English, Department of



Michael Davis

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (38)


Michael Davis packs a dense yet deft discussion of George Eliot's relationship with the scientific theories of mind of her contemporaries into this short book. Revisiting the novels and essays, and to a lesser extent the letters, he adds to our understanding of her place as a thinking novelist by his careful negotiation of intellectual positions, his weaving of the discussion among such Eliot contemporaries as Darwin, Spencer, Lewes, Huxley, Alexander Bain, W. B. Carpenter, and E. S. Dallas, and his engagement with recent studies in the field by Gillian Beer, Sally Shuttleworth, K. K. Collins, Tess Cosslett, David Carroll, and Rick Rylance, and others.

Beginning in his Introduction with the famous passage in chapter 16 of Middlemarch describing Lydgate's ambitions as a scientist - his desire to 'pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness' - Davis sets out to show not just how Eliot wishes to observe and analyse human motivations, but also how even as she claims this as the novelist's duty and art she is subtly aware of the irreducibility of any particular mind to formulaic analysis and full understanding. Of the Middlemarch passage Davis writes:

As much as it celebrates the mind's potential ... Eliot's description also conveys a sense of its complexity, a complexity which threatens to defeat any attempt, by scientist, novelist or ethicist, to understand it comprehensively. (p. 2)