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Reviews Neil McCaw. George Eliotand Victorian Historiography: Imagining the NationalPast (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), pp. 203, $65.00. Were it not for tip-off provided by the word "historiography" in the tide of Neil McCaw's recent book, George Eliotand Victorian Historiography, a reader might be daunted by its apparent vastness of focus, as presented in the table of contents. Indeed, with such chapter tides as "A Natural History of English Life" and "Theodicy and History," the book seems to aim to cover an impossibly large field of study and might initially be thought to take all such complex and variegated subjects into its single and necessarily limited ken. However, as the word "historiography" indicates, McCaw's topic is not so much "theodicy" nor "natural history" proper as the historical writing about these topics, the way in which they are represented and interpolated by writers of history. His work is concerned with what is now called metahistory, as he puts it: "that which deals often, though not exclusively, with the rhetorical or structural premises on which historiography is founded" (147). As such, McCaw distinguishes diroughout his work between "History," the signifier or writing about past events, and the signified "history," the past events themselves (147). In particular, McCaw studies George Eliot as a writer of History, and not just as a writer of fiction who heavily researched historical sources to construct her narratives. As McCaw notes, though, this approach to Eliot's novels is not new, and both U.C. Knoepflmacher and HenryJames have famously commented on the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and History in Eliot's hands (12). Yet, most commentators have regarded Eliot as Historian by drawing a rather uncomplicated link between Eliot and her sources, with an eye to Romola as the zenith of her historical fictions. It is on the basis of these major points that McCaw's work diverges. First of all, he illustrates "the ways in which George Eliot's novels explored the limits, indeed pushed back the parameters, of the discursive context from which they emerged" (145). Eliot did not only research primary documents from the eras that interested her, such as town records, diaries and old newspapers. Rather, she relied 88volume 28 number 1 Reviews heavily on Historical interpretationsof these times, on retrospective and second-hand narratives constructed about history. Eliot did not read such texts naively, though. As McCaw convincingly argues, Eliot questions the constructedness of History through her fiction and especially its Whiggish features, that is, the privileging of the present over the past by figuring the former as the triumphant goal of the latter. In short, McCaw's book is a study of Eliot-as-metahistorian. The second point on which McCaw diverges from most previous criticism about the relationship between Eliot and History lies in his choice of DanielDeronda, instead of the more usual Romola, as the book that most apdy illustrates this dynamic To McCaw, Romola typifies Eliot's early, Whiggish approach to representing History in her novels — which he explores at length in the first three chapters of the book — while DanielDeronda illustrates Eliot's more mature response to History, one which McCaw identifies as both Carlylean and radically feminist. In her last book, Eliot works not within a reified, phallocentric mold, not even on the margins, but she finally orients one of her main characters completely outside a ready narrative , outside History. Eliot even goes a step further in denying the supremacy of History by orienting her character towards the future, and an uncertain (read chaotic, disunified) one, at that. McCaw sums the matter up succincdy when he writes, "the most profoundly undermined, or deconstructing, of Eliot's novels is DanielDeronda, a novel which fractures under the strain of seeking to reconcile incompatible philosophies of the historical process" (139). Thus, it becomes clear that the first and second points of divergence between McCaw and other Eliot critics are one in the same, for it is in his study of DanielDeronda that McCaw concretely illustrates just how Eliot is a true metahistorian (or metaHistorian?), who interrogates the structure of historiography not just theoretically, but by actually rewriting History into a more...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 88-90
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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