Eliot, George (Feminism in Literature)
Eliot is a respected novelist of the late nineteenth century, and her work has been praised for its penetrating psychological analysis and profound insight into human character. Generally played against the backdrop of English rural life, Eliot's novels explore moral and philosophical issues with a realistic approach to character and plot development. Middlemarch (1871) is frequently studied by feminist critics for its careful consideration of a woman's place in a male-dominated world, although critics disagree over whether this novel, and Eliot's other works, display proto-feminist ideas or reinforce patriarchal systems.
Eliot was born November 22, 1819 to a strict Methodist family whose views she accepted until her friendship with the skeptical philosophers Charles Bray and Charles Hennell brought her to challenge the rigid religious principles of her upbringing. This questioning of values also inspired her first published work, a translation of Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus; 1846) by the German religious philosopher D. F. Strauss. The incident caused a rift with her father, but Eliot later reconciled with him and lived with him until his death in 1849.
After her father's death, Eliot moved to London and became acquainted with John Chapman, who hired her as an assistant editor on the Westminster Review and introduced her to his literary circle. This group included the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who introduced Eliot to writer and intellectual George Henry Lewes. Although Lewes was married (he was legally prohibited from divorcing his estranged wife), the two openly lived together until Lewes's death in 1878, defying the strict moral code of the Victorian era. Lewes's influence on Eliot's writing was great: it was he who first encouraged her to write fiction, and he acted as an intermediary between the pseudonymous "George Eliot" and her first publisher, Black-wood's Magazine. Eliot's literary success eventually brought the couple social acceptance, but just over a year after Lewes's death she married John Walter Cross, a banker twenty years her junior, and again met with public outrage. Seven months after her marriage the novelist suddenly died and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, North London.
Although she was a prolific writer in many genres, Eliot is chiefly known for her sequence of novels that begin by drawing heavily from her rural English background and grow gradually wider in scope. Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) includes three sketches with a provincial setting and is noted for its well-drawn characters and keen rendering of Midland dialect. Adam Bede (1859) presents realistic images of daily life in a quiet rural community undercut with unfulfilled love and selfishness resulting in tragedy and hard-won self-awareness. The Mill on the Floss (1860) tells the story of Maggie Tulliver's inability to conform to the rigidly traditional society in which she lives, and Silas Marner (1861) deals with an alienated miser whose life is transformed by his adoption of an abandoned child.
Eliot broadened her thematic goals with the historical novel Romola (1863) as well as Felix Holt (1866), which is often characterized as a political novel but features a conventional courtship narrative more typically associated with domestic fiction. Middlemarch, widely considered Eliot's finest achievement, presents a comprehensive picture of English provincial life while developing moral and philosophical issues such as the relationship of the individual to society. Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), examines a broad spectrum of nineteenth-century European society and is regarded as her most ambitious yet perhaps her least successful work.
Eliot's critical acclaim came early, with the publication of Adam Bede. During her lifetime, the writer's work generally met with popular and critical success, although novels such as Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda have consistently been considered less accomplished than Adam Bede and Middlemarch. Eliot's reputation endured a significant decline, however, from her death through the early twentieth century, when her novels were often dismissed as heavy, didactic, and overly scholarly. However, Virginia Woolf was influential in reviving interest in Eliot's works as early as 1925, addressing Eliot's unique treatment of the nature of femininity, and F. R. Leavis's essays in the 1940s effectively reaffirmed the significance of Eliot's achievement.
The onset of the feminist movement sparked another reevaluation of Eliot's work, although critics have remained sharply divided about the novelist's treatment of women's issues. As Zelda Austen notes in her 1976 essay, feminists have often claimed that Eliot tends to engage in an anti-feminist reinforcement of the systems under which her heroines often suffer. For example, some feminist scholars of Felix Holt have criticized Holt's character, claiming his objections to Esther's refinement and aesthetic sensibilities make him no more desirable a suitor than Transome, who believes that women are meant to be decorative rather than functional. Other critics, however, claim Eliot as a proto-feminist figure whose complex thinking about the place of a woman in an oppressive society was instrumental in setting the stage for the women's literary liberation that would eventually follow.
The Life of Jesus [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1846
The Essence of Christianity [translator; as Marian Evans] (essay) 1854
* Scenes of Clerical Life (novel) 1858
Adam Bede (novel) 1859
The Mill on the Floss (novel) 1860
Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe (novel) 1861
Romola (novel) 1863
Felix Holt, the Radical (novel) 1866
The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem (poetry) 1868
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (novel) 1871-72
The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems (poetry) 1874
Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876
Impressions of Theophrastus Such (essays) 1879
The George Eliot Letters 9 vols. (letters) 1954-78
* All of Eliot's novels were originally published serially in magazines.
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SOURCE: "The Mill on the Floss." Saturday Review 9, no. 233 (14 April 1860): 470-71.
In the following review, the anonymous critic's qualified praise of The Mill on the Floss offers a provocative example of the contemporary response to a female novelist.
