Social & Educational Background of George Eliot

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      Literature is an expression of the personality of the writer, and that personality itself is formed and molded by the limes in which he lives. It is more so in the case of a writer so sensitive as George Eliot was. It is, therefore, necessary that before proceeding to a study her works, we try to form an idea of the age in which she lived and created.


The Spirit of Questioning

      George Eliot was born in 1819 and her first novel was written in 1858. Thereafter, novel after novel flowed from her pen in quick succession. In other words, the formative years of her life were passed in the opening decades of the Victorian era. There was an intellectual ferment in England, such as had never been witnessed before. This spirit of questioning, this intellectual unrest is everywhere reflected in her works.

Industrial Revolution: Its Impact

      In the beginning of the Victorian era, there was a widespread faith in unlimited progress. This sense of self-satisfaction or complacency resulted from the immense strides that England had taken in the industrial and scientific fields. The nation was prospering and growing richer and richer everyday. The British empire was already a reality, the, “white man's burden”, or the colonizing mission of the English, was already bringing in rich dividends. They attributed all the prosperity to their, glorious and dominant Queen Victoria. It was an era of prosperity, an era of aggressive nationalism, an era of rising imperialism. Hence, nobody wanted that the status quo should be disturbed; any questioning of the present order was frowned upon Emphasis was on faith, faith in one’s religion, faith in the Queen and those in authority, and faith in continuous progress. If there were doubts anywhere, they needed to compromise with the existing order. However, such a state of affairs could not continue forever.

      The Industrial Revolution gradually destroyed old agricultural England. As a result, there was migration on a large scale from the villages to the cities. The countryside was depopulated. Industrialization shook the supremacy of the aristocratic class and landed gentry, and brought into being a new merchant class. This new class, quite naturally, clamored for power and prestige, both political and social, and did not agree to the accepted order of things. Victorian traditions and conventions were thus subjected to greater and greater pressures, and soon there were large cracks in the Victorian fabric. Moreover, the lower classes, too, were acquiring increasing political rights. There was mental and cultural emancipation all around.

The Spirit of Freedom

      This spirit of emancipation is nowhere seen to better advantage than in the freedom which women gradually acquired. Victorian tradition and Victorian prudery placed excessive emphasis on the chastity of women. Their proper sphere was within the four walls of the home: any contact with the outside world was supposed to corrupt and spoil them. Their sole business was to look after the comforts of their menfolk. But with the passing of time, the movement for women’s emancipation gained ground; women were given political rights and more and more of them came out of their homes to take up independent careers.

      Florence Nightingale did valuable service to the cause of women. Problems of sex and married life were receiving increasing attention from thinkers and writers. Havelock Ellis and Freud were already working on their epoch-making works.

The Advance of Science

      This breakup of Victorian ‘Compromise’, traditions and conventions was accelerated by the rapid advance of science. Science with its emphasis on reason rather than on faith, encouraged the spirit of questioning. Victorian beliefs, both religious and social, were subjected to a searching scrutiny and found wanting. The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 is of special significance from this point of view. His celebrated theory of Evolution contradicted the account of Men’s origin as given in the Bible. His theory carried conviction as it was logically developed and supported by overwhelming evidence. Man’s faith in orthodox religion was shaken; he could no longer accept without question God’s omnipotence, benevolence, mercy, etc., for such orthodox notions of God were contradicted by facts. Similarly, Darwin, with his emphasis on the brutal struggle for existence which is the law of Nature, exploded the romantic view of her as a, ‘Kindly Mother’, having a ‘Holy plan’ of her own. The process started by Darwin was completed by philosophers like Huxley, Spencer, Mill, etc. The impact of these developments in science and philosophy on the works of George Eliot is far-reaching.

The Rise of Pessimism

      Thus established order, customs, faiths and beliefs, traditions and customs, were losing their hold on the minds of the people, and the new order of things had not yet been established. Man had lost his mooring in God, Religion and Nature. The mechanistic view of the universe precluded any faith in a benevolent creator. Man felt, ‘Orphan and defrauded.’ He took a gloomy view of life, for he felt miserable and helpless with nothing to fall back upon. It was for the first time, says David Cecil, that, “conscious, considered pessimism became a force in English literature”. The melancholy poems of Arnold, the poetry of Fitzgerald, Thomson’s The City of God, and the works of Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot, all reflect the pessimistic outlook of the late Victorian era. The growth of pessimism was further encouraged by the flow of pessimistic thought from Europe, where pessimism was much in the air at the time.

