Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)
The distinctive tenor of George Eliot's mind was theological. Pre-eminent among Victorian novelists for her prodigious scholarship, she ventured into that realm of thought which Ruskin declared a "dangerous science for women - - one which they must indeed beware how they profanely touch - - that of theology" .'in a letter of6 November 1838 to Maria Lewis, her Nuneaton governess and first confidante, Eliot expressed her early preoccupation with the spiritual life and her wish not to "rest contented with making Christianity a mere addendum" to her pursuits, or "with tacking it as a fringe" to her garments: "May I seek to be sanctified wholly".' The influence of Miss Lewis's Evangelical Christianity upon the earnest and impressionable young scholar is evident in her letter of 18 August 1838, in which she referred to life as "a pilgrimage, a scene calling for diligence and watchfulness, not for repose and amusement".' Although her beliefs underwent radical change, her conception of life as a pilgrimage remained constant.
All the great religions of the world were in her view "the record of spiritual struggles which are the types of our own", and this universal battle of the spirit she described through the metaphor of the journey: "There is no short cut, no patent tram-road, to wisdom: after all the centuries of invention, the soul's path lies through the thorny wilderness which must be still trodden in solitude, with bleeding feet, with sobs for help, as it was trodden by them of old time".' Regarded as a free thinker by the members of her family and actually spurned by her father for refusing to attend church services, she maintained her right to question the orthodox expression of faith she could no longer accept as her own:
I have not returned to dogmatic Christianity - to the acceptance of any set of doctrines as a creed, and a superhuman revelation of the Unseen - but I see in it the highest expression of the religious sentiment that has yet found its place in the history of mankind, and I have the profoundest interesting the inward life of sincere Christians in all ages.
George Eliot's sympathetic observation of the varieties of spiritual experience is indeed borne out in the diverse systems of theology presented in her fiction: Evangelicalism in Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Methodism in Adam Bede (1859), Congregationalism in Silas Marner (1861) and Felix Holt (1866), Roman Catholicism in Romola (1863), Anglicanism in Middlemarch (1872), and Judaism in Daniel Deronda (1876).
Even after her renunciation of Evangelical Christianity, Eliot continued to revere the Bible. Her vigorous prose is attributed by Haight to her diligent study of the King James Version, which she read over and over again while at school and throughout her life." J. W. Cross refers to her enjoyment of reading aloud parts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and St. Paul's epistles, which "best suited the organ-like tones of her voice"; the Bible, he writes, "was a very precious and sacred Book to her, not only from early associations, but also from the profound conviction of its importance in the development of the religious life of man"! She was indebted to the Old Testament for her recurring images of Eden, the flood, the wilderness, and the promised land, and to the New Testament for those of temptation, conversion, sacrifice, and rebirth.