The secret of our emotions never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relations to our own past: no wonder the secret escapes the unsympathising observer, who might as well put on spectacles to discern odours.
--George Eliot, Adam Bede
Is there not a spiritual existence that belongs to individuals?
--Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition
"I can't help laughing at the imbecility of that pious dictum--that if Shelley had lived till now he would have been a Christian--that is, he would have been old woman enough for it by this time" (Haight, Letters II: 126). This biting comment from Marian Evans to her friend Sara Sophia Hennell in 1853 stands as a warning to anyone wanting to reopen the question of George Eliot's attitude towards religion. Yet, as several recent publications suggest--notably Peter Hodgson's book, The Mystery Beneath the Real: Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot; Barry Qualls's chapter on religion in the Cambridge Companion to George Eliot; and Michael Davis's chapter on religion in Daniel Deronda in George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Psychology--it is time for a reappraisal of George Eliot's understanding of faith and for a more comprehensive analysis of the deep and inextricable interrelation of faith and imagination that informs her aesthetic. In the great age of religious questioning, which U. C. Knoepflmacher notes was "obsessed with epistemology" (160), Eliot's importance was such that Lord Acton can call her "the emblem of a generation distracted between the intense need of believing and the difficulty of belief" (Carroll, George Eliot: The Critical Heritage 463). In the conflict of interpretations that David Carroll rightly sees as central to her narrative situations, (George Eliot and the Conflict of Interpretations), Eliot's fiction reveals, I will argue, her own exploration of faith and imagination and her discovery of their inseparable connection as hermeneutical mindsets.
It is impossible to read Eliot's novels without thinking about religion, one would think, since, even when they do not directly concern religious clerics, they focus on characters engaged in deeply religious struggles. Eliot's work is rich enough that astute readers can find material for almost any sophisticated reading, and it is perhaps not surprising that while critics in a secular culture have tended to follow the standard view that Marian Evans "lost her faith" as a young woman, there is increasing interest in the necessary complexities of any such trajectory. While there have always been critics and readers speaking against the tide, the pervasive tendency has been to acknowledge her early piety and reiterate the "conventional wisdom" (Hodgson 1) that after her encounter with higher criticism, firstly through Charles Hennell and then Strauss and Feuerbach, and with the Comte school, her Christian beliefs were replaced by a Feuerbachian version of the religion of humanity. While the crucial influence of all of these is undeniable, I agree with Peter Hodgson when he argues that George Eliot never became a disciple of any system or ideology. (1) Instead, rather like one of the mollusks which were the subject of her husband's study, she accreted these beliefs like so many layers, each new level of knowledge adding to and adapting, rather than displacing, her earlier views. While it is easy enough to find comments in her letters declaring her rejection of conventional forms of Christianity, it is not much harder to find as many comments that modify and complicate these declarations of unbelief. (2)
In his book, Hodgson briefly analyzes each of Eliot's novels for their Christian content, and extrapolates from that the principles of what he calls George Eliot's "future religion" (13), a form of "revisionist postmodern" theology (152) which he aligns with various theologians from Schleiermacher to Ricouer. Hodgson's idea that George Eliot practiced a "faith, which kept the reality of God in suspense" (2), echoes ideas of philosopher Richard Kearney, himself a student of Ricouer. Kearney's recent work, as suggested by the title of his book The God Who May Be, analyzes the ways that modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf invoke sacramental language that shadows forth a "possible" God. Kearney's work on "narrative imagination" as the basis for the "narrative identity" that is acquired "in large part by receiving others' narratives and re-narrating itself in turn to others" informs my whole argument (Poetics 248). It seems to me that we might put Eliot in the company of Kearney's modernists of sacred possibility, for George Eliot's religious imagination took her beyond the Feuerbachian humanism of legend toward a far more complex understanding of religious experience. The first stage of this development is enacted in her early fiction, in which she constructs an aesthetic that is deeply rooted in two fundamental elements of her early experience among Evangelical Christians, incarnation and inwardness.
A brief sketch of her religious history is in order. Mary Anne Evans (as she was christened) grew up in a middle-of-the road Anglican household but as a schoolgirl came under the powerful influence of intense Evangelicalism with a Calvinist / Puritan streak in the persons of a teacher and fellow students. Her youthful letters, cringingly pious to most modern ears, reflect what one biographer calls an "unforgiving, damnation-conscious form of religion" (Ashton 25) and are a convenient source for any on a quest for evidence of the pathologies of adolescent faith. For my purposes, they interestingly record as well a suspicion of "imaginative literature, particularly fiction" which she overcomes out of a conviction of the necessity to be familiar with common references (28), and of musical settings of biblical passages, which she at once revels in and deplores. Faith and imagination are already at odds. The next landmark on her intellectual journey is the meeting of a warm and intelligent family of flee-thinking Unitarians. While the Hennell sisters become Mary Anne's close and lifelong friends, their brother Charles Hennell's Inquiry concerning the origin of Christianity (1838) began what became the sea change in her thinking, as he carefully explained Christianity in entirely natural terms. The result was a temporary but hugely significant rift with the beloved father, whose housekeeper she was, when she refused to accompany him to church. Mary Anne relented after several weeks, because, characteristically, her relationship with her father was more important to her than the principle of truth, once she had made sure to demonstrate it to him. (3) But the break was made, and not the least important development was her determination to become financially independent from her father and brother.
