete 'the mourning process' adequately, and experiencing unconscious 'rage' as a consequence, Eliot had to work through these and other traumatic experiences as an adult, using her novel-writing as a therapy. Her own unconscious aggression comes out in the aggression of her heroines, of which she is to a large extent unaware. Thus by analysing this fictional aggression, we can lay bare Eliot's own psychological conflicts.

The first thing to say about this is that it stands logic on its head. There is no independent evidence that Eliot had these problems in coping with bereavement, or manifested any repressed aggression in later life. What Johnstone is doing is invoking A to account for B, when the only evidence of B' s existence is A. The second thing is that in pursuing the trail (circular though it may be) she does expose a great deal of interesting material and makes us think again, in unconventional ways, about the processes of George Eliot's creativity and the very real possibility that she put into her novels more than she knew she was putting.

Ever since it was published, readers of Adam Bede have loved Hetty and disliked Dinah more than Eliot seems to have meant them to. Johnstone interprets Hetty as an 'incomplete self’, a woman who needs help from others in finding her own identity, which is just what she fails to get. Adam, Arthur and Dinah all use Hetty to resolve their own conflicts. Adam's unconscious aggression is eventually purged by compassion. Dinah's is unacknowledged, although we are shown aggression in her preaching, and her ostensible desire to help Hetty comes to nothing when she 'goes away without leaving an address'. Hetty, says Johnstone, 'represents the side of herself that Dinah is unwilling to acknowledge: the sexual and the aggressive.' And Eliot's own failure to see this 'constitutes a denial of the aggressive impulses in herself.'