English, Department of



Graham Handley

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 18 (1987)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


This is a sustained investigation of the novels (Scenes of Clerical Life is virtually omitted) and the scientific climate and knowledge which inform them. It is a necessary and stimulating book, firmly anchored in 19th century scientific: theory. It underpins what we have always known but never perhaps spelled out fully, and that is the depth and width of George Eliot's scientific interests and how she integrated them into her work. Dr. Shuttleworth notes that George Eliot's knowledge of science was 'unmatched by any of her peers' and at the same time indicates the centre of her own study - 'the field of organic theory'. In her structure she follows George Eliot's 'own pattern of composition'. Her aim is to explore 'the key social and political issues of nineteenth-century organic theory'. She records the changes and developments in George Eliot's own scientific thought from Adam Bede onwards. She examines the common belief which George Eliot shared with Comte, Lewes and Herbert Spencer, 'that science could provide the foundations for a system of ethical conduct. 1 In Adam Bede the harvest supper is a 'celebration of historical stasis and simultaneous recognition of evolutionary progress' while in The Mill on the Floss she notes in the beginning 'the narrator's Proust-Iike submergence· into the world of unconscious memory'. Her most impressive contribution seems to be in her examination of the nature of 'The dual structure of The Million the Floss - the cyclical and the pr09ressive'. There is a perceptive aside on 'The Lifted Veil', which may be considered 'a parallel text, only without The Mill's redemptive strategy.' There is a particularly interesting section on Silas's repetitive activity in Silas Marner and George Eliot's employment of 'physiological theory'. She demonstrates here, quite rightly, that small is complex as well as being beautiful. In Romola she notes that Savonarola 'preaches the positivist doctrine of altruism outlined by Comte'. The relation between Comte's theory of. human identity and the conception of the character of Baldassarre is directly demonstrated. Another interesting focus, this time on the science of phrenology, occurs in Felix Holt. Again Dr. Shuttleworth traces in this novel the influence of Comte, here in his approach to history where 'social change is represented primarily in terms of mental development.' There is also evidence in the novel of George Eliot's concern 'with the “woman” question'. In Middlemarch Dr. Shuttleworth notes 'The constant shifts in perspective within the chapters' and she later adds 'The jumps in perspective reflect the heterogeneous structure of the social organism itself. ' The conclusion that the labyrinth in Middlemarch is the controlling idea seems to me to be self-evident. She considers the jumping forth and back in time in Daniel Deronda, and here she argues, as it seems to me convincingly, for George Eliot's conception of unity. She is particularly good on George Eliot's use of an epigraph from Fontenelle which 'captures Gwendolen's bravado, and the relationship between self-assessment and cosmology'. There is a very interesting section on 'the central organicist value of duty'. And her conclusion, that George Eliot adopted in Daniel Deronda 'a more open narrative form than in her earlier work' seems to me to be incontrovertible. The 'variety of narrative strategies' which her analysis of the novels reveals is abundantly and incisively clear. Another piece in the jig-saw of George Eliot's intellectual ism is fitted in with this book.