Biogspeak

Terry Eagleton

  • George Eliot: A Biography by Frederick Karl
    HarperCollins, 708 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 00 255574 3

Writers are broadly classified as intellectuals, though many poets and novelists feel uncomfortable enough with the title. The split between analysis and imagination, the critical and the creative, is one of the deadliest of Romantic legacies, born of an antagonism to particular forms of bloodless cerebration (Enlightenment rationalism, Utilitarianism) and then recklessly generalised to abstract thought as such. By the mid-19th century in England, poetry had come to figure as the opposite of rational discourse, a move which would have come as a mighty surprise to Samuel Johnson, while the boldest scientific ventures were being jealously denied the epithet ‘creative’. Post-Modernism has begun to undo this dichotomy, aware that critical language is itself a form of rhetoric and that the Modernist or Post-Modernist artwork secretes a tacit theoretical critique of itself; but it is still an imprudent theorist who would venture into a coven of poets without leaving a contact number. Literary theory seems something of an oxymoron; how can you theorise a discourse whose whole raison d’être is to defeat the concept? A science of the concrete, as Schopenhauer remarked, is a contradiction in terms; the sensuous particularities of the aesthetic, like the structure of the world for the early Wittgenstein, can be shown but not spoken of.

Most English novelists fit neatly enough with this Romantic prejudice. When Marilyn Butler published a book some years ago called Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, the very title was fighting talk: ideas, in the mannerly Austen? Charles Dickens is nowhere more unregenerately English than in his genial philistinism, allergic to anything that smacks of the doctrinal rather than the affective, while Thackeray was unerringly picked off by Leavis for his ‘clubman’s wisdom’. If Conrad’s Nietzschean scepticism of the intellect helped to secure his place in the Great Tradition’, Hardy’s quaint metaphysics and homespun philosophising guaranteed his implacable exclusion from it. T.S. Eliot’s celebrated comment on Henry James – ‘a mind so fine that no idea can violate it’ – sounds like a crafty backhanded compliment but in fact represents, from the virulently anti-intellectualist Eliot, the sincerest praise. The un-Christian Lawrence believed devoutly in the Fall: it was just that for him it was a fall into consciousness, not into bestiality. From Sterne to Woolf, English fiction struggles painfully or hilariously in the gap between sensation and idea, discourse and intuition, and is thus a true sibling of English empiricist philosophy. Its implicit trope is that of irony: art must have structure to communicate, yet its texture gives the lie to all such conceptual abstractions.

It is therefore quite remarkable, at least at first glance, that one of the greatest of all English novelists should also have been among the most distinguished intellectuals of her day. Translator of Strauss and Feuerbach, dedicated scientific rationalist, ephemeral enthusiast of Comtean Positivism, assistant editor of the Westminster Review, George Eliot had, from a typically English standpoint, exactly the wrong credentials for launching herself, fairly late in the day, as a writer of imaginative fiction. One might add that she had the wrong sort of body, too; but to recall her sex is to resolve the enigma rather than compound it. If women figure so centrally in the writing of 19th-century fiction, it is partly because, as supposed specialists in the affections or technicians of the heart, they are called on to counterpoint the arid speculations of their menfolk with an anatomy of human feeling. The role of the female novelist is thus in a sense supplementary: Elizabeth Gaskell admits that she knows little of economics, but one function of the Victorian novel is to nurture the lived experience, interpersonal values and affective pieties which those economics are in danger of brusquely dispelling. The Dickens of Hard Times is by no means averse to industrial capitalism: it is just that fancy must be added to fact, sensibility cultivated alongside sweated labour, if the workers are to be content with their lot. That this brand of Romanticism is merely the flipside of the Utilitarianism it abhors, holding as both creeds do that culture is just a sort of surplus, is not a truth the novel can allow itself to contemplate. Women, like the Derridean supplement, are both necessary and redundant, just as human feelings are in the free market. In one sense they are optional extras or dangerous diversions; in another sense they are the very subjective medium through which that social order must be ratified. The novel form is superfluous too, in so far as nobody is likely to perish without it; but in another sense, as the Victorian epoch progresses, it becomes a vital ideological necessity, a kind of affective anthropology which restores to social enquiry that delicate dimension of subjectivity so damagingly expelled by Jeremy Bentham and Herbert Spencer.