Persistence of the Agricultural Way of Life

      The age played an important part in formulating the critical and philosophical views of George Eliot. During her childhood, she saw the dawn of a new era, the era of the Industrial Revolution. Year after year people were leaving the serene, clean countryside for the slums of the city. Writers like Dickens were focussing attention on the unhealthy conditions prevalent in the cities due to overpopulation. Industrial Revolution was slowly encroaching into the countryside and shattering the agricultural fabric. Despite the rise of factories in Coventry and other industrial centers, there were still some parts of the countryside untouched by the Industrial Revolution and it is these beautiful, remote, places, such as Hayslope and Raveloe, that George Eliot describes in her novels.

The New Economy

      At this time the new economic theory of Utilitarianism was attracting much attention. The foremost Utilitarian philosopher at that time was Jeremy Bentham. The Utilitarians could get passed a number of bills such as that for the abolition of imprisonment for not paying debts, and that for the reform of the legal system. But Jeremy Bentham also believed that Government should not place any restrictions on commerce and industry. He accepted the theory of Laissez-faire. Many of the corrupt businessmen and manufacturers used this theory for exploiting the workers.

Exploitation of the Workers

      All these events and circumstances naturally affected Victorian literature. Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Carlyle, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold were affected by the condition of man in contemporary society. George Eliot was deeply affected by the plight of the humble folk whom she had known all her life and it is this sympathy for the common people that plays an important part in her novels, “As we must know the eighteenth century in its social spirit, literary tendencies, revolutionary aims, romantic aspirations, philosophy and science, to know Goethe, so must we know the nineteenth century in its scientific attainments, agnostic philosophy, realism and humanitarian, aims, in order to know George Eliot.”


      When we speak of the Victorian novel we do not mean that there was a conscious school of the English novel, with a consciously common style and subject matter, a school which began creating with the reign of Queen Victoria and which came to an end with the end of that reign. The English are too individualistic for such conformity. However, there can be no denying the fact that the English novel during second half of the 19th century, with the exception of one or two novelists, shows certain common characteristics. We have now to study those common characteristics.

The Conventional Plots

      For one thing, the Victorian novel continues to be largely in the Fielding tradition. The plot is generally loose and ill constructed. The main outline of the Victorian novel is the same. The story consists of a large variety of characters and incident clustering round the figure of the hero. These characters and incidents are connected together rather loosely by any intrigue, and the ending is with the ringing of wedding bells.

      Secondly, the Victorian novel is an extraordinary mixture of sentiment, flashy melodrama and lifeless characters. There is much that is improbable and artificial in character and incident. Speaking generally, the Victorians fail to construct an organic plot in which every incident and character forms an integral part of the whole.

Entertainment Value

      Still, the Victorian Novel makes for interesting reading. The novelists may not construct a compact plot, but they tell the story so well. They are so entertaining, that children still love to read and enjoy a novel of Dickens or Thackeray. The plot may be improbable, but there is enough suspense, and the readers attention is not allowed to flag even for a single moment. They do not like to give it up unfinished.

Panoramic Nature

      The Victorian novelists may miss the heights and depths of human passion, there may be no probing of the human heart and no psychoanalysis—we do get such probing in George Eliot—as in modern novel’, but they cast their nets very wide. Novels like Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, etc., are not, like most modern novels, concentrated wholly on the life and fortunes of a few principal characters; they also provide panoramas or whole societies. In the Victorian novel, “A hundred different types and classes, persons and nationalities, jostle each other across the shadow screen of our imagination.” (David Cecil)

Immense Variety

      The Victorian novelist is a man of varied moods. His range of mood is as wide as his range of subject. Just as he deals with all aspects of society, so also he renders human moods in all their manifold variety. He is not a specialist in any one mood or temper. The novelists of the age cannot be categorized. As David Cecil puts it, “They write equally for the train journey and for all time; they crowd realism and fantasy, thrills and theories, knockout force and effects of pure aesthetic beauty, cheek by jowl on the same page; they are Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Huxley and Mrs. Woolf Mrs. Christie and Mr. Woodhouse, all in one.” A book like David Copperfield is a sort of vast schoolboy hamper of fiction with sweets and sandwiches, pots of jam with their greased paper caps, cream and nuts and glossy apples, all packed together in a heterogeneous deliciousness”. 

Creative Imagination

       Not only have the Victorian novelist's width and range of subject and mood, not only are they entertaining storytellers, but they have also had creative imagination in ample measure. Their imagination works on their personal experiences and transforms and transmutes them. Their renderings of the real world are not photographs, but pictures, colored by their individual idiosyncrasies, vivid and vital. Often the picture is fanciful and romantic. At other times, it sticks close to the facts of actual existence, but these facts are always fired and colored by the writer’s individuality. The act of creation is always performed. Dickens is, “the romancer of London streets,” and Thackeray, too, transports us to an entirely new world, call it vanity fair or Thackeray land or what you will. The creative imagination of the Victorian novelist works on the setting of his story and transforms it. This creative imagination is also seen at work on the incidents or the stories of the Victorian writer. They linger long in the memory because they have been made dramatic and picturesque by the imagination of the novelists. They abound in dramatic and picturesque scenes as in Vanity Fair. “As a picture is an ‘invention’ offline and color, so are these, brilliant ‘inventions’ of scene and action”. (David Cecil)

      This creative imagination is also seen in the humor of the Victorian novelists. Each of the great Victorian novelists is a humorist, and each is a humorist in style of his own. They have created a number of immortal figures of fun, each comic in his own different way. There are hundreds of line jokes and witty remarks spread all over the Victorian novel, Mr. Micowber and Mrs. Payser are immortal figures of fun.


