Date of this Version
Published (as Chapter 8) in J. Arnold and L. Marz Harper (eds.), George Eliot: Interdisciplinary Essays (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), pp 165-193.
An argument that George Eliot was a novelist intellectually, philosophically, and aesthetically ahead of the majority of her peers thankfully needs no defense two hundred years after her birth. This lofty status, however, does not mean that Eliot was impervious to the cultural preoccupations of her time. Quite the contrary. A central contention of this essay is that Eliot, despite her imposing intellectual reputation, engaged with her culture’s popular interest in human hands in ways that profoundly affected her fiction. As I have argued elsewhere,1 the Victorians became highly cognizant of the physicality of their hands in large part because unprecedented developments in mechanized industry and new advancements in evolutionary theory made them the first culture to experience a radical disruption of this supposedly age-old, God-given, “distinguishing” mark of their humanity. Eliot did not write any “industrial” novels per se, and so it may be fair to assume that she was relatively unmoved by the human hand’s supersession by mechanized industry. And though she was not religious in any traditional sense, she definitely maintained a keen interest in the rapidly changing scientific paradigms of her day. This scientific interest, as we shall see, plays an unusually interesting—and as of yet unconsidered—role in the development of her characters’ bodies.