What has happened by the time Eliot springs on the scene is that knowledge has drifted dangerously loose from its emotional moorings, threatening a crisis of ideological faith. There had been, once upon a time, a discourse which both explained to you how it was with the world and supplied you with appropriately profound feelings about it; but religion is increasingly failing to mediate fact and value, objective and subjective, as the young Marian Evans abandons her early self-punitive Evangelicism to consort with fashionable Coventry freethinkers. For Matthew Arnold, it is culture which will inherit the ideological role of religion in sustaining a corporate faith; but Arnold’s ‘culture’ is altogether too lofty and nebulous an idea for the task in hand, too much on the side of sentiment rather than science. It is Eliot who, unlike Charlotte Brontë or Elizabeth Gaskell, refuses the role of sentimental supplement and with extravagant ambitiousness sets about the project of, in Shelley’s fine phrase, ‘imagining what we know’ – transmuting the findings of contemporary science and philosophy into the very stuff of lived experience, and so precisely fulfilling the role allotted by her period to a female intellectual. The medium of this trans formation is the realist novel: a form of imaginative sociology which interweaves the law of the heart with the laws of historical development and can shift its focus from the depths of individual subjectivity to a grandly synoptic survey of the social whole. If inwardness and objectivity have split apart in social life, as facts are reified and feelings etherealised, then some new paradigm of social knowledge is urgently required, and its name is realist fiction.

Science makes for material progress, but threatens in the process to uproot traditional bonds and so to undo humankind in the act of perfecting it. Thus Eliot is fascinated by projects which are at once scientific and spiritual, all the way from Feuerbach’s religion of humanity to Comte’s bizarre blending of material laws and sacramental rituals. In the humblest evolutionary offshoot one can discern some mighty cosmological drama, so that for Eliot scientific rationalism itself comes to be invested with the passionate faith of traditional religion. As the aspiring daughter of a stoutly conservative farm manager from rural Warwickshire, Eliot was conveniently cusped between traditional devotion and modern development, and sought to resolve this conflict in every piece of fiction she produced. She was painfully, creatively Janus-faced in other ways too, caught between provincial and cosmopolitan, rural and urban, masculine and feminine. Like several of the great 19th-century novelists – the Brontës, Dickens, Hardy – she stemmed neither from the gentry nor the working class but from the petty bourgeoisie, and as such was able to see both up and down the social scale and to experience some thing of its characteristic contradictions.

It is this ambiguous location, among other things, which lends her the totalising power of the major realists. Middlemarch is littered with all-encompassing projects which have come unstuck: Casaubon’s crazed idealist search for the key to all mythologies, Lydgate’s materialist pursuit of the basic tissue of human life, Bulstrode’s absolutist Evangelical faith, Dorothea Brooke’s dream of some definitive commitment which would bind her selfhood into an expressive whole. All these grandiose schemes are finally scuppered, by sheer contingency or under the weight of their own hubris. The liberal pragmatist in Eliot fears the effects of excessive doctrinal zeal; but neither will it do merely to give up on some corporate vision beyond the self-gratifying ego, in which individual existence may be at once fulfilled and transcended. Eliot’s career as a novelist is almost exactly coextensive with the period of high Victorian prosperity in which industrial capitalism is assuming a gradually more corporate form; and one of the many conflicts her work sets out to mediate is between this sense of organic solidarity and the claims of liberal or Romantic individualism. The woman who moved from provincial farm bailiff’s daughter to metropolitan intellectual – running off in the meantime to cohabit with a married man – was no stranger to the imperatives of self-fulfilment; but she was also profoundly fearful of the socially disruptive effects of desire. Individual fulfilment and the social whole, between which Maggie Tulliver is torn tragically apart, had somehow to be integrated; and the novel form was one of Eliot’s solutions to this dilemma. If the totalising schemes of Middlemarch are brought low, the totality which is the novel itself triumphantly survives them. On the other hand, if reconciliation is now increasingly to be found only in aesthetic form, this is bleak news for history itself.

There is another sense in which the novel is becoming paradigmatic, rather than merely reflective, of social life. Kant had split off value from fact, isolating morality from materiality and so leaving moral values perilously self-grounded; Eliot would use the novel to reunite the cognitive and the ethical, reshaping the reader’s moral sympathies by reinserting a character or event in its whole material context. Literary realism is a forensic form, patiently unearthing concealed chains of causality, tactfully unravelling interlaced processes, drawing our attention to complex interconnections; and this descriptive power is also a normative force, persuading us not to judge too absolutely. The novel, in short, has become the very model of liberal humanist morality, qualifying one perspective with another, synthesising conflicting viewpoints, presenting in the round (as only the omniscient realist author can) what might otherwise be viewed partially and distortedly. And beneath this lies the liberal rationalist belief that to understand fully is to forgive; there is no absolute evil in Eliot as there is, abundantly, in Dickens.

