George Eliot


By far and away the most erudite of nineteenth century English novelists (she translated 'The Life of Jesus' by Strauss - which denied any historical basis to the christian faith and Feuerbach's equally iconclastic The Essence of Christianity) Eliot was also the most 'Virian,' as can be seen from this eloquent description of the Bible; "I regard these writings as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction, and while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life . . . to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness."

It should also be noted that her atheism was something she paid for dearly, as it cut her off from her devout family, something not helped by her unconventional lifestyle (she lived with, but did not marry, her partner GH Lewes). If sainthood requires endurance and suffering, Eliot quite literally wrote the book on the subject.

An early proponent of evolution (or the development theory as she would have called it) who considered Darwin's Origin of Species an epoch in our slow march to clear sightedness, Eliot's knowledge of Biblical criticism allowed her to see sooner than most the need for an atheist religion that nurtured the "deeply awing sense of responsibility to man, springing from sympathy with the difficulty of the human lot."

Her novels see her characters progressing from egotism to empathy through their interactions with others. Without god, the need for duty and sympathy can only be stronger.

Few other English novelists have ever been quite as capable of depicting the complexity of human relations, not only with each other but with society at large - her works remain some of the most socially acute portrayals of English society at the time of the reform act.

In short, she certainly deserves a place alongside Dickens and Tolstoy in the pantheon of English novelists, and had an enormous influence on later writers (including Hardy, James, Forster, Woolf and Lawrence).I commend her to the congregation.

Last edited on Sunday, August 24, 2003 10:19:26 pm.