It Is Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been: George Eliot’s Influence on Modern Alternate Histories

 

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George Eliot

In the steampunk genre there are many Victorian Era authors who have influenced modern works. Many writers espouse names like Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells. Yet another Victorian Era writer, Mary Ann Evans, popularly known by her pen name, George Eliot, created works of fiction that explored the connection between the individual and society and explored the idea that a single decision or action could alter the course of history: This viewpoint has been explored at length by steampunk authors who create story worlds based on alternate histories.

George Eliot wrote in reaction to the dominant ideas of her day—opposing the views that within the historical past lay a panacea for modern Victorian culture and that within the past one could find the best possible moral guide between good and evil. Her views on individualism and society are more modern in perspective and focus on the “here-and-now” rather than the past “glory” of the British Empire. For her, literature was fundamentally tied to her exploration of human nature and the current cultural atmosphere.

As Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth (1985) notes, Eliot focuses on human interactions and cultural understanding. The realm of culture as Eliot conceives it is full of conflicting claims, diverse possibilities, and a bewildering array of evidence that can make it seem a hopeless wilderness to the individual looking for a reliable guide to choice. Because conditions are so diverse, what an individual can do is also diverse. There are alternatives to every choice and to every result, and thus it matters considerably what an individual does. Because people share a common ground in culture, individual action inevitably modifies circumstances in ways that reach far beyond intention with effects that are incalculably diffusive.

In effect, for Eliot, the interaction between the individual and the cultural does provide a sort of give-and-take. The culture affects the individual, but he or she will also affect the culture through the choices that he or she makes throughout life. For example, the “definition” of good and evil can differ from culture to culture and era to era and this precludes a “revelation” about the definition of the terms. What is good for one person is often evil for another; valid ideas can lose influence while tendencies that should be resisted can be mistaken for inevitable laws. If there were a clear right and wrong, based on a single dispensation of human affairs, there would be no need for daring to be wrong. All action could be evaluated according to the law (Ermarth, 1985).

An example of this dual perspective can be seen in the events surrounding the American Revolution, which occurred just prior to the Victorian Era. The British view of this war differed greatly from that of the colonialists (and future Americans). After the French Military threat to the British North American Colonies ended in 1763, the British government felt that the colonies should pay an increased portion of the costs associated with maintaining troops and services. The colonies lacked elected representation to British Parliament and felt that the increased taxes violated their rights. The taxation, while good for England, was seen as evil in the colonies. These two perspectives eventually clashed on the battlefield.

If the British had won the Revolutionary War, would George Washington still be seen as a hero, or considered a villain? How would other figures, such as Charles Cornwallis, William Howe, or Benedict Arnold, be viewed? To quote an old adage—“history is written by the victors.” It is, as Eliot sees it in her novels, a matter of perspective.

Illustration from George Eliot's Middlemarch (1874).
Illustration from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874).

Although Eliot was not the first writer to explore these concepts, she was the most influential writer during the Victorian Era to broach the idea that a single decision or action by an individual could alter the course of history and the alternative possibilities brought about by those potential decisions or actions are just as interesting as the historical record. In fact, it is this concept of the individual’s impact on culture that many modern steampunk writers explore in their novels and short stories set in alternate histories. This type of story can be compelling to read. Instead of history being set in stone, it lets writers (and readers) think about what else could have happened had an alternative choice or action been taken. It is the “what if” question that leads to so many narrative possibilities.

References

Ermarth, E.D. (1985). George Eliot. New York: Twayne.

 

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