Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Famously insisting to her friend Barbara Bodichon that our 'highest calling' is 'to do without opium', George Eliot is not a writer whom one immediately associates with intoxication, although one of her earliest stories, 'Janet' s Repentance' in Scenes of Cle rical Life, memorably dramatizes the addictive and destructive power of alcohol in the lives of Janet and her husband, the lawyer Dempster. Kathleen McCormack's study casts its net wider than such straightforward representations of drink and drunkenness to explore the tissue of references to, and images of, intoxication, and the drugs that induce it, throughout the fiction. Intoxication, with its range of associations from poisoning to euphoria, becomes the centre of a nexus of issues relating not only to medicine and health, but also to politics, aesthetics, culture, gender, and writing itself. Drawing on Plato's Phaedrus through the mediation of Derrida, Kathleen McCormack shows how George Eliot subtextually or metaphorically associates writing with drugs and exploits the kill-or-cure ambiguity of the Pharmakon metaphor. The principal object of the intended cure is the ailing body of English society itself, and this exploration of intoxication as theme and metaphor engages repeatedly with the Condition of England itself, particularly in Felix Halt, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
This study is admirably ambitious in its scope, and it is illuminating to observe how pervasively the allusions to, and metaphors of, intoxication colour the fiction. In Daniel Deronda, for instance, we are shown how the scenes of English life are shot through with images of drugs, disease, and intoxication, whilst the Jewish sections of the novel, with the exception of Lapidoth's addiction to gambling, 'detoxify' the signifiers that are so poisonous in the English sphere and, indeed, in the earlier fiction. The earliest fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, is helpfully contextualized by contemporary evidence from an anonymous Nuneaton diarist, whose testimony lends support to George Eliot's contention, to John Blackwood, that the fictional Milby was a far pleasanter place than its heavy-drinking original. Where intoxication is explicitly an issue, as in Scenes or the election episodes in Felix Halt, the author is on firm ground, and the study is rich in illuminating details, like the association of Godfrey Cass's name in Silas Mamer with Godfrey's Cordial, a sweetened tincture of opium that nicely conveys his inclination for willful oblivion. But her argument becomes more speculative and less persuasive in novels like The Mill on the Floss. Where intoxication is not literally present, then the thesis demands that it must be implicitly so, and Mr. TuIliver's litigiousness and Maggie's love for Stephen are thus interpreted as instances of addiction, of intoxication transferred from the mimetic level to the metaphorical. Similarly, Silas Marner's compulsive hoarding of money is seen as another form of addiction and brought into the orbit of intoxication. Here the central term becomes too attenuated to be useful: it is not clear how much is gained from reading these different kinds of behaviour as drug-related. On other occasions intoxication serves as a universal connective, having links in Adam Bede, for instance, with 'disease, language, romantic love, squandered money, and diverted descent' (77); and the juggling required to keep all these balls in the air at the same time creates a sense of strain, impeding the momentum of the argument and blurring its focus. Often the author seems to be trying to cast her net too wide and to connect intoxication with everything: relating opium understandably enough to Orientalism, she then interprets Molly Farren's enslavement to 'demon Opium' in Si/as Mamer as metaphorically duplicating slavery in Britain's colonies and argues that this English barmaid is figured as 'Romantic, distant, diabolic and Oriental' (147). Such straining for inclusiveness is the disadvantage of this study's ambitious scope.