My remarks about Eliot and Austen giving us a view of the insular world of England, both before and during the Victorian era, was not a dismissal of their work, but a reference to the historical importance of their work, something which is often (i'd say usually) not understood by literary criticism and its practitioners.
For example, Austen's work was written between the 1790s and her death in 1817. This corresponds to the period of the Wars of the French Revolution and the wars with Napoleon. But references to the those wars are almost entirely missing from her work. This is not because her view or understanding was necessarily insular or narrow (her correspondence would give the lie to any such claim), but because in the insular world of England in that time, the wars are far less important than the historical emphasis on them would lead one to believe. The brother of the heroine of Mansfield Park
is sent to sea, in the hope that if he survives, he'll qualify for a midshipman's berth, which would give him a career--but what he might do at sea, and any political or military context is completely lacking. In Persuasion
, Captain Wentworth brings in the subject of the Napoleonic Wars, but only by inference. His ability to marry well would depend upon his ability to support a wife, and it would be by taking prizes while commanding at sea that he would do so. No discussion of Napoleon, of the state of affairs political and military on the continent, nor of the naval war are involved in this--notice is simply taken of the necessity of Wentworth taking prizes to be able to afford to support a wife.
This was not because Austen's world view was insular or narrow, it is because the view of the society which she described was narrow and insular. The naval war was of the greatest interest to them, because their commerce, and therefore, their livelihood depended upon maritime commerce. Those wars impinged widely only on the working class and the poorest people of England. Wellington said of his troops that they were " . . . the scum of the earth, but see what fine fellows we have made of them." He was not the first English officer to describe his troops in such terms. The Royal Navy impressed men off the streets, and stopped merchant ships to take men off them, too. The army recruited among the poorest classes, and both the army and the navy had recourse to "Lord Mayor's men," meaning those given a choice between prison and military service.
The wars had almost no impact on the men of the middle classes and the upper classes. In the army, advancement rarely came from merit (although the vicious and dissolute Duke of York, son of George III, was very much devoted to the idea of rewarding merit, in his capacity of Commander in Chief). Commissions in the army were bought and sold, and even as late as the Crimean War, the colonelcy of a regiment sold for more than 30,000 pounds. The navy was the service which reward merit more consistently, although preferment was by no means entirely reliant upon merit, and political connection was at least as important. Because of the possibility of advancement and prize money, the middle class looked to the navy for careers for its sons. Horatio Nelson was the third son of a ne'er-do-well country parson in Norfolk, whose maternal uncle, Maurice Suckling, provided Nelson a berth as a midshipman.
So, apart from those middle class families who sent their sons to sea in the hope of providing them careers, and those wealthy families who purchased commissions for second or third or fourth sons in regiments, those wars were simply not a part of the lives of anyone above the social level of the working class. Austen is accurately portraying a society for which the wars with France were simply not an important part of their lives.
Historians do well when they marry a knowledge of literature to their knowledge of the detail of life in the periods they study. It is precisely because narrative historians (a much maligned group in recent decades) have been pointing these things out that studies of correspondence and journals have revealed that Austen's portrayal of society has been borne out in that regard. People whose fathers, sons or husbands were not actually serving in the wars simply paid little or no attention to the wars, except insofar as they impinged upon the commerce upon which they relied for their wealth. That is what i mean when i speak of an insular view.
Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) came from an evangelical family of religious dissenters, as they were then known. This theme is central to Adam Bede
, the title character of which is an evangelic Methodist--in the time period in which she sets the novel, all Methodists were also evangelicals. Silas Marner is a "classic" evangelical dissenter. Middlemarch
is set in the late 1820s and early 1830s, at the time of the first Reform Act. It is a detailed and perceptive description of parochial society in England at that time. Most historians will take note of Lord Liverpool and the Duke of Wellington, of Grey and Canning and Peel, and of the Peterloo Massacre and the Reform Act, but pay absolutely no attention to the evangelicals, who were a major force in English society at the time. Historians, of course, know who Wilberforce was, and know to a certain extent the effect of his anti-slavery and "anti-animal cruelty" crusades, but they tend not to connect the dots. Dorothea Brooke is an archetype of the committed, sincere evangelical woman of her day, and Evans' careful description of her disillusionment with Casaubon and his phony piety shows how better a grip she had on the significance of evangelicalism in society in that time period than historians have since shown. The tidy, quiet, peaceful and insular world of England was poised to be turned upside down in the years succeeding the period of action of Middlemarch
. The dissolute and cynical George IV died, and was replaced by his awkward, foul-mouthed, vulgar brother, William IV. The railroads were drawing the nation together in a way that no one could then have foreseen, and when Evans describes scenes of "provincial life," she is describing a way of life which was to pass away in less than a generation. The passage of the first Reform Act was to forever alter English society in a manner not to be undone, even had the reform been repealed.
At no time was i suggesting that Austen and Evans were insular and narrow-minded--but the society, the nation of which they wrote, was, or wanted to be.