Can we really speak of nineteenth-century rural England as constituting a culture separable from that of the of the island? (Then again, Scotland was and remains part of the island too; does this mean that it lacks cultural separateness?) What ideological interests are served by making such distinctions? I choose to view the complications as potentially productive, and to favor a mode of reading through the grain of Eliot's fiction that makes them so.
Behind Eliot's view of Hetty Sorrel lies, for good and ill, the legacy of historicism. Eliot doesn't depict Hetty as an active bearer of personal experience because she believes that someone in Hetty's historical situation wouldn't have been an active bearer of personal experience. Eliot wants to explore the possibility that there have been times and places in own tradition that have produced rural folk who simply don't think in the ways her implied readers do (which is just what Williams objects to). I would argue that she does this from the beginning of the novel, in the places where Hetty might seem most fully a bearer of personal experience. Hetty Sorrel's mind as Eliot depicts it is largely composed of a specular fascination with her own beauty and a congeries of inchoate images of what it would be like to be a lady. Hetty (like an even more extreme case in Adam Bede, Chad's Bess) has an immediacy of experience that isn't confined to moments of self-absorption before a dimly lit mirror. It's not that she is unaware of her self as a self, it's that she has a wordless grasp of herself merging with the roles she plays and might play, and that grasp lacks the sense of integrity and control one supposes Williams has in mind when he talks of being an active bearer of one's own experience. Her depicted self-awareness when she makes butter, for instance, has a tactile, kinesthetic feel to it —habitual motions, contours of clothing body, a feeling of eyes upon her. Even the moral or quasi-moral resonances of the scene reduce themselves to a sense of being in place —a safe, cool, enclosed feeling of doing what is known and proper mingling with fleeting images of other possibilities roused by Arthur Donnithorne's eyes upon her. Why does Hetty lack conscious moral agency? Dinah gained it, through her experience of Methodism. Mrs. Poyser has access to a rudimentary equivalent of it, through her largely unconscious immersion in certain traditional values. Hetty has remained immune, largely because her beauty and her quick social instinct have kept her from needing and seeking it. Hetty, then, is never depicted as a fully active bearer of personal experience; her self isn't coherent enough for that. ["Eliot: Narrating in History," p. 226; added by PVA]
- Philip V. Allingham's Review of Harry E. Shaw's Narrating Reality
- Realism and the Outer Life
- Realism in Austen's Northanger Abbey
- Scott's Realism and Cultural Difference
Shaw, Harry E. Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, and Eliot. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 280, including four-page index. ISBN 0-8014-1592-6.
Last modified 18 October 2004