German higher criticism and the embodiment of progress in George Eliot's Middlemarch

Author: Elise Silson

Silson, Elise, 2021 German higher criticism and the embodiment of progress in George Eliot's Middlemarch, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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This thesis holds George Eliot’s life trajectory alongside the plot trajectory of Middlemarch, as demonstrated by the texts she wrote, translated, and reviewed. It demonstrates her experiences and representations of progress and growth in many different contexts and modes, and on many different scales, from the individual through to the international. The historical inclusivity of her work is similarly expansive.

Eliot’s Berg and Folger notebooks record her reading during the generation of both Middlemarch (serialised 1871-2) and Daniel Deronda (pub. 1876). This thesis contributes insight into how Eliot intersperses historical, literary, philosophical, theological and scientific understanding with poetry in these notebooks and, in turn, Middlemarch. Eliot wrote narratives that incorporated diverse Bildungen, undertaken relationally and within social systems. In doing so, she remains intimately mindful of the historicity of ideological formation, and its potentially revolutionary impact for both the individual and society: in this sense, this thesis also describes the flux between religion, power, and politics. I contribute new archival research on the Berg notebook (1868-1876), which draws out Eliot’s understanding of the arts—especially poetry—as a prophetic voice that challenges communities to regenerate collaboratively (albeit imperfectly).

Eliot’s understanding of progress and growth changed fundamentally and abruptly while she was translating German theological works: David Strauss’ Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (German pub. 1835, trans. 1844-5, English pub. 1846) and Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity (German pub. 1841, trans. 1853-4, English pub. 1854). This understanding culminates in Middlemarch, wherein the Bildungen of Eliot’s characters, in community with one another, constitutes the Bildungen of the Middlemarch community itself. Eliot’s perspective provides a stabilised, practical alternative to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ responses to Strauss and Feuerbach in their writing and in the revolutions of 1848.

In deciding to write novels rather than polemics, Eliot drew together a formidable awareness of nineteenth-century histories, science, higher criticism, and sociology. This thesis prioritises intertextual methodologies in exploring these integrations, drawing together Eliot’s correspondence, translations, notebooks, essays and reviews. In harmony with this intertextuality, this thesis centralises Eliot’s decision to venture not one single polemic in her writing, but diverse perspectives and temperaments in relation to one another, being worked out dialogically, within society. By demonstrating the relational ramifications of diverse world-views and consequent theologies, Eliot guides readers to evaluate the lived social impact of their relationship with the divine good: both within themselves, and in each other. In these explorations, Eliot centralises the truth of experience—especially experiences of art, narrative, and poetry—rather than dogma and doctrine.

For Eliot, any system divorced from the truth of human experience is a barrier to progress and growth, both individually and collectively. This awareness led Eliot to oppose dogmatic systems, which she conveys throughout Middlemarch. This thesis demonstrates both the lived origins and the textual dimensions of Eliot’s understanding of human progress and growth, using a fundamentally intertextual and interdisciplinary approach.

Keywords: George Eliot, Ludwig Feuerbach, David F. Strauss, Karl Marx, German Higher Criticism, Middlemarch, Progress, Philosophy, Theology, Translation

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Robert Phiddian