- George Eliot’s Intellectual Life by Avrom Fleishman
Avrom Fleishman’s study of George Eliot’s intellectual life is a book that not only captivates you by its depth and scope—it covers Eliot’s intellectual development from her formative years through her journalistic work and novels to her final portraits and essays—but also sets out to make you think. [End Page 156] Tellingly, both the preface and the introduction open with a question, drawing you into Fleishman’s project and inviting you to examine the paradigm and concepts that underpin his story. When Fleishman, a skilled rhetorician, asks on page 1 what an intellectual biography is, he points to the challenges he faces in engaging with biographical studies and the history of ideas. How to balance life and intellect? How to gauge one’s own position vis-à-vis one’s subject? And how to tally a concern for ideas with an appreciation of literature? Fleishman positions himself carefully, without rehearsing the wide-ranging theoretical discussions those questions entail. This tendency not to elaborate on theoretical discussions certainly adds to the accessibility of his study but may leave some readers hungry for theoretical context. It would have been interesting to read Fleishman’s take on new developments in life writing (explored in, for example, the young journal Life Writing) or on the challenges of practising intellectual history in a global age (as, for instance, discussed by Donald Kelley)—especially since Fleishman stages Eliot as an important voice in the historicist debate, the ramifications of which we are still working through.
It is Eliot’s thinking, however, and not (meta-)historical debate, that is at the centre of Fleishman’s book, and the way in which he casts his subject’s intellectual life in a story is thorough as well as elegant. His choice to engage with the writer as an intellectual historian rather than as a literary critic is informed by his intention to approach her works as “moments for the emergence of ideas” rather than as works of art to explicate—a workable if somewhat awkward distinction, since many literary critics engage in projects very similar to Fleishman’s. As a historian, he informs us in the preface, he looks to R.G. Collingwood. For Collingwood, the British philosopher of history, “all history is the history of thought” (110). Dealing with the past, he argues, demands not only that we study the outside of an event, observing what has happened, but also that we attempt to think again its inside, trying to re-enact the decisions that led to it and/or followed on it. This implies that we should approach the past not as a container of facts but as “a process in which something is changing into something else” (163). Add to this interest in Collingwood Fleishman’s focus on Lovejoy, whose The Great Chain of Being (1936) advocates the internalist approach in intellectual history (a methodology that puts the spotlight on the development of an individual’s mind rather than on cultural surroundings or superstructures), and it is clear that Fleishman sides with the pioneers of the history of ideas and with their idealism. Fortunately, he modifies his internalism with the intention not to ignore Eliot’s intellectual milieu, since “no life exists in a vacuum” (11).
For Fleishman, then, Eliot’s mind cannot be rendered as a collection of isolated, static data, “an accomplished structure” (x). What he seeks to add to the many studies of Eliot’s ideas is a sense of dynamics. By recreating in his own understanding the motivation, content, and action of Eliot’s mind in her writing, he allows for meanderings, contradictions, and change. In the first chapter, “The ‘Evangelical’: Starting Out in a Christian Culture,” for example, [End Page 157] we learn that the twenty-year-old Eliot, going through a puritan phase, did not think the reading of fiction worth her time. In the subsequent chapters, Fleishman’s detailed and nuanced readings of the intellectual milieu in which Eliot would unfold her talents as a writer...