Sympathy or religion? George Eliot and Christian conversion

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This essay argues that a postsecular moment requires our return to George Eliot to consider anew the relations between religion and secularity. Looking at her early works, in particular "Janet's Repentance" (1857) and The Mill on the Floss (1860), I suggest that Eliot offers us a counterintuitive narrative in which her heroines' ethical transformation coincides with a conversion to Christianity rather than a move away from it. Rather than imagining a thoroughly Christian England revitalized by its turn to humanist religion, Eliot depicts a nominally Christian England, attached to hollow forms and mere custom, in need of conversion to an ardent faith. In these novels, evangelicalism, for all its flaws, functions as the vessel for such conversion when human beings' own agency fails. I suggest here that what we have construed as sympathy over recent decades of critical reading may be more intelligible if we read it as grace, thus leaving us to reassess the extent to which major mid-Victorian intellectuals sought to conceive a post-Christian ethics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)360-387
Number of pages28
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2019


  • "Janet's Repentance"
  • George Eliot
  • Postsecularism
  • Sympathy
  • The Mill on the Floss

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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