George Eliot's women
- Article by: Kathryn Hughes
- Theme: The novel 1832–1880
- Published: 15 May 2014
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (Middlemarch, Finale)
At the very end of Middlemarch George Eliot tells us what happened in later life to her heroine, Dorothea Brooke. As a young woman at the beginning of the novel, Dorothea is likened to St Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century mystic and social reformer who longed to change the world for the better. Dorothea, though, has been born three centuries too late. She lives in a grossly materialistic age in which there is ‘no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul’ (Prelude).
Consequently, Dorothea ends her life as a married woman whose name no one will remember. But Eliot warns the reader against feeling disappointed that such a remarkable creature should be condemned to a humdrum existence. Dorothea may not have achieved obvious greatness, but her ‘unhistoric acts’ of everyday kindness have had a profound effect on the people within her domestic circle (Finale). The role of mother, wife and friend was, in the circumstances, the best available to her.
Manuscript of Middlemarch by George Eliot
First page of Chapter One from the manuscript copy of Middlemarch.View images from this item (16)
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Women’s rights and educationEliot began working on what would become Middlemarch in 1869, the same year that J S Mill published The Subjection of Women, his passionate call for women to be allowed the same social, political and economic rights as men. With women’s emancipation at the forefront of public debate – two years previously Mill had failed to amend the 1867 Reform Bill so that women could vote – it was inevitable that the fictional Dorothea’s fate would cause a stir. For some readers, both men and women, Eliot’s refusal to grant her heroine a glorious ending in line with her extraordinary qualities seemed a betrayal of feminist principles. In an 1873 review in the Revue des Deux Mondes, T H Bentzon mourned the fact that Dorothea ‘allow[s] her life, which should have been consecrated to the whole of humanity, to be absorbed within the life of one other person’.
The Subjection of Women by J S Mill
Mill's essay The Subjection of Women was published in 1869, the year Eliot started work on Middlemarch. In it, Mill argues that 'the legal subordination of one sex to the other' is 'wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement'.View images from this item (8)
Letter from George Eliot to Emilia Francis Pattison, 16 December 1872
Though few of Eliot's female characters achieve creative and personal fulfilment, she enjoyed both with her partner, the critic and philosopher G H Lewes. In this letter to her friend Emilia Pattison, she describes their intellectual collaboration and writes that they 'must be among the happiest' people in the world.View images from this item (4)
The unhappy endings of Eliot’s womenOver the decades since Eliot’s death in 1880 many readers have complained about the fates of her female characters. Dinah Morris from Adam Bede meekly gives up preaching on the village green when the Methodist Church tells her that women no longer have the right to share the word of God in public. Armgart, the eponymous heroine of Eliot’s long dramatic poem of 1871, is punished for putting her opera career over love by losing both her would-be husband and her voice. The clever and passionate Maggie Tulliver, a character with whom so many young women readers have identified, is sent to a watery death at the end of The Mill on the Floss.
Manuscript of 'Armgart': dramatic poem by George Eliot
Manuscript of Eliot’s dramatic poem ‘Armgart’, in which a woman has to choose between marriage and her career as an opera singer.View images from this item (8)
Expectation and educationBut George Eliot doesn’t simply dole out arbitrary fates to her good and bad female characters. It was exactly that kind of nursery tale morality that she had satirised in ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, an essay about the commercial women’s fiction of the 1850s, written during her days as a journalist at the Westminster Review. Instead, Eliot wants to explore how social environment acts to produce different outcomes for young women who, on the surface, seem to have been born in almost the same circumstances. In the manner of an experimental scientist, she pairs Dorothea Brooke with Rosamond Vincy, Hetty Sorrel with Dinah Morris and Maggie Tulliver with Lucy Deane - and then watches how differences in their upbringings result in the formation of their contrasting adult characters.
'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists': essay by George Eliot
Eliot’s essay ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ criticises contemporary popular fiction by women as shallow and simplistic.View images from this item (7)
Those readers who have criticised Eliot for the way she ascribes harsh outcomes to her ‘bad’ girls – Hetty, Rosamond and even Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda – are perhaps over-hasty. While there is no doubting her attitude to their solipsism and selfishness, Eliot is always insistent that it is a poor environment rather than wilful wickedness that has led to these mangled and unhappy adult lives. Hetty is repeatedly likened to a baby or an animal – both creatures without agency - while Rosamond is frequently ‘poor Rosamond’. As readers we are asked to think deeply about whether or not we can truly hold these young women accountable for their actions, given the way in which their moral development has been stunted by the expectations of their immediate family environment and the wider society.
 Letter to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, December 1867.
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