An evolutionary world is a relativist one, for who knows what seemingly insignificant process may produce over time which momentous effects? This consorts well enough with the democratic bent of literary realism, for which no life-form is too modest to be disinterestedly inspected, but it fits equally well with a form of moral relativism: a relativism safely contained within the absolute vision of the all-knowing author. Once again, with Eliot, the novel form ceases to be just supplementary: it is not a question of dealing in sentiments rather than moral doctrines, but of offering an alter native version of morality itself, one which identifies it with the flow and recoil of human sympathies rather than with a set of isolated imperatives. And since that flow and recoil is most deftly managed in the novel, morality has in a certain sense become aestheticised. The highest instance of that fellow-feeling which for Eliot is the foundation of all virtue is the imaginative empathy by which the novelist projects herself into the lives of her own characters (ironically playing off their external opacity or mediocrity against her own privileged inward access to them). It is for this reason that the novel mattered so desperately, disproportionately, to Eliot’s successors – Henry James, Lawrence and the Scrutineers who championed them. It would be hardly too much to claim that the centrality of the novel in English society has much to do with the failure of doctrinal religion to capture the hearts and minds of men and women in the 19th century. Since God doesn’t exist, remarked the Victorian intellectual F. H. Myers, it is to figures like George Eliot that we must turn.

Eliot does not reinvent the ‘organic’ rural society of her childhood out of sheer nostalgia, though there is plenty of that in her fiction. The rural order of The Mill on the Floss, one of struggling tenant fanners being forced to ruin by the pressures of urban banking and agricultural industry, is hardly idyllic stuff; and no decent liberal would want to inhabit the censorious Hayslope of Adam Bede. If she returns to this world, it is rather because, in a kind of laboratory experiment, the corporate existence of which contemporary England is so disastrously bereft, the organic interweaving of human destinies, is there more transparently available. The problem, then, is to transplant this order into the present shorn of its most red-neck, oppressive features; and it is here that Eliot’s fiction has finally to acknowledge defeat. What is needed is a vision which binds the individual to the laws of the social formation, perserves the personal, pragmatic values which such heady visions tend in Eliot to transgress, and Romantically liberates the self. The solution to these requirements is Daniel Deronda, in which Daniel, having conveniently discovered that he is a Jew, is provided at a stroke with a Romantically fulfilling identity and a corporate culture to belong to. Since he then abandons England to discover his destiny in the Middle East, the solution is, so to speak, exported. There can be no such magical resolutions of the problems of Second Reform Bill England; and the ‘magical’ devices of the novel have begun to buckle literary realism itself, pressing it up against a limit it will take a D.H. Lawrence to transcend.

Reconciling the uniqueness of an individual life with broader social patterns is a problem for biography too. What other literary genre is at once so sharply individuated and so mechanically predictable? The biographer must yield us the untranslatable taste of a particular life; but no human life is that particularised, since we all have to get born, reared, educated, find some sexual partner and/or career, flourish or fail and then die. Biography is based on biology, so that – since all human beings have parents – we know more or less precisely what the first chapter is likely to contain. One human being broken and defeated is tragedy; two is sociology. Biographies are as different as finger prints, and induce in the reader as much sense of déjà vu as a ham sandwich. The form is as free as the lyric and as rigorously regulated as the haiku, and the greatest anti-novel in English, Tristram Shandy, is a hilarious exploitation of the paradox. When Frederick Karl writes that ‘Marion moved unsteadily towards her 33rd birthday. Upon her return to London, Spencer visited and “spent the evening with me”,’ the effect is at once one of utter originality (we have never read this exact sentence before) and of the dreary familiarity of biogspeak.

