- Essays on Religion in G. Eliot's Early Fiction by John H. Mazaheri
As its title suggests, Essays on Religion in G. Eliot's Early Fiction employs a variety of exploratory approaches to consider the ways in which George Eliot's early fiction engages with Christianity, particularly in relation to the concepts of faith, hope, and love. The book's primary objective is to question the well-known deconversion narrative by which the pious Mary Ann Evans became the agnostic George Eliot. John H. Mazaheri contends that for Eliot, "loss of religion need not be loss of faith" (3). Although this is not an entirely new argument in Eliot studies, Mazaheri's largely biographical focus on fiction from Scenes from Clerical Life (1857) to The Mill on the Floss (1860) adds to critical discussion by concentrating on works that have received less attention within Eliot's novelistic oeuvre. Furthermore, his careful positioning of Eliot in relation to Ludwig Feuerbach (17, 89), Baruch Spinoza (63–65), Friedrich Schleiermacher (75), and John Stuart Mill (84–85) highlights both continuities and differences between Eliot and these thinkers that have been alternatively overstated or elided by reductive readings of Eliot's departure from Christianity.
Mazaheri's study mentions and builds on the foundational work of Gordon S. Haight but would be strengthened by a more comprehensive introduction, one setting his work in the context of more recent scholarship on Eliot and religion. For example, many of Mazaheri's most effective quotations from Eliot's correspondence work to recover a reverence for [End Page 316] mystery that recalls Peter C. Hodgson's reading of Eliot in The Mystery beneath the Real: Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot (2000). Hodgson's book receives a passing reference in the final chapter (105), yet Mazaheri might also have incorporated engagement with subsequent studies that extend, reposition, or critique Hodgson's claims, including (but not limited to) the respective work of Avrom Fleishman, Charles LaPorte, Marilyn Orr, and Norman Vance. Similarly, the absence of a conclusion or coda leaves the reader wondering about the wider implications of Mazaheri's essays, as well as the relationship between Eliot's early fiction and her later novels, though this latter question is to some extent answered in Mazaheri's previous work on Silas Marner (1861). As these elements of the book's structure indicate, Essays on Religion in G. Eliot's Early Fiction provides a readable guide to Eliot's first novelistic writings that appeals to a wider audience than disciplinary specialists.
By beginning chapters 1 to 4 with etymologies (of nostalgia, faith, hope, and love) and chapters 5 to 7 with topical surveys (discourses of work, philosophies of beauty, and criticism of The Mill on the Floss), Mazaheri establishes two basic patterns that shape his study as moving expansively from concept to application. These perambulatory methods, however, have the effect of delaying the chapter's main argument, as well as making that argument more implicit than explicit. For example, his interesting claim that the nostalgia of Eliot's "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton" (1857) pertains less to a particular Methodist branch of religion than to "the happiness whose secret was a sincere faith in a transcendence" (15) does not appear until seven pages into chapter 1. In addition, his withholding of commentary on the relationship among individual chapters results in some missed opportunities to unify or develop the study. Mazaheri's second chapter, for instance, makes effective use of Ernst Bloch's work in relation to Eliot's meliorism (19–20) but does not directly address the intriguing leap from chapter 1's discussion of memory to chapter 2's discussion of hope.
These omissions or infelicities aside, Essays in Religion in G. Eliot's Early Fiction offers innovative close readings and thoughtful engagement with the theological traditions informing Eliot's fiction. Mazaheri's analysis of the structural significance of the song that the title character sings in the first chapter of Adam Bede (1859), for example, illustrates his argument...