Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 33 (2002) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The first paragraph of Peter Hodgson's opening chapter on 'George Eliot's Religious Pilgrimage' outlines the conventional wisdom about George Eliot, that 'exposure to higher criticism' caused her to abandon 'the fervent evangelical faith of her youth and become a disciple of the "religion of humanity'" (the lower case letters of this last phrase indicating the problems she had with the dogmatism and sheer rigidity of Auguste Comte's official new religion). So far, so good. It is with the second sentence that he starts to go wrong: 'Thereafter, it is thought, she lost interest in religion and turned to the exploration of other subjects in her novels’. What responsible reader or critic of George Eliot ever thought this? It may be true, as Hodgson suggests, that recent biographies have shown more interest in questions of feminism and psychology than religion but that presumably reflects both a shift in modem sensibility (these are the questions that interest current readers) and a recognition on their part that the religious question had already been so fully covered. It is to Hodgson's credit that he asks new and interesting questions about the theological significance of Eliot's work; it is regrettable (as I hope to demonstrate) that his answers, along with his readings of Eliot's novels, are often unconvincing and unreliable. Few critics now believe that there is such a thing as a 'correct' reading but Hodgson succeeds in illustrating that it is still possible to come up with incorrect ones.
Herbert Schlossberg, in the few pages devoted to George Eliot in his study of the 'religious revival' of the early nineteenth-century, reflects the critical consensus more accurately in noting that she chose the religion of humanity as 'the replacement for her evangelical heritage in order to supply the missing moral basis for her life’. He quotes Rosemarie Bodenheimer on the paradox that her 'rejection of Christian religious doctrine was undertaken in a militantly religious spirit, as a quest for truths worthy of God’, who remained in the much-quoted words supposedly uttered to F. W. H. Myers, 'inconceivable'. Hodgson rightly maintains that the apophatic theological tradition has always recognized this, teaching us to reject all images of God as at best anthropomorphic and at worst idolatrous. He is surely wrong in suggesting that Eliot's fictional oeuvre points towards the existence of a mysterious but nevertheless 'real' metaphysical entity for which the best name remains 'God’.