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John Rignall. George Eliot, European Novelist. Farnham UK: Ashgate, 2011. ISBN: 9781409422341. Price: US$99.95/£49.50

  • Andrew Thompson

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  • Andrew Thompson
    The American University of Rome

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At The Westminster Review in the early 1850s, Marian Evans kept her readers up to date with developments in art, literature, philosophy, and history in France, Germany, Italy, and Austria, and helped create a wider awareness of a common European intellectual culture alongside national differences. Travel to Europe for her was both an escape from the demands of daily life at home and a restorative “enlargement of [her] general life” (14), and her career is punctuated with sometimes quite extended periods on the continent. Eliot’s work, however, has long been regarded as part of an English tradition with a peculiarly English fictional world and moral vision, criticized by some for lacking the metaphysical dimension, structural unity, and technique of the great European novelists such as Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert and Thomas Mann. On the other hand, Eliot’s first readers and reviewers took it for granted that she belonged to a European tradition of fiction and had little difficulty with placing her firmly within it.

John Rignall’s George Eliot, European Novelist aims to recover that sense of a European context which faded with the decline of Eliot’s reputation in the late nineteenth century, and to realign her fiction with a European tradition. His book continues a trend towards a fuller acknowledgement of the European dimension of her work, particularly French, German and Italian, from scholars in the 1990s and beyond. Here he examines aspects of Eliot’s engagement with Europe, and reads her novels and stories in relation to some European novelists whom she read or who read her. The term European is immediately circumscribed by the approach; there is no discussion of the poetry (e.g. The Spanish Gypsy from 1868) and very little on Eliot in relation to Spanish, Italian or Russian literature. Within this lesser Europe however, Rignall offers rich and detailed readings, employing a critical perspective “that goes beyond influence from or allusion to her literary predecessors but sees her fiction as interacting with the work of other writers in an almost dialectical spirit” (K. M. Newton, qtd. on 3). There are useful chapters on the importance of Europe, the idea of travel, and European landscape and history. The interplay of contrast and affinity is then explored productively in chapters on Eliot and Honoré de Balzac, and on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Middlemarch (1871-2). A chapter on German writers relates Eliot to the fiction of Gottfried Keller and Theodor Fontane. Two essays explore Daniel Deronda (1876) in relation to European culture and the Jewish diaspora, and then to Balzac, Flaubert and Marcel Proust. The final chapter explores Eliot’s anticipations of modernism through affinities with Friedrich Nietzsche.

In European intellectual culture Eliot found new perspectives and wider horizons for her keenly questioning mind, and in provincial Weimar she lived for a time with G. H. Lewes in a world in which they were not ostracized as they would be in London. Her European experiences helped sharpen an understanding of her own culture—immensely important for a novelist with ambitions to be classed alongside the great Europeans. For Rignall Eliot’s own “experiments in life” are to be seen as contributing to that great skeptical and interrogative tradition of the European novel from Miguel de Cervantes onward of “teach[ing] the reader to comprehend the world as a question” (Milan Kundera, qtd. on 4). George Eliot, European Novelist argues that a very European Eliot was well placed to explore the same territory—“the dynamic, thrusting individualism of European modernity” (9)—and with similar thematic and formal concerns, as some great French and German novelists in the nineteenth century.

Rignall sets Eliot’s novels in relation to Balzac in terms of the delineation of provincial life, arguing that she writes against Balzac in her representation of father-daughter relationships, the reduced role she gives to human agency, and in the contrast between Balzac’s cynical worldliness and her ethical aim of extending sympathy for one’s fellows. Balzac views provincial life from a metropolitan (Parisian) vantage point, while in Eliot “provincial” is merely a neutral descriptive term. For the metropolitan Eliot, “the work of her imagination is to inhabit the world she had escaped” (77) in her first stories, and again in the 1861 Silas Marner, here considered alongside Eugénie Grandet (1833). Discussion of the intellectual and spiritual consequences of the widening horizons and possibilities associated with modernity is focused through the word “diffusion” (87), which for Flaubert often meant a scattering of energies in unfocused ambitions and dreams. In Eliot’s early fiction it takes on positive connotations of reaching out and mingling with another life to achieve personal enrichment. The dangers of diffusion are explored in Dorothea’s disorienting experience of Rome, which is too diffuse for her imagination to encompass, by contrast with the diffusive sympathy of the Epilogue of Middlemarch, which asks to be read “not as wasteful but as creative, not as frustration but as fulfilment” (104). Rignall argues that it is in Daniel Deronda where affinities with Balzac, Proust, and Flaubert signal a radical and daring departure as Eliot moves beyond the conventional bounds of the English novel in both subject and form. She explores the Balzacian territory of the metropolitan rich and the “beau monde” (141), and the Flaubertian theme of the privileged young man whose life lacks direction, anticipating Proust in some of the novel’s formal qualities, such as the overlay of indeterminacy in her willingness to leave characters like Grandcourt “still unfinished and in motion” (149).

