George Eliot

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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,...

(This entire section contains 803 words.)

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although novels such asFelix 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.

Felix Holt, the Radical

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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 Holt, the Radical, Eliot veers close to feminist special pleading, yet the novel has always appeared to be political only in the traditional sense (and her traditional politics have irritated many); she can “ pass”as a male historical novelist of a superior order, experimenting in artful form and allusion, avoiding Scott’s anachronism, elevating her readers’ understanding and taste. Yet it is important to see, behind the mask of the great novelist, a writer politically situated, one who recognized the interdependence of the public and private spheres and who, perhaps more than she realized, indicted the injustices of patriarchy in a drama of class and gender in a small Midlands town in the Reform Era.

In Felix Holt (1866) Eliot disguised her arguments about gender and class in an apparently impartial history of everyday life; she in effect responded to an immediate political threat, the second Reform Bill, by advocating gradual amelioration of private life and, above all, of women’s lot. Like her friends and associates who campaigned in the 1850s and 1860s for such things as women’s higher education and the right for married women to own property, she adhered to an ideology of influence, a belief in women’s vocation for sympathy as a basis for social reform.1 She hoped to foster feminine influence but entertained no political ambitions of remaking woman in man’s image—and still less of eliminating class along with sexual differences.2 Eliot mistrusted partisan politics as a kind of institutionalization of unfeminine egocentrism and competition, and while she, like so many of her contemporaries, perceived an affinity between women and oppressed classes and peoples, the bonds of the common life as she portrays them are uneasy at best. In particular, she suggests an ingrained antagonism between imperious men and all “others,” redefining “ radical” to mean, one who repudiates his ties to the past, to family life, and to the feminine.

Eliot’s evident constraints in dealing with the electoral conflicts compressed in the subtitle “the Radical” become more intelligible and even excusable when seen in light of her feminist politics, which affirm what the self-promoting vote-mongers would like to leave behind. In the epigraph to chapter 21, an unidentified opportunist (perhaps lawyer Jermyn or his informer Christian) complains, “‘Tis grievous, that with all amplification of travel both by sea and land, a man can never separate himself from his past history.”3 Eliot might simply be echoing the platitude that there are no shortcuts in moral life and illustrating it with alarming scenes of social upheaval, but she is applying these conservative brakes because men who desire mobility have generally stored their women at home as too heavy to carry along. Thus Mrs. Transome’s lover, Jermyn, has left her behind in his own career of reputable villainy, like Jason believing that he is “not at all obliged to” his Medea, only to face the vengeance of consequences (512-13). Eliot’s consequential world, in which there can be no revolutions or magical escapes from the past, also gives voice to Medea’s rage, a disturbance of the peace more truly radical, in the usual sense, than any riot on election day.

The feminism of Felix Holt for the most part is sealed off from the public political action of committees or votes, while its ladies are perceived as under siege not only by patriarchs but also by the masses. Eliot begs her social questions: Which misogynist “radical” is Esther Lyon to marry? Which fate is better for the workers in the short run, brute subjection or brute rebellion? But she seeks to appease the classes and the sexes within the tradition of the novel of manners, through a slightly eccentric marriage in which the heiress marries the poor man (forfeiting her wealth) and seems prepared to help him run a kind of workers’ institute.4 Uneasy about pressing too political a message in her novel, she preferred to publish a more explicit statement about class and electoral politics (but not the “woman question”) as a nonfictional appendix: “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt” (1867). Felix Holt may be seen as an attempt to subsume the agitation for women’s suffrage in the 1860s under scenes of “masculine” political life from the 1830s, in the locale and period of Eliot’s youth, working within literary and social traditions.5 Perhaps it is no wonder, given the complexity of its aims, that this is one of the least read of Eliot’s novels.

