English, Department of



Brenda McKay

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 37 (2006) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (37)


Brenda McKay's volume, George Eliot and Victorian Attitudes to Racial Diversity, Colonialism, Darwinism, Class, Gender, and Jewish Culture and Prophecy will most likely appear on most of our students' and colleagues' bibliographies for some time to come. The topics addressed in this book will clearly appeal to our current generation of scholars and budding scholars; McKay describes her book in the Prologue as being 'chiefly devoted' to the study of 'the race discourse' in Eliot's work. In addition, as the unwieldy title suggests, McKay tries to connect to this emphasis on race issues of 'Colonialism, Darwinism, Class, Gender, and Jewish Culture and Prophecy' - an ambitious conception. While I cannot help but admire McKay's scope of research, her own erudition on any number of topics central to Victorian and Eliot studies, and her attempt to weave these topics into a larger unified argument, the final design of the book reflects the flaws one can find in the title: a book too ambitious to connect too many different specific discourses and issues. Thus while, as Rosemary Ashton rightly suggests in her elegant Preface, the book will certainly 'enhance' a reader's 'appreciation of [Eliot's] works - and of George Eliot's marvelous imaginative and intellectual range' (xv), it will not, I suspect, satisfy those seeking a coherent critical argument about Eliot's work. Indeed, the proposed scope of the book is so huge that I was loathe to attempt to evaluate it as a whole; my purpose here is to examine the sections specifically related to Judaism, Cabbala, and Jewish identity, leaving an evaluation of the larger project to those with more demonstrated expertise in Eliot studies.

My desire to read this book came from my own current work on Eliot and her relationship to discourses of poetry and Jewish identity; along with piquing my interest, however, the title of McKay's project gave me pause. Would the volume illuminate George Eliot's own attitudes toward this area, or delineate her reaction more generally to Victorian culture's approach to this topic? And what exactly would be encompassed in the terms 'Jewish culture and prophecy ‘problematic terms in Jewish studies as they erase distinctions between Judaism as a religious practice, Jewish identity as both ethnic and religious, and Jewish culture as a catch-all term for the ways Jewish people construct an identity that is neither strictly religious nor racial. As I read on in McKay's prologue, I found that there were what seemed to be two specific goals of the book: one goal is to 'situate [Eliot] within a wider context of mid nineteenth century debates on cultural and racial difference generally' (xvii) - an admirable aim. But, at the end of that paragraph, McKay adds that 'I also wish to synthesise and - more importantly - to extend work on George Eliot and Judaism in particular [ ...] hopefully furnish[ing] an altered context for other scholars to return to her fiction and poetry' (xviii). That 'also' confused memasking exactly what the connection between these issues of Judaism and those of cultural and racial difference were more specifically - beyond a general notion of 'otherness' that does not carry much analytical weight. The Preface goes on to suggest that the book will offer 'a general investigation of George Eliot's interest in ethnicity', and then ends by suggesting it will also augment the many fine studies on George Eliot and Judaism by offering critical perspectives on 'newer areas such as her problematic and Utopian interest in Israel [ ...] the Safed school of Jewish mysticism and its leader Isaac Luria, as well as a range of other Hebrew writers, Zionism, prophecy and Jewish music' (xx).