English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (29)


This book, volume 61 of the University of Kansas Humanistic Studies series, purports to do one thing but delivers another. According to the blurb on the back cover, Robertson demonstrates that George Eliot had much to say on a number of educational issues that plagued her contemporaries. In fiction, essays, and letters, we are told, she commented on various Victorian educational debates about illiteracy, the desirability of a classical education and higher education for women. In her introduction, Robertson briefly reminds us of some nineteenth- century writers on education: Newman, Mill, Huxley, Ruskin, Arnold, Spencer and Whewell, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. They all commented on and advocated educational needs and directions, and, Robertson says, they and 'numerous others had a meaningful influence' on Eliot. The result: Victorian educational issues loom large in Eliot's fiction (2-5), But not long afterwards she pours cold water on this argument, pointing out that 'Except for Daniel Deronda ... all of Eliot's English novels take place ... at the end of the eighteenth century and in the early years of the nineteenth' (22) - in other words, more or less before the Victorian age began.

People often learn from the past, of course, and perhaps Victorians saw Eliot's novels serving warnings or urging educational reform. But in that case what exactly did Eliot advocate as opposed to describe or reflect when it came to education? In her Introduction, Robertson tries to have it both ways:

In dealing with the education of men, Eliot's novels reflect both the common shortcomings of available schooling and the increasing diversity of educational opportunity. Whether describing a night school for laborers, a relatively exclusive public school, or a university, Eliot advocates schooling which is appropriate for the individual and his station in society. Although she shows that education can be a means by which an intelligent, hard-working person can get ahead in life, she stops short of advocating the concept of equal educational advantages for all without regard for social status, and she certainly shows that individual talents and abilities should be taken into consideration. (5)

Describing something, however, does not necessarily mean advocating it, and the fact remains, apart from urging people to think carefully and conduct themselves morally, stopping short of advocating is what Eliot usually did. Which is not surprising: she never saw herself as a reformer but an artist in duty bound to reflect the motives and influences already acting on people. Robertson does make this point; that is precisely what her book argues: Eliot believed in the need for education in its broadest sense and usually shied away from particularities. However, here, and elsewhere, Robertson's language blurs the distinction between Eliot the supposed reformer and Eliot the artist.