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Avrom Fleishman, George Eliot’s Intellectual Life

Thomas Albrecht
p. 231-235
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Avrom Fleishman, George Eliot’s Intellectual Life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010. 310 p. ISBN 978-0-521-11736-4

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1One of the connecting threads running throughout Avrom Fleishman’s ambitious and remarkable study George Eliot’s Intellectual Life is Eliot’s voluminous reading. According to Fleishman, Eliot read “everything,”and in preparation for writing his book, Fleishman claims to have followed her path and read (or read in) most of the many books Eliot read during her adolescence, her years as a translator, editor, and book critic, and the twenty year period in which she wrote her fiction. His purpose is not simply to catalogue, although he does that too. Rather, it is his means of gaining access to Eliot’s mind at the various stages of her career as an intellectual and novelist.

2One of Fleishman’s premises is that he will not treat Eliot’s intellectual identity as a coherent, fixed entity (as he maintains other intellectual biographers have done), but as a continuously emerging process. Eliot’s mind developed, he claims, through its ongoing interactions with the minds of other writers, interactions that primarily took the form of reading their works. By himself reading those works, and by reading Eliot’s own writings concurrently, Fleishman aims to participate in this interactive process: much as Eliot connected with the minds of, say, Ludwig Feuerbach or J.S. Mill by reading them, he would in turn connect with her mind by reading her and also by reading what she read as she wrote.

3The polemical context of this quasi-phenomenological kind of criticism is an intellectual history that focuses on individual interacting minds, rather than on what Fleishman dismisses as “fashionable” social or historical determinism. It is one of several self-proclaimed unorthodoxies characterizing Fleishman’s study. Another is his polemic against what he calls the currently predominant “postmodern” and neo-Romantic readings of Eliot, readings that allegedly seek to subvert Eliot’s explicitly stated beliefs in science and Victorian ideas of progress, in a fundamental human essence or commonality, and in totalizing systems and narratives, among other values. Like the work of Harold Bloom, Fleishman’s book is not at its best in the moments it tilts at these polemical windmills. This is not because of what he says about Eliot in those moments, which is characteristically intelligent and nuanced, but because of his cursory treatment of the kinds of criticism he would define his own readings against. Surely few critics writing in the “postmodern” vein would disagree with Fleishman that Eliot explicitly avows certain Victorian values, among them science, progress, and a shared humanity. Their argument is rather that Eliot’s writings also reveal a concurrent, muted ambivalence about the coherence of those same values.

4Fleishman’s book is divided into ten chapters organized chronologically and intending to cover the major stages in Eliot’s intellectual Bildung. Many of the chapters offer detailed commentary on two or three significant texts written during the stage under discussion, while also more briefly considering a series of related texts, including works by Eliot herself as well as what she was reading at the time. Chapters are devoted to Eliot’s adolescent Evangelicalism, her abrupt break with religion at age 22, her journalism and review essays of the early 1850s, her significant encounter with German philosophy and literature, her short fiction and early novels, each of the four novels Fleishman considers of major importance (Romola, Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda), and the cultural criticism she wrote in the four years following the publication of Daniel Deronda in 1876. The book is impressive, among other reasons, for the sheer number of texts it references and in many instances considers closely. These include selections from Eliot’s prolific correspondence, all of her published fiction, many of her essays, as well as philosophical and literary works she read (and in a few cases translated) by among many others Mill, Feuerbach, Auguste Comte, Wilhelm von Riehl, Herbert Spencer, Matthew Arnold, Goethe, Spinoza, David Strauss, Heinrich Heine, and George Henry Lewes, all of which receive considerable attention.

