Sara Lyons responds to Kathleen Frederickson
LeCourt’s chapter on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) does conclude with a suggestive reflection on how the ideal of aesthetic secularism interacted with Victorian gender codes. He observes that Eliot gives profoundly different moral and generic valuations to Daniel Deronda’s and Gwendolen Harleth’s bildung plots: at the start of the novel, Daniel embodies an enlightened, cosmopolitan many-sidedness, while Gwendolen merely exemplifies ‘“bad” many-sidedness’ (125), or vacuous relativism; by its end, Daniel’s embrace of his religious and ethnic identity is ennobled as a form of epic heroism, while Gwendolen must reconcile herself to a petty, distinctly feminine form of domestic realism.
LeCourt’s account of the gendering of aesthetic secularism in Daniel Deronda is aligned with feminist critiques of the bildungsroman form, which often highlight the extent to which its generic expectations presuppose forms of agency that are generally denied or only partially available to women. But his analysis of Gwendolen and Daniel kept making me think of the figure of the Countess Alcharisi, Daniel’s mother, who does attempt to lay claim to the masculine prerogative of aesthetic self-development. She also incarnates a kind of secular cosmopolitanism, though of a more radical variety than LeCourt aims to delineate: she totally rejects the claims of her own religious and ethnic inheritance. Eliot fairly clearly condemns this stance by casting it as a dereliction of maternal love, though she also grants the Countess a certain tragic grandeur. Throughout his book, LeCourt tends to emphasise the extent to which secular liberals posited an ideal of many-sidedness as a means of negotiating the absolutist claims of religion. But Eliot’s ambivalent vilification of the Countess Alcharisi suggests that this ideal could also be a means of containing the threat of more iconoclastic and anti-religious forms of secularism, ones which would make trenchant distinctions between personal belief and inherited cultural identity.
There has been remarkably little work on Victorian women and secularism: the only book-length study is Laura Schwartz’s excellent Infidel Feminism: Secularism, Religion and Women’s Emancipation (Manchester University Press, 2013). Schwartz’s book focusses on the women involved in the organized Secularist movement, but LeCourt’s more expansive definition of secularism, which puts it into dialogue with long-running debates in the field about liberalism, could be extremely useful for considering a wider range of Victorian female intellectuals who were animated by ideals of cosmopolitanism or closely interested in anthropology and comparative religion: one thinks immediately of Harriet Martineau and Vernon Lee, but there are surely others.