Sunday, February 08, 2015

George Eliot has no balls

Having just finished George Eliot's "Scenes of Clerical Life", I feel like I should make a blog entry about it, if only so that I don't have to make another depressing entry about depressing contemporary politics.
The book is really just a collection of three tenuously-linked stories about country clergymen and the women around them. It's not Eliot's best work - in fact, it was her earliest published work, even though she would have been about 37 years old - although the prose is crisp and even (as the carol has it), even if not deep. It is rewarding but not essential reading.
What puzzled me most about the book, though, is why she chose such subject matter in the first place. George Eliot was, that rare thing in mid-19th Century Britain, a committed atheist and humanist, who had critically studied the Bible as a young woman and concluded that it was just a rather uneven collection of folk tales and legends, and had not been shy of expounding her freethinking beliefs and openly criticizing the powerful Church of Victorian England.
Yet, here she was writing unchallenging stories about village curates. Nor is she using such conceits as a means of criticism, either open or veiled, of the Church and organized religion. Her clerical characters, as well as the other devout Christians in the stories, are not all paragons of virtue, but they are, generally speaking, represented sympathetically, and only subjected to the same light irony as everyone else. No withering satire here. Indeed, the whole tone of the story is religious, at times almost rapturous.
The main protagonist in the longest (and best, in my opinion) of the three stories, "Janet's Repentance", does have a major crisis of faith after her years of domestic abuse comes to a head, and I was fully expecting the exposition of some edifying humanist home truths. But what should happen then but her faith is renewed, and even strengthened, by the new preacher in town. Lost opportunity or what?
So, what was Eliot up to here? Unfortunately, I don't have any great insights or revelations to report. I am not a literary scholar, and I don't even know if this is a subject that has attracted reams of critical analysis. But all I can think is that she sold out, and just produced what was expected of a Victorian author - and what sold books at the time - a good old Christian morality tale that didn't rock the boat or ruffle too many feathers.
One could say the same about her treatment of the wife-battering issue. Kudos for even bringing the subject up, I guess, but I thought her resolution pretty lame. Eliot has never been considered a feminist, or even a proto-feminist - as I've a suspicion she might have been were she writing even fifty years later - and even her strongest character, Dorothea in "Middlemarch", written some fifteen years after "Scenes", signally failed to achieve, or even dream of, the kind of independence Eliot herself enjoyed in real life. But you would think she might have stuck her neck out a little further than just having her protagonist meekly return to her abusive husband, full of Christian forgiveness and humility.
Her near-contemporary, the outspoken social reformer Charles Dickens (who, incidentally, apparently wrote to this young George fellah after the publication of "Scenes of Clerical Life", praising his writing, and, with admirable perspicacity, claiming that, if he didn't know any better, he would have guessed the author was a woman), clearly had more balls than George Eliot!

No comments: