Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Social Context of George Eliot Novels

Literature is an expression of the personality of the writer, and that personality itself is formed and moulded by the times in which he or she lives. It is moreso in the case of a writer as sensitive as George Eliot was. It is, therefore, necessary that before proceeding to a study of her works, we try to form an idea of the age in which she lived and created her works. The present chapter examines her social milieu, while the next one is devoted to a study of the literary context of her novels.

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, of 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 colonising mission of the English was already bringing in rich dividends. They attributed all this 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 for ever. 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 country-side was de-populated. Industrialisation shocked the supremacy of the aristocratic class and the landed gentry, and brought into being a new merchant class. This new class, quite naturally, clamoured 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. Havellock Ellis and Freud were already working on their epoch-making works.
The Advance of Science
This break-up 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, 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, ‘Orphaned 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.
Religious Conflicts
It was an era also of religious conflicts and tensions. There are two forms of religious traditions. One is the practical, kindly, undogmatic tradition of Anglicanism or the official church of England. They believe in doing a good turn, a kindly, humane act and do not bother much about the theoretical questions of right and wrong. Such men were interested in conduct than in faith, they had a respected position in the structure of society, which enabled them, to some extent, to mitigate the rigours of class difference. Even when comparatively poor, they were accepted by the gentry as one of themselves, but they knew where the shoe pinches for their uneducated parishoners. Sometimes, they were men of deep intellectual interests; and were the sort of men who to-day would be university or sixth-form teachers.
The other religious tradition, much more vehement and fanatical, is loosely called Evangelical. They were dissenters from the Church of England. By the year 1830, the Evangelical movement was nothing new, but such is the conservatism of the Middle-marchers, that they regard it as something new and are suspicious of it. Evangelicals or Methodists laid stress on the strict adherence to religious dogma. They made a rigid distinction between those who had received divine Grace and those who had not. They believed in the doctrine of the original sin, and that all men were consequently depraved, till they received divine Grace and were controlled and guided by His will. The Evangelicals thought that they were the chosen of God, and so would never admit that there was any evil in them. Thus they were self-righteous, firmly convinced of the rightness of their conduct, and critical of others who did not belong to their sect.
In the novel, the two sects are in conflict, and the old is suspicious of the new. The old is giving way to the new in every direction. The old in religious, social and economic sphere is decaying and disintegrating, and the new is gradually taking its place.
Non-conformist sects receive little attention and no respect. Methodism, which then had a strong hold on many parts of the Midlands, is referred to indirectly as a religion encouraging one to be dull and strait-laced. Dissenters—’godly folk’—is a word used with certain amount of disapproval and even contempt, for non-conformist congregations included dealers in stolen goods and other unscrupulous people. They were proud of their profession of religion, critical of those who did not accept their view of life.
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 focusing attention on the unhealthy conditions prevalent in the cities due to over-population. Industrial Revolution was slowly encroaching upon the countryside and shattering the agricultural fabric. But despite the rise of factories in Coventry and other industrial centres, there were still some parts of 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. The exploitation of women and children in factories was the order of the day. They were made to work for long hours and given very low wages. A number of Reform Acts were passed, a number of writers focused attention on the evils of industrialisation, and the plight of slum dwellers, but all this was of no avail. The Reform Act of 1832, and the events which followed from the historical background to Middlemarch. 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.

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