Monday, June 01, 2009

Good Novelist, Questionable Critic

Apart from sharing the widespread conviction that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel, at least prior to The Watchmen, we rarely think much about George Eliot.  Truth be told, the intellectual depth and social breadth of Middlemarch intimidate us a bit.  We read it back in seminary, and are still haunted by the Roman honeymoon, and feel some of our own academic work to be rightly damned by the Key to All Mythologies.  We have never read any of her other novels, for fear of drowning in them.

Still, we are interested in the topic of Gertrude Himmelfarb's new book on Daniel Deronda, which attempts to explain how Eliot could have developed "her profound imaginative sympathy for the Jews."  It is reviewed, with great admiration, in the Weekly Standard, linked above.

Of even more interest, to us at least, is the first half of the review, which proposes that Bloomsbury's contemptuous dismissal of the Victorians has finally come under a much-deserved review, and that the Victorians are winning.  Lytton Strachey 

... 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  and with his his co-conspirators made  making the Victorians seem little more than a roster of prudish neurotics dedicated to nothing grander than sexual repression.  

But these days, at least according to Joseph Epstein, 

... the Victorians have regained their rightful stature, and this owing in great part to the work of the intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb [who has] reminded us how genuinely eminent the Victorians were. Darwin, Macaulay, Mill, Dickens, Carlyle, the Bront√ęs, 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. 

We quite like this, and would agree entirely if it were not the Weekly Standard talking about Gertrude Himmelfarb.  The review is smarmily uncritical, which comes as a small surprise until you remember that Himmelfarb's son, William Kristol, is the Standard's editor.  The fact that Kristol is also a prize ass, and among the most despicable of the era's neocon talking heads, is no reflection upon Himmlefarb's scholarship, whatever it may say about her parenting skills.  Nonethless, her scholarship -- and, specifically, the matter of whether it is skewed by her political convictions -- is open to question.

The danger with Himmelfarb is that, like any other neocon, her view of the world is shaped by despair over the supposed libertinism of the 1960s leftists.  In her case, this becomes a a somewhat uncritical admiration for the supposedly higher morality of the Victorian social and religious reformers.

There is a lot to be said for this idea, although we are not at all sure George Eliot -- a bit scandalous in her time -- is the best subject with which to make the point.  We are more concerned about Lord Acton, a subject of Himmelfarb's previous work and these days an icon of the right for his apparent championship both of free markets and of an independent-minded Catholicism that dared to say "no" to Vatican I.  And yet this Acton, as Marilynne Robinson contends in her fine Death of Adam, deliberately misrepresented Calvinism (and by extension, all of Protestantism) in an effort to claim, in essence, "that while Protestants did not in fact engage in oppression at nearly the same rate Catholics did, their theology required it, while Catholic theology did not, [and therefore] Protestantism is peculiarly the theology of persecution."

Okay, okay.  It's still guilt by association.  We don't exactly mean to suggest that since Acton lied about his ideological rivals, Himmelfarb does as well.  That would be both scurrilous and improbable.  But we will point out that smart writers with strong ideological perspectives often wind up deceiving first themselves, and then their readers.

Time permitting, we'd be happy to read Daniel Deronda first, and then whatever Himmelfarb has to say about it.  But we would read both with suspicion, because as Epstein finally mentions, George Eliot barely knew any Jews -- and because Himmelfarb is part of a political movement with a tenuous grasp on reality.

And, as to the larger point, we have this to say:  we are stunned by the vigor and, yes, the moral imperative behind much of Victorian culture. It was an era of giants.  But it was also an era of hypocrisy and moral turpitude, often dressed up as arts and letters.  The repressed and thwarted sexuality of the Anglo-Catholics, from Newman to Christina Rossetti, is part of their charm -- but the charm is lost when one tries to transfer all that into present-day politics and culture.  Nor, by any means, was all Victorian sexuality repressed.  Swinburne, anybody?

Upon sober consideration, we have to suggest that hero-worship (ideological or otherwise) is not the best approach either to history-writing or to literary studies.  It is on balance more dangerous even than its opposite, the iconoclastic school of scholarship which seeks to destroy all heroes by trampling on their feet of clay.  The latter is mean-spirited and unpleasant to read; but the former leads to a Weems-like confabulation which is, in its way, even more destructive to truth. 


mark said...

Oh how I recall the halcyon days in Professor Geyer's class on Victorian literature, and Professor Pickering's on 19th century English novel. Oh how I suffered! But really, who is your exemplar of objective lit crit? Talk about damning with faint praise.

Father said...

You're right, of course, that criticism by its nature doesn't permit a lot of objectivity. But history does, and the more "historical" a critic's method is, the higher the bar for objectivity. Himmelfarb seems to present herself less as a critic and more as an historian.

This is a tricky area, of course. There is the old argument that perfect objectivity is impossible, and therefore journalists, historians, etc. ought to function not as recorders and explainers of fact, but as advocates for a particular position. That's not illogical, but it does reduce all discussions to a battle of opinions, and diminish the importance of facts in any conversation. In other words, it gets you a world of Fox News.

Wounded and Healing said...

OK, I have to disagree with anyone who considers "Middlemarch" to be a great English novel. I read it in seminary (for a preaching class, actually-long story). I'm an avid reader and a fast one, and it was one of the slowest and most tedious reads of my seminary career. I'd rather read Leviticus five times in a row than read Middlemarch again.

Father said...

Seriously? I think it's wonderful (and of course I'm not alone).

That said, I have to admit that there is something almost cold about it, at least when compared to the really great novels of other languages in the same era.

Specifically, I'm thinking of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Dorothea Brooke is a far more admirable character than those two, but maybe a little too admirable -- the plucky heroine from a book for girls, who is trapped in a book for adults.

And, going back to Daniel Deronda, if George Eliot, who was after all a woman, couldn't write an entirely convincing woman, I'm not sure how she could do on a Jew, when she didn't know any.