English, Department of



Kirstie Blair

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019


In Chapter 32 of Daniel Deronda, Sir Hugo Mallinger jocularly remarks to Deronda, 'You are always looking tenderly at the women, and talking to them in a Jesuitical way. You are a dangerous young fellow'.' Deronda responds with undue irritation, drawing the narrative observation that, 'Sir Hugo's notion of flirting, it was to be hoped, was rather peculiar'. Both Deronda's defensive reaction and Eliot's sly comment hint at the potential dangers of 'peculiar' flirtation with Gwendolen, a peculiarity linked to the term 'Jesuitical'. In the pervasive late Victorian discourse of anti-Catholicism, Jesuit priests are associated with insinuation, deception, persuasion, and seduction (whether literal or figurative). At the centre of this antiCatholic rhetoric is a strong resistance to and stereotyping of the confessional. Deronda's guilty response here to being imaged for an instant as a Jesuit confessor intimately advising a female penitent, suggests that he cannot be unaware of the basis of his relationship with Gwendolen in confessional revelations. Recent critical attention to confession in Daniel Deronda has centred on Foucauldian analysis of the power-relations in confessional discourse, neglecting the particular resonance of confession within 1870s anti-Catholicism.' In contrast, in this article I examine the implications, in their historical context, of Eliot's allusions to Catholicism in Daniel Deronda and show how the stereotypes of cunning priest and innocent penitent threaten to govern the actions of her leading characters. Confession provides the Victorian reader and Eliot's characters with a readily identifiable model for Deronda's and Gwendolen's relationship, one that explains Deronda's mysterious influence over Gwendolen, introduces a frisson of sexual unease, and indicates Deronda's identity as a religious outsider.

Confession was one of the most fraught issues in Victorian anti-Catholic discourse. Attempts by the Tractarians to introduce auricular confession into the Anglican church in the 1830s and 40s sparked off a furore that lasted throughout the century. Tracts, pamphlets, novels and truelife stories which purported to reveal the horrors of the confessional were circulated, usually drawing upon lurid stories of priests who corrupted naive, innocent women by inciting them to reveal familial, marital and even national secrets.' G. H. Lewes, reviewing Jules Michelet's immensely influential Priests, Women and Families (1845), sums up Michelet's argument with:

The priest, as confessor, possesses the secret of a woman's soul, he knows every half-formed hope, every dim desire, every thwarted feeling. The priest [... ] animates that woman with his own ideas, moves her with his own will, fashions her.