George Eliot’s “The Natural History of German Life,” which appeared in the July 1856 Westminster Review, has long been considered one of her more important essays—an early statement of the novelist’s artistic creed. While introducing her subject, Riehl’s work of German sociology, Eliot elaborates on the importance—and difficulty—of a writer rightly observing human beings. As opposed to a writer “of wide views and narrow observation,” who would merely spread prejudice, Eliot calls for writers who will truly contribute to social reform:
If any man of sufficient moral and intellectual breadth, whose observations would not be vitiated by a foregone conclusion, or by a professional point of view, would devote himself to studying the natural history of our social classes, especially of the small shopkeepers, artisans, and peasantry…and if, after all this study, he would give us the result of his observations in a book well-nourished with specific facts, his work would be a valuable aid to the social and political reformer. (112)
I wonder whether Eliot is drawing—consciously or unconsciously—upon Harriet Martineau’s sociological treatise How to Observe Morals and Manners. Eliot moves beyond Martineau by more clearly acknowledging the limitations of language to express the “real”—and even glorying in these limitations. However, Martineau’s message is certainly framed in similar terms. Like Eliot’s “moral and intellectual breadth,” Martineau’s observer of other cultures must also have adequate moral and intellectual training in order to record valuable observations. Like Eliot, Martineau warns observers vehemently against hasty generalizations. To avoid generalizing, she advises travellers to withhold judgment, except for certain “safe means of generalization within the reach of all,” by which writers can “[inspire] men with that spirit of impartiality, mutual deference, and love” (9, 11).
A large portion How to Observe Martineau then devotes to detailing the various kinds of facts observers can chronicle—in order to, in Eliot’s terms, write a “well-nourished” book. Eliot, too, records subjects to particularly observe, which almost parallel those of Martineau. Martineau lauds the merits of observing as a pedestrian traveller. Eliot praises Riehl for observing the German people in just this way: “years ago he began his wanderings over the hills and plains of Germany for the sake of obtaining, in immediate intercourse with the people, that…which he was unable to find in books…. He was, first of all, a pedestrian, and only in the second place a political author” (127). Finally, they share an end goal for socially observant writers: to provoke (key word) progress. This fits in with the Westminster Review’s goal of “the Law of Progress,” as stated in the Prospectus written by Eliot and the Review’s editor.
Interestingly, both Martineau and Eliot write for the Westminster. As Fionnuala Dillane points out, during the period in which Eliot wrote “A Natural History,” Eliot wrote with varying tone for different publications, modifying her presentation for each outlet. This suggests that publication venue influences how she expresses views, and perhaps even which views she puts forth (Dillane 247). The Westminster certainly has its own “critical vocabulary emphasizing sympathy and common humanity” (247). Is Eliot’s view colored by conformity to the Review, as Dillane’s provocative article suggests? I don’t doubt the sincerity of Eliot’s desire for books “well-nourished with specific facts” that will help social reform. But, based on the similarity between Martineau’s and Eliot’s wording—which Dillane does not address—it’s clear that the vocabulary of the Westminster is strongly influencing Eliot. According to Dillane, Eliot may not have even selected Riehl as her subject; her editor assigned the review to her. Could this famous essay, rather than the statement of artistic mission to which we elevate it, be the product of a weary author borrowing and adapting her colleague Martineau’s work to fill page space?
Dillane, Fionnuala. “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History’: Marian Evans, “the People,” and the Periodical.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 244-66.
Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A.S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
Martineau, Harriet. How to Observe Morals and Manners. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010.