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
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 ...
Andrew Thompson is Executive Vice President of The American University of Rome, Italy. He is the author of George Eliot and Italy: Literary, Cultural and Political Influences from Dante to the Risorgimento (Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), and the editor of “A George Eliot Holograph Notebook” held in the Bodleian Library Oxford (George Eliot – George Henry Lewes Studies 2006).