English, Department of



Dinah Birch

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 36 (2005) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (36)


In George Eliot's first piece of published fiction, the hero - if that's the right word for the hapless Reverend Amos Barton - is no advertisement for the conventional schooling of a middle-class Englishman. Though he has managed to struggle through the university degree he needs to qualify him for a clerical life, his years as a student have not made an intellectual of Amos: 'Mr. Barton had not the gift of perfect accuracy in English orthography and syntax, which was unfortunate, as he was known not to be a Hebrew scholar, and not in the least suspected of being an accomplished Grecian. These lapses, in a man who had gone through the Eleusinian mysteries of a university education, surprised the young ladies of his parish extremely; especially the Miss Farquhars, whom he had once addressed in a letter as Dear Mads., apparently an abbreviation for Madams. The person’s least surprised at the Rev. Amos's deficiencies were his clerical brethren, who had gone through the mysteries themselves.' 1 Such deficiencies are not uncommon in George Eliot's work. Badly schooled people, men or women, are the rule rather than the exception, in her novels, and she repeatedly returns to the subject of the muddled thinking and false values that lead to these failures.

Though George Eliot famously made herself one of the most learned women of her time, she had sharply divided feelings about what formal teaching could achieve. This is a matter worth attending to, for it takes us to the heart of what engaged her most deeply as a novelist. Some of what Eliot has to say about education is a question of social observation and satire, to do with her pungent sense of what had been denied her, and also of the limitations of what had been denied. She is consistently sceptical about the benefits of the kind of masculine classical and theological education in Oxford and Cambridge that had produced such poor results with Amos. Both class and gender had excluded her from that kind of schooling - as of course most English men and all women of her generation were excluded. One of her objectives is to reveal the narrowness and injustice of the system, and also to remind her readers that the benefits offered by such education might not after all be so very worthwhile, as the Misses Farquhar discovered. This is part of her work as a politically sophisticated and progressive writer, a woman whose objective it is to analyse and sometimes to condemn the patterns of power that governed cultural life in mid-Victorian England. Her consistent advocation of rigorous and broadly based courses of study for both boys and girls, with a strong practical element, and including serious attention to modem languages and science, and to the traditions of European thought, is one of the most telling ways in which she intervened in the cultural debates of her period. But George Eliot's engagement with processes of education is not simply a matter of political criticism, or even of satire. Thinking about what pedagogy meant was a matter of understanding the autonomy of the self, and the necessary limits of that autonomy. It involved questioning the nature of what could be taught, or learned, through fiction, or more specifically through the development of the realist narrative forms of the novel that were her central concern. The transition from the small Mary Anne Evans as a disoriented schoolgirl to the dignified George Eliot, most eminent of British women writers, was a journey in which changing concepts of pedagogy played a central part. They involved processes of desire and subjugation, in tension and sometimes in contradiction with the will to self-assertion. They also involved George Eliot's understanding of the cultural identity of women, caught between opposing social and individual obligations, or oppressions. Her ideas about education are closely bound up with her expanding sense of authenticity and subjectivity, within the development of a post-Christian framework of thought.