‘Silly novels by Lady Novelists’ is an essay by George Eliot, published anonymously in the Westminster Review in 1856. In the essay, Eliot criticises the majority of novels written by and for women, objecting to their ‘silliness’ and disregard for reality.
The essay can be seen as a negative manifesto: an argument for what fiction should not do. In other essays, such as ‘The Natural History of German Life’, Eliot sets out more fully her beliefs about what fiction should do. Three years after writing ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede. This, like her later novels, puts into practice many of the ideas she expresses in her critical writing.
Eliot begins by describing what she calls the ‘mind and millinery’ novel. The heroine in this is beautiful, virtuous and supremely intelligent. The novel ends happily, with the heroine making a splendid marriage to a man she adores. Eliot mentions several subgenres of this kind of novel: religious, philosophical, historical and ‘frothy’ (p. 442; p. 448). She objects to them all because they are deeply unrealistic, and clichéd in their characters, plots and language.
Eliot argues that ‘silly novels’ undermine the cause of women’s education. The heroines in these novels are usually highly educated, but their education only makes them self-satisfied and tedious.
Furthermore, the writers of these novels have evidently read a great deal, but this has not enabled them to write well: their own writings mistake ’vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality’ (p. 455).
Eliot therefore suggests that those who read silly novels will come to the conclusion that women do not benefit from education – even though, as she reminds her readers, there have been some truly great female writers. She names Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Mrs Gaskell as examples.