Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)
Felicia Bonaparte's study of Eliot's fiction, Will and Destiny: Morality and Tragedy in George Eliot's Novels, was published in 1975. I read it rather quickly towards the end of the 1970s because at the time I was working on a study of Eliot of my own and inevitably my attention was somewhat focused on whether there was going to be any overlap with my book. Since Bonaparte's book argued strongly that Eliot was intellectually committed to empiricism and scientific rationality and mine attempted to bring out her relation to aspects of Romanticism, I believed at the time there was little common ground between the two books and I therefore did not need to engage seriously with it. Having read Will and Destiny more recently with much fuller attention, it now seems to me a major study of Eliot and that this has not been sufficiently acknowledged by later critics. Glancing at recommendations for further reading in the many editions of Eliot's novels that are currently available, Will and Destiny is seldom listed. Bonaparte's later study, The Tryptych and the Cross, which focuses solely on Romola, has rightly been widely recognized by critics with a serious interest in that novel as a critical tour de force. Will and Destiny should also be an essential critical text for readers of Eliot.
What has perhaps led to the comparative neglect of Will and Destiny is that Bonaparte, one of the most unashamedly intellectual of Eliot's critics, is so unequivocal in identifying her with scientific materialism. In the book's Introduction Bonaparte writes:
It was largely the empiricists, who themselves saw the need for some moral authority, who attempted to build a new system out of the new truths, who argued that science was not a threat to morality but a new and stronger foundation for what must become modem ethics. Eliot too was an empiricist. She too believed that science must be the basis of the morality of the future. And, like John Stuart Mill and August Comte, she found in science the answer to both relativism and scepticism. For it was science, Eliot held, not God that provided an inflexible authority for moral law. '