Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
'To begin reading George Eliot,' David Payne suggests, 'is speedily to encounter the conviction that modernity is best approached from an oblique angle.' Unlike, say, her contemporary, Charles Dickens, George Eliot's fictions 'return us to the provincial settings of Austen and Scott; and they set their actions in historical pasts which, as we read along, soon appear quite specific.' Payne's study of Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot is primarily concerned with the Victorian response to modernity, but in a fairly specific methodological way, that entwines 'the ideological history of theology and political economy, the literary history of the novel, and the commodity history of the serial into a single sociological narrative of developments in religion, social theory, and literary culture.' If modernity was often experienced as disenchantment, Payne argues, then these novelists 'reenchanted the Victorian world when they delivered their gospel of disenchantment in the symbolic vessels of Christianity, still the primary source for their society's ordeals of development, and in the literary form of the serial, a potent sign of the commodification of culture.
Payne focuses on the early work of Dickens, plus Little Dorrit, the early work of Thackeeay, plus Vanity Fair, and the early short fiction of George Eliot, plus Silas Mamer and Middlemarch. It is good to see new work on texts still arguably understudied, including Sketches by Boz, The Book of Snobs, Scenes of Clerical Life, and 'The Lifted Veil'. Payne's readings of the texts are often suggestively complex and in places, strikingly so, but I am not exactly sure why he studies these serial writers and not others. Payne believes that Thackeray and George Eliot are Dickens's 'two greatest rivals in the form' , though other writers might usefully be drawn in to his discussion to prove this point; as it is, Elizabeth Gaskell isn't mentioned, and there are only a few paragraphs on Trollope and a few pages on Wilkie Collins, to name only three of the novelists who might make Payne's study more wide-ranging and deeper in its reach.
In writing about George Eliot, Payne takes his cue initially from the 1856 essay on Wilhelm Riehl, 'The Natural History of German Life', in which 'Marian Evans was already proposing a new kind of prose form: "incarnate history," the representation of historical change in a register with biological and theological overtones.' In England, Marian Evans writes in the essay, 'Protestantism and commerce have modernised the face of the land and the aspects of society in a far greater degree than in any continental country,' and the result is a lack of organic connection across society. Protestantism and capitalism become the 'two principal markers of modernity' in 'Janet's Repentence', a story of contradictions in which 'the aesthetic of incarnation constructed around Janet Dempster strains towards the raptures of the saint before collapsing into the shameful movements of the hysteric.' The concept of bourgeois marriage, through which George Eliot tries to ensure lasting social relations, leads to an anxious, disenchanted modernity.