Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Two recent books address the important subject of how and why George Eliot represents history in her fiction. Neil McCaw's George Eliot and Victorian Historiography is concerned primarily with Eliot's relationship to Victorian history writing - to the historians, theories and ideologies that shaped the way Victorians understood and reconstructed an English national past. Hao Li's Memory and History in George Eliot aims to understand Eliot's conception of the 'mechanisms and functions' of 'communal memory' in relation to history. Li draws on Victorian physiological and psychological theories of memory, as well as on twentieth-century thinking about the relationship between memory and individual and communal identities. Though different in their critical orientation, the two books are similar in that they provide intertextual readings of Eliot's writing and a range of other Victorian discourses interspersed with an enormous number and variety of contemporary theories. Both books contribute to the current preoccupation with Daniel Deronda. Three of McCaw's seven chapters focus on issues raised by Deronda and the last chapter of Impressions of Theophrastus Such, 'The Modem Hep! Hep! Hep!' (Chs 3,6, 7). Li's book, which is organized chronologically, devotes the sixth and last of her longer and denser chapters to Deronda with much discussion of 'The Modem Hep! Hep! Hep!'. Their respective treatments of these issues make a particularly interesting point of comparison.
I read the first chapter and a half of McCaw's George Eliot and Victorian Historiography with a sense of satisfaction. McCaw has a fascinating subject and an intelligent thesis. Basically, he argues that Eliot's reconstructions of the English past were dependent upon the histories she read, and that to fully understand her Realist representation of history, we need to understand the content and contradictions of Victorian historiography. His introduction and first chapter, examining the idea of Realism that guided Eliot's representation of English history, are well grounded in published primary sources, such as the various working notebooks, as well as in the critical literature on Victorian Realism. He also displays an authoritative command of mainstream Victorian historiography and combines this knowledge with an awareness of recent historical and theoretical writings about English national identity.
McCaw is disdainful of one particular kind of Victorian history, namely 'Whig' history, which identifies British history as one of continual development or 'progress' culminating in a Victorian present. He wants to claim that Eliot had an ambivalent relationship to such views, arguing that there is 'both a privileging and then a deconstruction of notions of narrative and totality' (29); however, his attempts at post-structuralist analysis are undermined by his devotion to identity politics. Suddenly, in the middle of Chapter Two, Eliot turns from proto-postmodernist to an old-fashioned Victorian oppressor, whose 'perception of Englishness is inextricably bound up with Whig notions of national history, and this tends toward the silencing or overlooking of the foreign Other' (46). She has a 'reluctance to confront the implications of Catholicism' (47), 'an insurmountable difficulty in confronting Catholicism' and a 'lack of enthusiasm in confronting Catholic issues' (49). Worse still, she refused to engage with 'the political and religious tension of Ireland' (50). For McCaw: 'This amounts to a fundamental, if subliminal, acquiescence with a Protestant Anglocentrism that denies the diversity of British History and national identity' (50). Perhaps his modern usage of the word 'diversity' betrays a fundamental, if subliminal, desire that Victorians live up to his correct sensibilities. The irony, of course, is that the moral high ground taken by McCaw requires a 'Whiggish' sense of 'our' moral superiority to the Victorians.