George Eliot and Culture

By Calovini, Susan | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

George Eliot and Culture


Calovini, Susan, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Mary Wilson Carpenter. George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History. Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. 246 pp.

Daniel Cottom. Social Figures: George Eliot, Social History, and Literary Representation. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. 241 pp.

Alexander Welsh. George Eliot and Blackmail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. 388 pp.

George Eliot as a strikingly modern "historian"--as one who understands every history to be an interpretation, a fiction--emerges from the pages of Mary Wilson Carpenter's impressive first book, in which a solid understanding of Victorian biblical exegesis provides the basis for radical, often feminist readings. In this first critical work to seriously consider the extent to which George Eliot's youthful interest in "prophecy fulfilled and unfulfilled" may have influenced her mature thought and work, Carpenter contends that Eliot's representations of history are "always resistant to a single interpretation" (5) and proposes that a key to such representations may be found in her early schooling in English Protestant "continuous historical" exegesis of biblical prophecy.

George Eliot's early letters reveal that the young Evangelical was drawn to and quite familiar with the "continuous historical" school of interpretation, which "approached the Apocalypse of St. John as a mirror of 'continuous' history, its mystic scheme believed to signify the history of the western world from the beginning of the Christian era to the end of time" (3). Carpenter contends that this school shaped Eliot's first conception of history; thus, her eventual loss of faith led inevitably to a recognition "that every history maps the landscape of time by imposing an imaginary line on an otherwise inchoate mass, and that every history is therefore a fiction" (xi). According to Carpenter, this early recognition later resulted in narratives that "construct multiple 'fictions' of history through reference to various formal and symbolic systems of codification" (xi).

Those "systems of codification" on which Carpenter's theory rests consist primarily of formal divisions in the narratives that reveal Eliot's appropriation of apocalyptic structures and of apocalyptically significant numbers used often as chapter numbers. Carpenter's analysis convincingly reveals that sevenfold, or "septenary" structures, recalling both the chief structures of Revelation and the "seven ages of time" often outlined in Victorian family bibles, abound in Eliot's work, as in the visible seven-book division of The Mill on the Floss. In this "history of a witch," Carpenter says, Eliot uses the primary structure of the Apocalypse in order to represent "feminine conflict" in "the form of a bitter parody of apocalyptic history" (54). This ironizing of septenary structure contrasts with the visionary treatment of it in Romola, Eliot's historical romance based on the apocalyptic prophet Savanarola and the central work in Carpenter's study. Her formal analysis uncovers multiple apocalyptic structures embedded in the plot of Romola, the most significant of which seems to be the sevenfold division of Romola's "journey" from an age of innocence to the founding of a "New Jerusalem," a community of women and children "bound by 'feminine' values" (102). By appropriating the scheme of the Apocalypse but "revising it into a post-Christian and postpatriarchal vision of humanity" (61), Carpenter concludes, George Eliot "rewrites history as a sevenfold prophetic vision of 'the woman clothed with the sun"' (54).

Through her discovery of apocalyptic structures and numbers, Carpenter also provides original and intriguing new readings of Middlemarch (Eliot's satirical treatment of apocalyptic schemes), Daniel Deronda (Eliot's radical interpretation of Christian prophetic history), and the 1874 volume of poetry, The Legend of Jubal (Eliot's feminist and humanist revision of the patriarchal and elitist poems in John Keble's The Christian Year). …

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