In 1851 she moved to London and became Marian Evans, writer of reviews and essays, the shadow editor of the Westminster Review, reading and writing prodigiously. The two most famous landmarks in her religious life follow: her translations of Strauss's Life of Jesus, published after almost two years of painstaking labor in 1846, and of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity in 1854. For now, I will just say in a sentence that Strauss's work demythologized Christianity, taking earnest, sympathetic pains to do so, and Feuerbach's work situated the origin of God-ideas in the human mind: "All religious cosmogonies," writes Feuerbach, "are products of the imagination" (80). Before moving away from biography, it is important to note the most important presence in Marian Evans's adult life, the man she would call her husband, George Henry Lewes, whom she met between the writing of these two tomes. And it is important to say as well, that, in the case of George Eliot, the intimate personal relations of her life as Mary Anne and then Marian Evans must be seen as the ground of her intellectual life. In other words, her ideas were always inseparable from her feelings, and from her body in the world: there were no words without flesh. This sense of the necessity to incarnate ideas is the basis of the embodied aesthetic of her fiction. For what early reviewers saw as what Carroll calls her "dissociated sensibility"--a conflict between George Eliot the artist and George Eliot the philosopher (Critical Heritage 30)--is what might also be called a paradoxical effect of her effort to incarnate her aesthetic.
In this article, I am taking up Eliot's works more or less chronologically. This is not because it is the least imaginative approach but because, as others have recognized, there is a deeply evolutionary quality to Eliot's career. In a personal sense, like many writers I suppose, she is loathe to repeat herself and, while readers might recognize characters and situations that she is revisiting, she always needs to believe in her own development as a writer. In her letters she repeatedly champions her first stories, for example, largely because they contain "ideas" that she doubts she "can ever embody again" (Haight, Letters III: 241). In a broader sense this is an important idea, however, in that her philosophy was grounded in a belief in the idea of progress. This is most neatly exemplified in Silas Marner, which is often called a fable, but is a fable not just of one man's life but of the progress of humanity and civilization, as reflected in the growth of a single consciousness and community.
Two of her earliest reviews reflect the importance of this view. In 1849, writing of Froude's The Nemesis of Faith, she affirms "its suggestive hints as to the necessity of recasting the currency of our religion and virtue" (Byatt 265). In an important essay of 1851, her review of R. W. Mackey's The Progress of the Intellect, Eliot explicitly refutes the Comtean view that "human progress" means "devot[ing our] energies to the actual rather than to the retrospective," affirming instead Mackey's "survey of the past," which shows "how each age and each race has had a faith and a symbolism suited to its need and its stage of development" (269). It could be said, I think, that Eliot's whole opus demonstrates this view with regard not only to her characters but to herself. In the same essay she affirms "Mackey's faith" in what theologians came to call progressive revelation, which he sees, she writes, as "co-extensive with the history of human development" (270). She quotes Mackey at length on the alliance between religion and philosophy. Sounding awfully like a prosaic version of the Prologue to Tennyson's In Memoriam, Mackey writes:
Religion and science are inseparable. No object in nature, no subject of contemplation is destitute of a religious tendency and meaning.... Faith [is] the inseparable companion and offspring of knowledge.... Faith, as opposed to that blind submission to inexplicable power which usurped its name in the ancient East, is an allegiance of the reason; and as the "evidence of things unseen', stands on the verge of mysticism, its value must depend on the discretion with which it is formed and used. (Byatt 272-73)
In a statement resonating with Kearney's ideas, Mackey states, "True faith is a belief in things probable" (Byatt 274). Equally important to Eliot's work is Mackey's criticism of the pervasive understanding of religion as having "nothing to do with the head" but being seen instead as "exclusively an exercise of the heart and feelings" meant to train moral character yet leaving the feeling "uneducated," abandoned by reason (272). It might not be overstating the case to cite this essay as the central text of Eliot's philosophy, except that to do so would contradict the philosophy it states. For, as I mentioned above, it is crucial to recognize how vital to her work is this belief in progress. (4) And it is interesting to note that in her last novel, Daniel Deronda, and some late essays, her religious revisioning finds her back before her own time, in a kind of mystical Judaism. In her own way, then, Eliot was engaged in the work that her beloved Carlyle called retailoring the tailor, refashioning the myth for a new age. And as with Carlyle, Mackey's mention of mysticism is apt, in that this is about a new way of seeing the "evidence of things unseen" which is faith.
Another way of talking about this is in terms of "incarnation" in Christian terms the doctrine that God took on human nature in Jesus Christ: the word became flesh; the idea became actual. This is of course the central doctrine of dispute at this time. Strauss takes enormous pains respectfully to debunk the possibility of a historical Jesus and reaffirms the idea of Jesus despite his lack of historicity; he redefines the incarnation as the …