In a chapter on Daniel Deronda that focuses on how Jewish lives in European culture transcend national boundaries, Rignall shifts the critical focus away from Eliot’s proto-Zionism and sees an implicit claim in the novel for the achievements of the diaspora in European culture in the nineteenth century. He rightly draws attention to the inherent hybridity of many of the characters and the association of these pan-European individuals with creativity, and argues that Eliot’s complex portrayal of the Jewish presence in European life militates against attempts to reduce the novel’s meaning to a prophetic proclamation of Zionism. This chapter gets to the heart of Eliot’s mature vision of Europe and shows one important way in which she was truly European in outlook. In a decade of aggressive European nationalisms and colonialism by the English, she was prepared to envision a truly pan-European cultural identity.

After the illuminating readings of Eliot and French fiction, the single chapter on Eliot and German fiction, represented by Keller and Fontane, is less satisfying. Eliot and Lewes regarded contemporary German fiction as inferior to French in its lack of realism, and there appear to be fewer points of contact, though there is useful discussion of Eliot’s elegaic strain in the context of each novelist’s engagement with the problems of modernity, manifested in the conflict between the aspirations of a restless individualism and the claims of the family and the past. However we are left wishing for more on Eliot and the Germans to balance the greater attention given to French novelists. A fuller discussion of J. W. von Goethe, one of the most important European influences on Eliot’s creative life and a figure who is mentioned many times in the volume, would have been a welcome addition.

Nietzsche famously dismissed Eliot as an English version of the “literary female” (157) and on the face of it there is little common ground between them. However they share a mistrust and hostility towards intellectual systems, and both acknowledge the difficulty of knowing and judging. In a strong final chapter Rignall looks at some precise affinities and congruencies to illuminate ways in which Eliot’s fiction points the way to modernism: her treatment of language and metaphor in The Mill on the Floss already edges towards his explosion of the certainties of language; and in her concern with history and critique of antiquarianism in Romola (1862-3) and Middlemarch an “aspect of Nietzsche’s cultural diagnosis [is] fleshed out in advance” in some of her characters (161). The case is persuasive, though Rignall acknowledges that Eliot’s critical awareness of the problems of language and history is really as much a testimony to the sophisticated complexity of nineteenth-century realism as it is an anticipation of modernism. In Eliot’s last novel Rignall sees an anticipation of Nietzsche’s “most characteristic quality of modern man: the ... antithesis between an interior which fails to correspond to any exterior ...” (Nietzsche, qtd. on 162) in Deronda’s engagement with the question of his vocation and in the way in which his Jewish identity must be brought into harmony with his own daily life to save him from an unfocused dilettante existence.

Some of the ten chapters in George Eliot, European Novelist are revised or extended versions of previously published work, and the book sometimes has the feel of a collection of essays. Eliot was engaged with a wider Europe and in an even greater variety of complex ways than these chapters suggest, so that the full promise of the book’s title remains somehow unfulfilled. Nevertheless, through a series of close and perceptive readings Rignall builds a very solid case for George Eliot as a writer exploring very much the same territory as many nineteenth-century French and German novelists. In (re)aligning Eliot’s work with that of her European contemporaries the book makes a valuable contribution by shifting the critical debate away from a quintessentially English Eliot and showing how her fiction responds to and asks to be read in light of the wider European context.

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