George Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History

By Mary Wilson Carpenter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

George Eliot and
the School of the Prophets

Although scholars have repeatedly scrutinized George Eliot's religious beliefs, her youthful interest in prophecy "fulfilled and unfulfilled" has gone largely unremarked. 1 Yet her first conception of history seems to have taken shape in the school of "continuous historical" exposition of the Book of Revelation. This clerical, millenarian tradition—a prominent aspect of British exegesis since the Reformation—reached new heights of scholarly development, as well as popular interest, during the Victorian era. 2 Readers 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. Enthusiasm for this school of apocalyptics was fed not only by continuing reevaluations of the French Revolution but by conservative responses to what were seen as major nineteenth-century "revolutions": the Greek uprising against the Turks; the Catholic Emancipation Bill, Jewish Civil Disabilities Bill, and Reform Act in Great Britain; the Napoleonic Wars; and most importantly, the Revolution of 1848. British expositors of the prophecies interpreted these events as the fulfillment of the third and last septenary of the Apocalypse—the seven Vials, whose outpourings of disaster heralded the near approach of the Second Advent.

But it was not only revolutionary events that fueled the "continuous historical" expositors, but the very spirit of the age itself. As John Stuart Mill observed, the nineteenth century was obsessed with history as no previous age had ever been. 3 Nineteenth‐ century apocalyptic expositors exhibit this fascination with the past even more than with the future: their explications of apocalyptic

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