In outline these aims are very much those of Middlemarch, another study of the English Midlands in the 1830s with interwoven masculine and feminine histories. Although the two novels differ enormously in power and design, many of the elements of the acknowledged masterpiece appear in the preceding work, with an almost inverted emphasis. Such inversion makes Felix Holt the more revealing articulation of a hushed politics. Eliot’s earlier novel leaves the political issues of class and gender surprisingly exposed and unresolved, whereas the “greater” novel marginalizes scenes of political life and feminist protest as minor episodes or as hints in the prelude and finale. Is it partly the dictum that great art is not political that has devalued Felix Holt and that hampered Eliot as she wrote it?6Felix Holt, almost in spite of Eliot, seems an overtly radical text, even as it repudiates masculine “radicalism.” The bitter protests of Mrs. Transome in particular arrest our attention (and readers from the beginning have found her the most compelling feature of the novel). That ailing woman, before being put to bed and “soothe[d] … with a daughter’s ten-dance” by Esther, says, “Men are selfish … and cruel. What they care for is their own pleasure and their own pride." “Not all,” is Esther’s rather inadequate response to these “painful” words (597).

In Felix Holt, Eliot appears to reconcile interdependent spheres, the private and the public, much as though she would justify patriarchal society as the natural order modeled on the family, yet she alters the scale of values: the private, associated with women, the powerless, and personal relations, becomes the predominant factor in human history. Thus the novel implies that social progress relies on some form of fellow-feeling and on the sympathy that women are conditioned to extend rather than on practical measures or on the active pursuit of change usually reserved for young men. Eliot’s narrator declares, “[T]his history is chiefly concerned with the private lot of a few men and women; but there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life” (129). By implication, one cannot understand public life without reading the history of private lots.

Most critics of the novel address a perceived strain between these political and “personal” strands, some accounting for it in terms of conflicting generic intentions. During composition, Eliot does seem to have been doubly concerned with the accuracy of a historical-political novel on the Reform Era and with the effectiveness of a tragedy in novel form.7 According to Fred C. Thomson, Eliot’s notebooks indicate that Felix Holt originated in Eliot’s study of classical tragedy as she worked on The Spanish Gypsy and that the interest in electioneering politics was worked up later.8 Like the tendency to suppress “the Radical,” the subtitle on the original title page, this view that the story of the Transomes takes precedence over the depiction of changing social conditions is suspect (part of a bias toward timeless, apolitical art?), but it is hard to deny that the circumstances of the election, the legal machinery that conveys Esther to Transome Court, and the reconciliation and marriage of Esther and Felix lack Mrs. Transome’s fire.9 Arnold Kettle, reversing Thomson’s ordering, claims that the original study of two kinds of radical was deflected by Eliot’s interest in “the position of woman” and “moral responsibility” (106).10 Whatever Eliot’s process of creation, it seems that critics resist the idea that the plots centering on Mrs. Transome, Esther, Felix, and Harold might be more than incidentally related; in other words, they presume that the plots centering on men’s politics and on women’s relationships are disparate if not rivalrous, that private and public spheres remain alien to each other. In spite of the manifest analogies in the novel between the politics of the drawing room and of the hustings, the accounts of Eliot’s having been distracted from one sphere into the other persist. Even in light of these analogies, it is impossible to make a fully coherent novel out of Felix Holt. There is, especially, a surplus of feminist protest—surplus because narrator, characters, and plot largely ignore it.

The tragedy of Mrs. Transome is that of a woman who is unable to renounce her personal desires and who finds no wider calling; she is a pettier prototype of the Alcharisi, the dark double of the great woman of letters. Female ambition without voluntary self-sacrifice is always a disturbing force in Eliot’s work. As though to contain this force, the novel shows a more dispassionate interest in things as they were: the history of the Reform Era as it opened and quickly closed the possibility of extending political rights to workers and women.11 In addition to tragic form and historical accuracy, Eliot juggled the conventions of plot and plausibility, consulting the Comtean lawyer Frederic Harrison on the legal details of her plot.12 Harrison’s and John Blackwood’s praise of the “politics” of the first two volumes dispelled Eliot’s “depression as to [the novel’s] practical effectiveness,” though she remained “in that state of utter distrust and anxiety about my work which is usually the painful accompaniment of authorship with me.”13 She was not, of course, discouraged from attempting a similar synthesis of diverse elements again: Eliot assured Harrison that she would “keep the great possibility (or impossibility)” of creating an effective microcosm of social relations “perpetually in my mind,” and we may speculate that Middlemarch developed as a result. Eliot acknowledged the risk she had taken in attempting political art. After the publication of Felix Holt, she noted “the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate"; “aesthetic teaching,” she now maintained, would necessarily become offensive when “it lapses … from the picture to the diagram.”14 The artful world of Felix Holt at times seems reduced to a two-dimensional tract, but it does not disintegrate into unrelated private and public narratives.15

