Doctoring the Marriage Plot: Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook and George Eliot’s Middlemarch
In 1866, the Positivist philosopher Frederic Harrison wrote a letter to his friend George Eliot, in which he urged her to use her fictional talents to portray the benefits of a “future, Positivist society,” led by secular and empirical ideals. Eliot had recently published Felix Holt: the Radical (1866), her most political novel, but Harrison was disappointed by this novel’s facility in meaning different things to different people. In short, he objected to its naturalism. Her next novel, he proposed, could show the possibility of “healthy moral control over societies,” reveal “the positive fruits of science and industry,” and thus “illustrate the superiority of the new [science of Positivism] to the old way of life” (Haight 288-89). This idealistic community could be led, in Harrison’s words, by “the local physician, who would represent science and would gradually acquire … an entirely moral ascendancy over both capitalist and laborer” (Haight 287-288). The doctor, he continues, would allow Eliot to resolve “the darker passions” of class conflict by the “active intervention” of the trusted physician. To Harrison, the doctor-hero could reflect leadership in a utopian future, which, after the tenets of Positivism, would be organized by empiricism and what he sees as the inevitable moral and social progress that follows from the teleological power of scientific thinking.