5Fleishman’s approach to Eliot is not literary interpretation or close reading. It is an intellectual history that treats her writings not as texts but as more or less direct engagements with—or reflections of—contemporary Victorian ideas, contemporary political events, and philosophical concepts. For example, he situates Daniel Deronda within a debate in nineteenth-century English political theory between contractualism and organicism, and discusses an episode in The Mill on the Floss as a struggle between humanist and hedonist forms of utilitarianism. His chapter on Felix Holt analyzes the novel in three contexts Eliot’s personal politics, Victorian debates about Positivism, and historical events taking place in Europe in the 1860s. His conclusions link particular works to particular literary or philosophical concepts, for instance Middlemarch and tragedy and tragicomedy, or Daniel Deronda and cosmopolitan nationalism. Because he defines her intellectual persona as a continuously evolving entity, Fleishman avoids drawing general conclusions about Eliot, moving instead from one work to the next, and from one stage of her intellectual development to another. But he does return to certain signature qualities throughout the book; these include Eliot’s humanism, her progressivism, her alternately satirical, tragic, and tragically idealist literary vision, her positivism and pragmatism, her literary and scientific naturalism, and most importantly her empiricist ethics. His conclusion makes a compelling claim for Eliot’s foremost importance not only in the tradition of the English novel but in the Western tradition of a humanist, empiricist ethics that reaches back to Aristotle and (in Eliot’s own time) to Mill.

6Unless one shares his intellectual historical premises, it is difficult to evaluate Fleishman’s arguments on their own terms. There are certainly individual points on which I would criticize the book, for instance its comparatively cursory consideration of Eliot’s reading—and translation—of Feuerbach. Many critics consider Feuerbach’s work fundamental to any understanding of Eliot’s ethics, but Fleishman devalues his influence along with Comte’s in favor of Mill’s. Another example is its relative de-emphasis of Eliot’s literary influences (such as Scott, Balzac, George Sand, and Wordsworth) in favor of her philosophical influences. And perhaps it is only a historicizing approach like Fleishman’s that could praise Romola as a major work in Eliot’s oeuvre and in nineteenth-century political-historical fiction more generally, while dismissing Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss as comparatively minor works. (Considering the nature of his own approach to Eliot’s life and writings, it is possible to speculate why Fleishman might have taken so much to the infamously over-researched Romola.)

7More generally, one might question the assumption that literary works could or should be read as expressions of philosophical ideas and concepts. This is not only for methodological reasons, because the methods of literary criticism are arguably preferable to the methods of intellectual history for reading individual works of literature, and even for reading a “novelist of ideas” like Eliot. Foremost it is for the sake of trying to get those individual works right, of giving their complexity—including their philosophical, intellectual complexity—its full due. When Fleishman maintains, for example, that the tragic element in Middlemarch lies in the realization that the ideal can only ever take an imperfect human form, this claim certainly fits into a familiar narrative of nineteenth-century European intellectual history. It also fits into one of the conceptual schemes through which Fleishman is discussing the novel, the recurring contrast between the real and the ideal. But it doesn’t actually seem true about Middlemarch.

8That being said, there is much to admire about George Eliot’s Intellectual Life, among them the impressive range of materials it discusses, its intelligence and erudition, the clarity of its prose, and its understated humor. This kind of serious bibliographical study seems like a rarity today and as such all the more precious. It is invaluable in its detailed cataloging of the numerous scientific, philosophical, and literary sources and influences of Eliot’s ideas, beliefs, and writings. To my knowledge, no previous intellectual biographer has done this kind of extensive research on Eliot’s reading. The book will be of great interest to Eliot scholars and to anyone studying nineteenth-century European intellectual culture, in particular the intersections in Eliot’s work and elsewhere of aesthetics with political and ethical philosophy. I cannot confirm whether Fleishman quite succeeds in his stated aim of giving us full access to Eliot’s mind. (In another context, he cites a well-known line from Middlemarch that would seem to warn against such a possibility being realized in the first place.) What he does succeed in is putting a series of diverse texts by Eliot and others into meaningful relationships with one another. When he strikingly enables us to hear a hint of Casaubon’s voice in Eliot’s first book review, published twenty years before Middlemarch, he has us at our fullest attention.

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Thomas Albrecht, « Avrom Fleishman, George Eliot’s Intellectual Life », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 75 Printemps | 2012, 231-235.

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Thomas Albrecht, « Avrom Fleishman, George Eliot’s Intellectual Life », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 75 Printemps | 2012, mis en ligne le 03 février 2015, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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Thomas Albrecht

Tulane University.

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