      The most important expression of this creative imagination is to be seen in the most important part of the novel, i.e. in the
characterization. The Victorians are all able to make their characters live. Their characters may not always be real, there may be much in them that is improbable and false, but they are amazingly and indomitably alive. They are wonderfully energetic and vital. They are all individuals, living their own existence, and lingering long in the memory once I've have formed an acquaintance with them. They act in their own characteristic way; they have their own tricks of speech, their own way of saying and doing things. A Victorian novel is a crowd of breathing, crying, living, laughing people. It has a crowded canvas, crowded with living, breathing individuals.

Technical Weakness

      The Victorian novel lacks uniformity. It is extremely unequal; it is an extraordinary mixture of strength and weakness It is technically faulty. This is so because it is still in its infancy, it is still considered as a light entertainment, and not a serious work of art, and the laws of its being have not yet evolved. In this connection, David Cecil observes, “Because it was in its first stage, it was bound to be technically faulty. It had not yet evolved its own laws; it was still bound to the conventions of the comic siege and heroic romance from which it took its origin, with their artificial intrigues and stock situations and force happy endings. Because it was looked on as light reading, its readers did not expect a high standard of craft nor did they mind it if it had occasional lapses; especially as they themselves had no traditions of taste by which to estimate it.” On the other hand, they strongly objected to spending their hours of light reading on themes that were distressing or put an intellectual strain on them.

One-sided View of Life

      Then again the Victorian prudery comes in the way of a free and frank treatment of the animal side of life. In this respect, the Victorian novel shows a definite decline from the earlier English novel. Any lapse from virtue is shrouded in an atmosphere of; “drawing the blinds and lowering the voice”. Free and uninhabited treatment of the animal side is lacking. The Victorian novel gives only a partial, one-sided view of life.

Its Real Greatness

      For these reasons, the Victorian novelists cannot be ranked with the very great, yet they have greatness in them. They have their imperfections. Their plots are improbable and melodramatic, their endings are conventional and their construction is loose, They do not have any high artistic standards. But their merits also are many They are very entertaining, they can capture and hold the attention, they have creative imagination, and they have the incomparable gift of humor. And these are qualities which only the great have.

Its Two Phases

      The novel in the Victorian era is so abundant and prolific that it is usual to divide the Victorian novelists into (a) Early Victorian Novelists, and (b) the Later Victorian Novelists Writes Walter Alien in this connection. “Thackeray was born in 1811, Dickens in 1812, Trollope in 1815, Charlotte Bronte in 1816, Emily Bronte in 1818, George Eliot in 1819. Mrs. Gaskell had been born in 1810, and lesser novelists born in the Regency period include Charles Reade (1814) and Charles Kingsley (1819). Together, they are the names that first came to mind when we think of the Victorian novel. They do not form a coherent body; and Emily Bronte will prove an exception to all generalizations we care to make about the rest of them. Yet if we set them beside the chief novelists born in the generation after the Regency, Samuel Butler (1835), George Meredith (1828), Thomas Hardy (1840) and Henry James, we shall see that they have much more in common with one another than they have with the younger men What they have in common is a special climate of ideas and feelings, a set of fundamental assumptions. It was this special climate, these assumptions that the later novelists of the century were to question, even though the great mass of the reading public still took them for granted.”

      And this points to another main difference between the novelists of the first half of the Victorian age and those of the second half. The former was at one with their public to a quite remarkable degree; they were conditioned by it, as of course, any novelist must be, but for the most part, were willingly conditioned by it. They identified themselves with their age and were its spokesmen. They may criticize their age as do Dickens and Thackeray, but on the whole, they accept the prevalent customs and social institutions. The later novelists, however, were writing in some sense against their age; they were critical, even hostile, to its dominant assumptions. Thus Hardy attacks Victorian morality and the institution of marriage; Samuel Butler scandalized his age by flouting Victorian taboos and conventions, and Henry James went against the literary canons of the age by his advocacy of the novel as an art form. Their relation to the reading public was nearer to that of the twentieth-century novelists than to that of the early Victorians.

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