University of Virginia Library

A George Eliot Notebook
Valerie A. Dodd

This document is in the George Eliot Collection of Nuneaton Library, Warwickshire, England (No. GE 890 ELI—8): there is no definite information about its provenance, but it was already in the collection in 1946.


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The appearance of the notebook is unremarkable: it measures about 6½” by 10½”, and has a leather, or leather-cloth, cover. The paper is of reasonable quality, with no distinctive watermark. It appears to be a fairly commonplace article of stationery.[1]

Forty-two leaves of the notebook have been used; the verso of the leaf has often been left blank, as if for further additions. The numbering of the leaves is erratic, and the size of the handwriting and the colour of the ink both vary throughout. The notebook is entitled, "Greek Philosophy & Locke & Comte" and opposite appears the additional title "George Eliot's Notebook."[2] Both titles may have been added as an afterthought, as they are written above the line, in the top margin of the first leaf.

There are two pieces of evidence for the possible dating of the notebook. On fol. 13 appears the note "Re-read Dec. 15 1876"; on the first leaf is pasted a letter to the Editor of The Times entitled, "The Moon of Mars" written by Richard A. Proctor. The advertisements on the other side of the cutting are dated September 1877. Many of the entries in the notebook may thus be tentatively assigned to the period 1867-1877. The letter may have been preserved not only because it raised the question of scientific prediction, so central to the Comtean philosophy in which George Eliot was interested, but also because George Eliot, when working on Daniel Deronda in 1872, had made notes on gambling superstitions from an article Proctor had published in The Cornhill Magazine in June of the same year.[3]

The 1877 dating suggests a possible explanation of the notebook's contents. George Eliot appears to have been keeping a personal memorandum on the history of philosophy, and may have returned to her notes in 1877 when Frederic Harrison, one of the leaders of the English Positivists, was urging her to write a Positivist liturgy. Harrison wrote to her on June 12th, 1877: "I have often longed that we could have your full estimate of the scheme of the Polity, now that it is complete in its English form. I mean especially your judgment of a Religion of Humanity, as a possible rallying point for mankind in the future. That you differ very much from the form which Comte has given it in such sharp lines, I know, or suppose that I know. But where you differ, wherein, how far; when you agree, how far—this is


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what we all want to know." George Eliot's readers, according to Harrison, were constantly asking about her views on Positivism, and George Eliot, he suggested, might, "answer them, not by way of poetry, but by philosophy. . . . There are some things that Art cannot do, and one is, to tell us what to believe . . ." (Haight, Eliot, p. 506). Harrison, and other members of the English Positivist movement, had recently completed a translation of Comte's penultimate work, Système de politique positive (1851-54), the first part of which was published in 1875. This translation is referred to on fol. 25 of the notebook. The extracts from Comte are prefaced, on fol. 24, by a list of questions on the nature of virtue, suggesting that Harrison's letter may have prompted George Eliot to reconsider her opinion of Comte's ethics. The Système was the most dogmatic of Comte's works, and was castigated by John Stuart Mill as an attempt to impose upon mankind, "the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism, which ever yet emanated from a human brain, unless possibly that of Ignatius Loyola."[4]

If my hypotheses are correct, the notebook re-emphasises how George Eliot's interest in Comte continued throughout her life, and also affords evidence of her tendency to rescrutinise her own opinions, indicative of a scepticism not merely about the ideas of others, but also about her own views. The 1860s saw her similarly reassessing her attitude towards German criticism of the Bible, spurred on by the publication of Ernest Renan's Vie de Jésus (1863) and David Friedrich Strauss's second life of Christ, which appeared in 1864.[5]

The next section of the notebook, from fol. 2 to 10v contains extracts from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Sir Alexander Grant's The Ethics of Aristotle.[6] Fols. 2 and 3 also refer to Aristotle's Metaphysics and contain a note on the form of the practical syllogism; these points appear to have been added afterwards; the writing is both smaller and lighter in colour. Fols. 5 to 10v contain an outline of Greek philosophy, with the names of the movements, dates of birth of the main figures, and summaries of, for instance, Zeno's "arguments against motion" on fol. 5, and of Plato's thought on fol. 9. Aristotle, to whom most space is devoted, was, perhaps, one of George Eliot's special interests: in 1852, she was arguing about the Aristotelian view of virtue with Herbert Spencer (Haight, Eliot, pp. 114-115), and Lewes was to write on Aristotle's scientific thought in A Chapter in the History of Science (1864).


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The reference to Grant's book is interesting, for Grant prefaced his commentary with seven long essays. From the second, "On the History of Moral Philosophy in Greece, previous to Aristotle", George Eliot may have taken her outline of Greek philosophy; she devotes a special page of her notebook to Plato, and Grant's third essay had considered Aristotle's ethics in relation to Plato. Grant had, moreover, in his seventh essay, "On the Relation of Aristotle's Ethics to Modern Systems", discussed Aristotle's philosophy, albeit briefly, in relation to the views of Strauss and Comte (I, 384-387). If, as I have suggested, the notes were made as a response to Harrison's letter, she may, with characteristic thoroughness, have decided to attempt to assess Comte in relation to the rest of European thought.

