The 'Wonderful Geological Story': Uniformitarianism and The Mill on the Floss

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Author: Jonathan Smith
Editor: Kathy D. Darrow
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,314 words

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[(essay date fall 1991) In the following essay, Smith assesses the scientific underpinnings of Eliot's novel, focusing in particular on Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) and Charles Lyell's theory of "uniformitarian geology."]

It has become a critical commonplace that George Eliot's fiction, with its emphasis on the change generated by gradual processes operating over long periods of time, has deep affinities with both the evolutionary biology of Charles Darwin and the uniformitarian geology of Darwin's friend and mentor, Charles Lyell. This is certainly true of The Mill on the Floss, for the lingering narrative of Maggie Tulliver's life was completed within a year of the publication (and Eliot's reading) of The Origin of Species, a time when Lyell was the dean of British geologists and uniformitarianism the dominant geological theory in Britain. Yet the flood that ends the novel seems to undercut--and undercut spectacularly--this otherwise uniformitarian narrative. The flood invites us into the world of Lyell's early critics, those catastrophists and natural theologians who defended the geological possibility of the greatest catastrophe of all, the Noachian deluge, and it has seemed to generations of readers the rather crude and sudden intervention of the novelist's designing hand. Absolving Eliot from Henry James's complaint that there is nothing to prepare us for the flood, Barbara Hardy nonetheless describes it as a "deus ex machina" and "the Providence of the novel" (Novels [The Novels of George Eliot] 57; Particularities 63). Sally Shuttleworth, in her recent work on Eliot and nineteenth-century science, specifically blends these geological and narratological concerns in similar language: the flood acts a "diluvial wave" that, as it disrupts the narrative, "vindicates catastrophe theory" (63).

I want to argue, however, that far from being a vindication of catastrophe theory and natural theology, the flood caps a subtle and complex affirmation of uniformitarianism. In the process, Eliot negotiates between Lyell and Darwin, critical of Lyell's failure, in 1859-60, to accept evolutionary theory, but suspicious of those who equate evolution with inevitable progress. As she "uniformitarianizes" the flood, Eliot offers a reading of Darwin similar to the one Lyell would give a few years later in his public acceptance of natural selection; yet this reading exposes rather than resolves the contradictions within the uniformitarian model that Eliot was appropriating.


Lyell developed his uniformitarian theory of geology in his Principles of Geology (1830-33). Historians of science have isolated several important uniformities in Lyell's uniformitarianism: gradualism, actualism, and nonprogressionism.1 Gradualism is the assumption that geological forces operate slowly over long periods of time. Actualism is the assumption that the rates and intensities of these forces have always been the same as the rates and intensities we see around us now, and therefore that we can, according to the subtitle of Lyell's book, "Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation." Lyell invoked actualism to attack his opponents' reliance on hypothetical forces in their accounts of past geological change, but within his lifetime, and even in...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420085122