'The Natural History of German Life': essay by George Eliot from The Westminster Review


‘The Natural History of German Life’ is a review by George Eliot of two books by the German writer W H Riehl. However, the first section of the review does not mention Riehl’s works. Instead, Eliot writes about the morality of artistic representation, offering a manifesto for realism.

The review appeared in the Westminster Review in July 1856. Eliot held the title of assistant editor at the Westminster Review from 1851 to 1854; in practice, she was the main editor of the journal during this period.

Realism and idealism in art

George Eliot begins ‘The Natural History of German Life’ by noting how difficult it is to find an accurate portrayal of the working class in fiction or in non-fiction: ‘Art’ misrepresents them as thoroughly as ‘political and social theories’ (p. 52). In paintings, ploughmen, shepherds and villagers are all ‘idyllic’: artists portray rural, working men and women not as they are, but as they think they ought to be. ‘Social novels’ are no better: they ‘profess to represent the people as they are’ but the ‘unreality of their representations is a grave evil’. Eliot praises Riehl’s works (both non-fiction) for providing a ‘natural history’ of the German people, and in particular the German peasantry.

The moral purpose of art

For Eliot, the primary purpose of art in all its forms is a moral one: the ‘extension of our sympathies’. Paintings or novels which misrepresent their subjects direct the sympathy of their audience towards a false object. The idealised representation of the working classes is an especially ‘grave evil’ because it prevents true sympathy towards those who have particularly hard lives (‘our more heavily-laden fellow-men’).

External and internal realism

Eliot praises Charles Dickens (‘one great novelist’) for the faithfulness with which he portrays the ‘external traits’ of the urban working classes (p. 55). She suggests, however, that he does not accurately represent their ‘psychological character – their conceptions of life, and their emotions’. Three years after writing this review, Eliot published her debut novel, Adam Bede. In this, and in much of her future work, she would try to represent accurately both the external and the internal lives of the working classes.

Full title:
'The Natural History of German Life'
1856, London
Westminster Review, George Eliot
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Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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