To speak the simple truth, without affectation of politeness, [Adam Bede] was thought to be too good for a woman's story. It turns out that a woman was not only able to write it, but that she did not write it by any lucky accident. The Mill on the Floss may not, perhaps, be so popular as Adam Bede, but it shows no falling off nor any exhaustion of power. We may think ourselves very fortunate to have a third female novelist not inferior to Miss Austen and Miss Bronté; and it so happens that there is much in the works of this new writer that reminds us of these two well-known novelists without anything like copying. George Eliot has a minuteness of painting and a certain archness of style that are quite after the manner of Miss Austen, while the wide scope of her remarks, and her delight in depicting strong and wayward feelings, show that she belongs to the generation of Currer Bell, and not to that of the quiet authoress of Emma. Where all excel, it is of no use to draw up a sort of literary class-list, and pronounce an opinion as to the...
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SOURCE: Woolf, Virginia. "George Eliot." In Collected Essays, Vol. 1, pp. 196-204. London, England: Hogarth, 1966.
In the following essay, originally published in her 1925 The Common Reader, Woolf highlights the complexity of Eliot's thinking about womanhood and "feminine aspirations."
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SOURCE: Smith, Sherri Catherine. "George Eliot, Straight Drag and the Masculine Investments of Feminism." Women's Writing 3, no. 2 (June 1996): 97-111.
In the following essay, Smith discusses Eliot's "nuanced understanding of the binary that underwrites gender hierarchy" and reveals the function of misogyny in her feminist tendencies.
"There was clearly no suspicion that I was a woman"1, George Eliot marvelled in 1858, no tell-tale sign that the mysterious and applauded author of "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton" was in fact Marian Evans, erstwhile translator, journalist, and editor of the Westminster Review. There might have been pleasure enough in knowing that one had hoodwinked a readership inclined to believe women the intellectual and aesthetic inferiors of men. But for Eliot, the pleasure of the deception was almost perverse. Not only had her first story met with the approval of the very society that had shunned her for eloping with a married man, but Eliot herself received the misreading as a kind of compliment, a testimony both to the respect that she believed manhood warranted and to her ingenuity in harnessing that respect by acting like a man.
Eliot did much to support such an impression of herself. Even her earlier translations and...
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ALISON BOOTH (ESSAY DATE 1992)
SOURCE: Booth, Alison. “Not All Men Are Selfish and Cruel: Felix Holt As a Feminist Novel.” In Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, edited by Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor, pp. 143-60. De-Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992.
In the following essay, Booth explores the gender conflict in Felix Holt, asserting that the novel is an “unassimilated feminist argument.”
Once George Eliot had established herself as a great woman of letters in such works as the unpopular but authoritative Romola, she found herself in a difficult position. The stakes were higher perhaps even than they had been when she vindicated the fallen, strong-minded woman, Marian Evans “Lewes,” in the wise reminiscences of the clerical George Eliot. That gentleman had now been promoted to the position of Victorian sage, which could easily take the fun out of the novelist’s job. Yet while she was expected to teach, she was still expected to dazzle; overt preaching was taboo in the Victorian almost as much as in the modern aesthetic code. Further, her now public womanhood burdened her; the suspicion cast on any woman not minding her domestic business could poison a political novel by a woman, not to mention a novel recklessly broaching the “woman question.” In Felix...
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JUNE SKYE SZIROTNY (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1998)
SOURCE: Szirotny, June Skye. "'No Sorrow I Have Thought More About': The Tragic Failure of George Eliot's St. Theresa." Victorian Newsletter, 93 (spring 1998): 17-27.
In the following essay, Szirotny opposes the critical tendency to deny Eliot the status of a proto-feminist, arguing that Middlemarch is a feminist novel and a damnation of a society that is oppressive to women.
Whether George Eliot was in some sense a feminist has remained a moot question from her day to this. Though she knew "the supremacy of the intellectual life" (M lxxiii, IV:188)1 and obtained for herself a "masculine" vocation that was life itself to her,2 though she argued that women have a right to education and that those deprived of love have a special need for independent work (L V: 107; see also DD xxxvi, III: 96), she speaks guardedly of women's right to self-fulfillment, and ultimately allows none of her idealistic heroines meaningful occupation outside the home. Dinah Morris, Maggie Tulliver, and Dorothea Brooke each makes a "sad … sacrifice" of her yearning for an "epic life" (M, Finale, IV: 370; Prelude, I: v, vi); Janet Dempster, Romola de'Bardi, and Fedalma, deprived of love, do not find the work that women need to give...
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Baker, William and John C. Ross. George Eliot: A Bibliographical History. London, England: British Library Publications, 2002, 676 p.
Provides a detailed and thorough bibliography of published critical commentary on Eliot's life and works through 2001.
Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, 616 p.
Offers a definitive biography.
Austen, Zelda. "Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot." College English 37, no. 6 (February 1976): 549-61.
Explains why feminists often criticize Eliot's novels, particularly Middlemarch, for reinforcing patriarchal systems; however, Austen argues that feminists have "something to learn" from Eliot's subtle thinking about a woman's place in a male-dominated society.
Critical Essays on George Eliot, edited by Barbara Hardy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970, 192 p.
Contains essays on Eliot's individual novels, with commentary on Eliot's oeuvre by W. J. Harvey and John Bayley.
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