This latter suggestion gains some support from the entry on fol. 11 which opens the second section. This leaf contains a "Catena Philosophorum": a list of modern thinkers, with the dates of their births and deaths, and the ages at which they died. The list on the left hand side contains (in this order): Bacon, Galileo, Gassendi, Descartes, Spinoza, Boyle, Locke, Newton, Leibnitz, Berkeley, Hartley, Hume, Kant, Gall, Hegel, Comte. On the right side are added, in a slightly varying script, the names of Shaftesbury (opposite Locke), Mandeville (opposite Newton), "Butler Sermons, 1726" (opposite Leibnitz) and "Hutcheson died, 1747' (opposite Berkeley).

The leaves which follow contain quotations from some of the philosophers listed on fol. 11, plus comments and queries. The leaves may be subdivided thus:

  • 12-13 Locke.
  • 14 Descartes.
  • 15-16 Quetelet, Sur l'homme.
  • 16 Hutcheson. (An entry in a lighter colour ink than that on Quetelet.)
  • 20v-23 Kant. (Also in a smaller, lighter colour writing). There is also a reference to Fischer, one of the early commentators on Kant.[7]
Sub-sections not having reference to specific philosophers also appear: miscellaneous notes on fol. 12v, 16v, 23v and 11v; a note on syllogisms on fol. 17; notes on the duration of the earth on fol. 18-20; questions about virtue on fol. 24. The list on fol. 11 gives the date of Comte's death in 1857, which supports the view that this notebook belongs to a later period of George Eliot's life; the space devoted to Comte, and the fact that the list ends with his name, may support my hypothesis that the notebook was written as a response to Harrison's letter. That George Eliot opens the list with Bacon, and closes it with Comte, echoes Lewes's analysis of trends in philosophy in A Biographical History of Philosophy (4 vols., 1845-46).

The list also raises other interesting points. George Eliot includes in her "chain" of philosophers (the Latin word suggests a desire to link in superficially disparate figures) Galileo, Newton and Boyle, who were scientists, and Gall, who was a phrenologist: fol. 11v contains a quotation from Scotus


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Erigena, under the heading of "Identity of Philosophy & Religion", and George Eliot records the same words which Lewes had used in the opening chapter of Volume III of A Biographical History of Philosophy. Both entries suggest that characteristically polymathic quality of George Eliot's mind, which sought to illuminate one discipline by recourse to another, and which attracted her initially to writers such as Comte who sought to construct comprehensive systems which linked a theory of knowledge to science, religion and ethics.

Her selection of nineteenth-century names is also interesting. She includes only four thinkers who survived into her own century: the mention of Gall suggests a continuing interest in phrenology, and the mention of Kant and Hegel recalls the fact that the association of her name with Positivism should not lead to an ignoring of her interest in Idealism. She remains faithful to the original and early exponents of Idealism, to whose works she had been introduced in the late 1830s and early 1840s: in the case of Kant, by her reading of Carlyle and Coleridge; in the case of Hegel, by her work on David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu and her friendship with John Sibree, one of the pioneer translators of Hegel into English.

A final and general point emerges from the existence of this document. When on June 8th, 1876, George Eliot finished writing Daniel Deronda, she may have turned to her notebook as a respite from the arduous task of imaginative composition. To the Victorian public, she was primarily known as a novelist; in private, she was, if not a philosopher, worthy of the designation of philosophe. But if, as I suggest, she returned to the history of speculation in response to Harrison's letter, another important point needs to be added. She turned to philosophy when she wished to relate it to possible action, to a human reality. Her scepticism about systems and statements of belief, which she shared with so many advanced Victorian thinkers, persists: the notes may have been made in an attempt to reassess her views on Auguste Comte's work, but she never produced a text of a Positivist liturgy.



Information in a letter from Mr. S. H. Barlow, F.L.A., former Librarian at Nuneaton Library. I would like to thank Mr. Barlow for his help, and also the Library Committee for their permission to use this material. Professor Joseph Wiesenfarth of the University of Wisconsin suggests that there is a possibility that the notebook was one of the items sold in a sale at Sotheby's on June 27, 1923. I would like to thank Prof. Wiesenfarth for this information, and also for his help and advice on other points of my argument. (Information in a letter to the present writer, 10 August, 1979).


Fol. 1. Not all the leaves are numbered, so some numbers given are inferential. Quotations are transcribed in quasi-facsimile.


Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot (1968), p. 469. The opening scene of Daniel Deronda is set in a casino, and the gambling metaphor is used at crucial points in the novel to define the heroine's character. On her wedding day, Gwendolen is described as "standing at the game of life with many eyes upon her, daring everything to win much—or if to lose, still with éclat and a sense of importance" (Chapter 31).


John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1874) edited by Jack Stillinger (1971), p. 127. Prof. Wiesenfarth has pointed out to me in a letter of August 10, 1979, that two other notebooks also refer to the Politique Positive. These are: 1) The Beinecke Library "Commonplace Notebook." Prof. Wiesenfarth relates these extracts to Felix Holt, and dates them in the sixties, and 2) Pforzheimer Library MS. No. 707, which is one of George Eliot's notebooks for Daniel Deronda. I base my later dating of the notebook under consideration upon the letter from The Times. The existence of the other two notebooks strengthens the case for considering her interest in Comte to be consistent over a long period.


The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight, 7 volumes 1954-56; IV, 123, 139.


The first incomplete edition appeared in two volumes, 1857-58; the complete edition appeared in two volumes in 1866. Page references to 1885 edition.


In the original, fol. 19v is numbered "20".