The problem is compounded in Karl’s case by a remarkably flat-footed use of language. Even the book’s dedication is barely grammatical: ‘To my daughters and all those, like them, who became George Eliot’s children.’ Does this mean all those who like his daughters became George Eliot’s children, or all those who, resembling his daughters, became her children? The commas around ‘like them’ suggest the former, but they may just be a form of emphasis. It is equally hard to grasp the grammar of a sentence like, ‘Eliot’s outsider status we have discussed throughout, a status that remained despite her views, which tempted to make her seem conventional.’ The work is strewn with egregiously ham-fisted formulations: ‘All serious authors face contemptible notices and reviews. Eliot had just gotten hers, a mishmash of such contempt – and, under its persiflage, attack on gender – that she could only recoil in pain, which is what she did.’ If she could do nothing else but recoil in pain, then it is hardly informative to learn that she did. Karl is much given to sonorous generalities: ‘Without losing sight of man’s (and woman’s) aberrations, she was, all in all, reasonable’; ‘Like most great artists, she left a good deal open to interpretation’; ‘At Griff, she recognised the interdependence of all things. ‘Some of the book’s sentences only faintly impinge on sense: ‘In her every act, she found in her own split needs and divided personality those co-ordinates of the era which marked her as its voice. ‘Other formulations are North American academic gobbledygook: in Maggie Tulliver, ‘Eliot has structured a deeply conflicted person.’ There are snatches of newsreel history: ‘England was ruled by a king who addressed remarks to trees, and although he may have been one of the first environmentalists, public opinion tended to see him as mad. Mad George! The same George who had lost the American colonies to a ragtag army.’ ‘One of the first environmentalists’ is, perhaps, a stab at a joke, but the book, unlike its subject, is so doggedly humourless and devastatingly unironic that one has one’s doubts. More instantly-packaged history arrives in the form of the claim that Eliot ‘grew up in one of the most historically fixed societies possible, where rules established almost as far back as Henry VIII dominated’. One admires the nervous caution of ‘almost’ while wondering what the medieval Chinese or ancient Egyptians would have made of the assertion.

‘Inevitably,’ Karl informs us in a hollow chiasmus, ‘the question must be: how did that person write those books, and, reciprocally, how did those books get written by that person?’ One’s faith in his ability to answer these queries is a little dented as early as the first page of the Introduction, where he announces that Eliot ‘understood more than any other figure what was happening to ordinary people’. In fact, as Karl himself goes on to demonstrate, she could be odiously patronising about the folk from whom she sprang, full of Tory banalities and formulaic prejudices. He then stakes a palpably false claim for Eliot as ‘perhaps the first psychological novelist in English’, along with the suggestion that ‘she had perhaps the thinnest skin of any major 19th-century figure’, which if not false is certainly unfalsifiable. We are also told that she saw that ‘man’s best instincts, attitudes and outlook are associated with nature,’ which is the very last thing she did. In the age of Darwin, Eliot was deeply nervous of natural instinct and rarely depicts Nature as socially unmediated. What Karl seems to share with Eliot is Victorian values: we seek in her solid realism ‘that older sense of coherence, cohesiveness and deliberation’, the way she was able to ‘quiet rage, calm anger and play down hostility’. He admires, in short, exactly what is most politically anodyne about her, not least the modes by which she finds ways of identifying with and yet containing anarchic social elements. If Bill Clinton can’t solve America’s urban problems, then maybe Adam Bede holds the key.

There is indeed some kinship between the Victorian Eliot and a certain contemporary conservative North American sensibility: earnest, portentous, moralistic, high-minded. But there is also a quality of sardonic debunking in Eliot which is palpably lacking in this latest biography. Karl has all the finest American virtues as well; he is industrious conscientious and self-disciplined enough to have completed these pages in an astounding four years. His study is a monument of patient, devoted labour, all the way down to the solemn account of his subject as ‘an expert maker of cheese and butter, a talent she attributed to the breadth and general largeness of her hands’. For Karl, as for Eliot, nothing is too inconsiderable to be disregarded, which is at once the excellence and absurdity of the biographer’s art. What his study lacks, however, is a genuine case. A case of a kind about Eliot is occasionally brandished: the idea, roughly speaking, that she was a divided, self-contradictory soul. Of course, it would be hard to think of a writer who wasn’t, as Karl himself candidly admits; moreover, this theme fails to control the exposition as a whole, surfacing briefly in such remarkable comments as ‘her letters do not bear out that she actually became a different person each time she changed her name’ only to submerge instantly beneath a morass of quotidian detail.

What seems to have prompted this new biography is the discovery of some new material, chiefly an exchange of letters between Eliot and Herbert Spencer. But it is hard to feel that this fresh evidence makes a dramatic difference to our received assessment of Eliot, and even harder to believe that it justifies yet another blow-by-blow account, all the way from the pedigrees of her parents to her death from kidney failure. There should be a ban on all biographies which have neither startling new material to sift nor audaciously original cases to promote. Such a prohibition would be objectionably autocratic; but it might at least have saved Karl a good deal of trouble.