The Magazine

Eminent Victorian

The story of George Eliot's 'Daniel Deronda'.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot

by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Encounter, 250 pp., $25.95

Through portraits of a few carefully chosen Victorian figures, and with the aid of a deft prose style, acidic with irony, Lytton Strachey, in Eminent Victorians, set out to squelch the Victorians. He mocked Victorian earnestness, debased Victorian energy, and lacerated what he took to be the essential hypocrisy of the Victorians and their pretense to an elevated spirit leading on to good works. The immediate effect, lasting for decades afterwards, was devastating.

Strachey was a central figure in the group of writers and intellectuals known as Bloomsbury, and his attack is understandable. We know, as the cant phrase has it, where he was coming from. The Bloomsbury Group--a name that today sounds suspiciously like a dubious hedge fund--stood opposed to everything the Victorians stood for: earnestness, probity, the struggle with fundamental social, political, and moral problems and issues. The Victorians came at things straight on; the Bloomsbury writers--Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Strachey, et alia--preferred obliquity.

The Victorians had a comprehensive and confident view of human nature; the Bloomsbury writers could only assert, as Woolf contended, that human nature had changed in 1910, though she neglected to say precisely from what to what. The Victorians asserted the need for soundness of thought, high principles, and life considered in the long run; John Maynard Keynes, Bloomsbury's economist, said that in the long run we are all dead, which eased the way for his fellow Bloomsburyites rather joylessly to philander, bugger, and stress personal relations over national destinies. For a long spell, it appeared that Bloomsbury had won, making the Victorians seem little more than a roster of prudish neurotics dedicated to nothing grander than sexual repression.

No longer, for today the Victorians have regained their rightful stature, and this owing in great part to the work of the intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. She is the anti-Lytton Strachey; her work over a long career--her first book, Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and Politics, was published in 1952--has wiped the irony from the Strachey title, and reminded us how genuinely eminent the Victorians were. Darwin, Macaulay, Mill, Dickens, Carlyle, the Brontës, Matthew Arnold, Thackeray, Ruskin, Newman, Trollope, Acton, Tennyson, Browning, Bagehot, Disraeli, Gladstone, the cavalcade of Victorian genius is greater than that of any other period in any other nation in the history of the world. In her several book-length studies of the Victorians and their milieu, Gertrude Himmelfarb has elegantly and incisively set out the nature of the Victorians' achievement, honoring the complexity of their lives and works, reminding us that giants once walked the earth without unduly emphasizing that pygmies--sorry to report that they would be us--do now.

Of all the great Victorians, perhaps none was more complex, unpredictable, and finally astonishing than Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot. When the 26-year-old Henry James visited her in 1869, he wrote to his father that "she is magnificently ugly--deliciously hideous." He added that "in this vast ugliness [which James describes] resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her." James wrote of the "great feminine dignity and character in those massively plain features," and concluded by saying that "altogether she has a larger circumference than any woman I have ever seen."

By circumference I take James to mean breadth of understanding, largeness of spirit, depth of sympathy--the qualities possessed by only the greatest of novelists. That George Eliot is among the small company of the world's great novelists is without doubt. She is a central figure in F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition. Her place at the very top rank in Anglophone literature is secure. I'm not sure of her reputation among the French, Italians, or Germans, though some have suggested that Daniel Deronda (1876), her last and most complex novel, may be the best German novel ever written in English.