Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 24 (1993)
Many publishers run series of 'introductions' to English literature - handy roll-calls of the canon, beginning with Chaucer and ending with Virginia Woolf or thereabouts - and inevitably George Eliot has to be there. One is, of course, glad for the small army of academics for whom gainful employment is thus provided, but the question naturally arises whether so many books covering the same ground serve any useful purpose.
In Professor McSweeney's case the answer is yes. His book is rewarding because he is sufficiently master of his subject to make it his own. He forms his own judgements, chooses his own very telling quotations and balances his comments to make us look freshly at the novels and the novelist.
The first three chapters give us George Eliot up to Adam Bede. We get a clear picture of her Warwickshire background, her early religious experience, her intellectual development and her widening social circle. McSweeney emphasizes the central place of moral belief in the growth of her mind, deals sensitively with her emotional life, and even manages in a few pages to provide a nucleus of critical discussion. A highly interesting quotation from Nietzsche was quite new to me: 'They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralist females a la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.' (Professor McSweeney seems to have read almost as much as George Eliot did. He is equally at borne with Comte, Feuerbach, George Sand, Balzac and Walter Scott.)