Victorian Studies 45.2 (2003) 384-387
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George Eliot and Victorian Historiography: Imagining the National Past, by Neil McCaw; pp. viii + 203. London and New York: Palgrave, 2000, £55.00, $65.00.
Memory and History in George Eliot: Transfiguring the Past, by Hao Li; pp. xiii + 227. London and New York: Palgrave, 2000, £57.50, $59.95.
In George Eliot and Victorian Historiography, Neil McCaw aims to correct the impression that Eliot espoused only universal, humanist values and metanarratives. In fact, he argues, "there is a tangible imprint of the dominant discourses of a particularly British historiography on her work, which has distinct ideological implications" (11). Specifically, he finds Eliot committed to a Whiggish theory of English history, a "privileged Anglo-Saxon myth" of progress which "relies on a notion of the national constitution [...] as the foundation of national development" (41). However, this Macaulayan vision of a "positive advance in history" conflicts with "what Eliot saw as the problematic nature of the mid-Victorian present" (44), so that a Carlylean pessimism "acts as a counterbalance to signs of unchallenged optimism" in her writings (75).
McCaw examines a range of important questions in Victorian historiography, regarding knowledge, objectivity, and historical metanarratives. He draws from all of her novels, but discusses extensively only Daniel Deronda (1876), the main text in three of his seven chapters. Deronda, McCaw argues, "fractures" under the strain of reconciling the "Whiggish and Carlylean discourses" (139). Disillusioned about the chances for meaningful reform in England, Eliot sends Daniel off to lead the Whig march of progress into an alternative, idealized national homeland. In McCaw's account, Eliot recasts Judaism as displaced Englishness by privileging a form of Judaism that can, somewhat oddly, be aligned with Puritanism. This sleight of hand subordinates Judaism to Englishness and [End Page 384] thus Eliot's attempt "to widen sympathy for Jewry" (62) becomes a form of Orientalism because "her perception of Jewish history is a trope of an idealized English past" (64). McCaw also relates Deronda to "an evolving tradition of female historiography in the mid- late Victorian period" (122), arguing that Eliot saw "traditional notions of progress" as "hostile to female participation and engagement" (125). The novel's ending isolates Gwendolen in a "female space" outside history, a conclusion he sees as a "damning indictment of Victorian patriarchy" (134). In a final twist, however, he argues that Gwendolen's lack of agency exonerates her from complicity in England's moral crimes, while her ultimate separation from the society Eliot indicts in the novel frees her, alone among Eliot's female protagonists, from "the determinism of a restrictive culture" (137).
McCaw's readings of Daniel Deronda are original and provocative, and his book coherently develops a well-defined overall project. Still, it is disappointing not to find more extended analysis of the other novels and hard not to suspect that McCaw highlights Deronda because it best serves his desire to win a postmodern following for Eliot's novels by proving that they have an "inherent tendency [...] [to] deconstruct themselves" (146). Felix Holt (1866), on the other hand, despite its overt preoccupation with reform, gets only passing mentions, but then Felix's "central political message [...] [is] a deeply conservative one" (79). McCaw shows a tendency to squeeze his examples into the molds he has prepared for them, and the result can be reductive or even distorting. For instance, he cites the description of Gwendolen "for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement" (Deronda, Penguin : 876) as evidence for her "eternal disconnection" from history (McCaw 133), when it surely shows her sensing her place in history. Gwendolen's painful realization of her relative insignificance is also essential for her emergence from what Eliot in Middlemarch (1871-72) calls the "moral stupidity" of "taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves" (Penguin : 211). Daniel's intervention leaves Gwendolen determined "to be one of the best of women, who make others glad that they were born...