07 June 2013

Review: The Essays of “George Eliot”: Complete: Collected and Arranged, with an Introduction on Her “Analysis of Motives” by Nathan Sheppard

Kindle eBook, 288 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1852-68)
Read May 2013
The Essays of “George Eliot”: Complete: Collected and Arranged, with an Introduction on Her “Analysis of Motives” by Nathan Sheppard

Nathan Sheppard's anthology collects ten essays by George Eliot, which mostly seem to come from early in her career, pulled out of the literary magazines. The best of these is probably "The Natural History of German Life," which can be seen as a manifesto for the way Eliot approached social ills; traces of it have been noted by many critics in Middlemarch, amongst other novels. She argues that observation is of utmost importance, but also that is a difficult, fraught process, especially when it comes to human beings: Eliot says that if we could see what image of the working classes was meant "by many who theorize on those bodies… we should find that they indicate almost as small an amount of concrete knowledge-- that they are as far from representing the complex facts summed up in the collective term" as someone whose rides a train sometimes is able to represent the complexities of railroads. The danger of sociology when it comes to reforming society is that it is not able to see people with the complexity that they possess.

Eliot does not suggest, however, that all observation is impossible, or even that observation's imperfection ultimately makes it unusable. She believes that statistics can be useful in solving social problems, but appeals made on their basis "require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity," which art-- such as the novel-- alone can provide; this is why "the unreality of their representations is a grave evil." What Eliot ends up suggesting here is an alliance between the novel and science. The distance of science can be combined with the closeness of the novel to make truly useful observations, for a true understanding of character will "check our theories, and direct us in their application." The novelist’s knowledge of character is necessary to all society.

But people are so complex that the more we investigate, "the more thoroughly we shall be convinced that a universal social policy has no validity except on paper, and can never be carried into successful practice." People are not particles; their movements cannot be reproduced by a set of physical laws that apply universally.

If observation is flawed, and if no theory can ever be universal, what are we left to work with in creating a better society? Eliot suggests that wise social policy will be based "on the natural history of social bodies," but if one cannot even know one’s neighbors or even one’s self (as many of her novels suggest) then how can such social policy be put into practice? In her essay, Eliot suggests that W. H. Riehl responds appropriately: he is "able and willing to do justice to the elements of fact and reason in every shade of opinion and every form of effort" even when the larger picture is not immediately apparent. Eliot suggests that when we ally sympathy with observation, we can do good, and even if we have misunderstood the situation, our good can be good enough anyway.

All of this feels like a rebuttal to Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences by George Henry Lewes, her husband, which posits that we can know people well enough to create a social theory that will generate a utopia. Eliot, I would argue, is skeptical of all this.

Of the other essays here, I particularly enjoyed "Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming," where Eliot skewers a particularly bad example of a particular sort of preacher, and "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," where she skewers several particularly bad examples of a particular sort of novel. Apparently, I like my Eliot being mean (and she does do a great putdown), but I like her even more thoughtful, and this book showcases her at her thoughtful best.

There's an overly lengthy essay by Sheppard about Eliot's characterization, and of course I agree with his statement that "if the analysis of human motives be her forte and her art, she stands first, and it is very doubtful whether any artist in fiction is entitled to stand second." But I'll save my full thoughts in that direction for my reviews of her novels.

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