The conservative tenor of this novel may be primarily attributed to a resistance to such disintegration of the gendered spheres. Felix Holt offers radical insight into the correspondence between the lots of English ladies and the fate of all citizens of the Empire, between historical events and moments in the domestic interior; and the insight is occluded by the enfranchised actors in the drama. Mrs. Transome’s battle with her son is more than coincidentally linked with the battle between ancient right and the rioting rabble on election day. In addition, while the novel dramatizes the possibility of gradual progress in obscure lives—in a realistic historical framework—it also invokes a spiritual counterhistory, cyclical rather than teleological, perpetuating hidden conflicts in gender relations. Mrs. Transome’s and Esther’s complementary stories have a mythical quality, as though like Demeter and Persephone they enact the recurring seasons, while Mrs. Transome recognizes that home is a Dantesque hell. The complex structure of the novel—shifting between plots, households, times, points of view—draws analogies between the private choices of women and men and the transitional epochs in which they live, implying, for instance, that there is more promise in Esther’s growing awareness than in any extension of the franchise or triumph of a politically enlightened faction.

The power of Felix Holt derives from irreconcilable differences between men and women and their respective fields of power and influence in English society. What cannot be put asunder, according to the outlook of this novel, also cannot be joined without masking the rough margins. Familiar forms have been twisted out of shape; emphasis falls unexpectedly. There are dark family secrets, musty wills, lovers’ lockets, but nothing more sensational arises than an anticlimactic riot. To most readers, Mrs. Transome and Matthew Jermyn broadcast their secret affair long before their son Harold knows of it, while the dispute between the Transomes, Durfeys, and Bycliffes—all the legal matter of base fees and remainder-men that Frederic Harrison supplied—remains hardly more than it appears to Esther, a muddle of prerogatives magically invoked to change lives.16 Even the title raises doubts, not only as to the sense in which “Radical” applies to a man who opposes what would become the Chartist program (395-403) but also as to the centrality of the fortunate and faith-upholding Felix Holt to the moral drama of the novel. Happy is he who holds on by the roots, the title seems to say, yet Felix must undo his father’s errors and resist his mother, while Esther must escape her inheritance.17 The patriarch is rather shabbily represented on the one hand by imbecile Mr. Transome and dotty Mr. Lyon, who fail in biological fathering, and on the other by devious Lawyer Jermyn and his illegitimate son, Harold, who marries a slave.

If the male line of succession is doubtful, the novel seems reluctant to let matriarchy stand in its stead. E. S. Dallas observed in 1866 that a male author would have named the book after Esther.18 Indeed, most of the novel centers on the metamorphoses of the heroine, whose namesakes, Dickens’s Esther Summerson and Queen Esther, are likewise poor foster daughters who find favor with powerful men. Eliot’s Esther earns her moral crown by refusing a luxurious place as chief concubine, but she uses her influence to help her lover and her father, just as Queen Esther saves her cousin and adoptive father, Mordecai. The tragic Vashti, a famous actress in Villette (1853), in this novel has become the defeated Mrs. Tran-some, almost as though Eliot, like another King Ahasuerus, wished to make an example of the rebellious woman.19 Precedent and tradition are subtly modified, but without overt challenge to patriarchal order.

For all her strong didactic aim, the woman of letters seems more than usually reluctant to commit herself to any particular doctrine; the monologues of the eccentric Rufus Lyon suggest that the preacher must be a kind of outsider. Political activity is shown to be corrupt, idealistic, ineffectual, or irrelevant. Only Felix, manly and dignified, is allowed to seize the author’s podium for a time, but he is jailed for his part in civil disorder, while his misguided enthusiasm seems subordinate to the question of his education in the femininity he initially despised. The treatment of class conflict is even more unsatisfactory; the human animals of the Sproxton mines are noted but are offered no real help: only a future relief through the evolutionary enlightenment of the race. Given these evasions, in what sense does Eliot integrate the private with the public life?

To answer this question, we must concentrate on the “woman question” in nineteenth-century England. It seems to have been impossible to cover up the gap between the historic lot of Englishwomen and their potential. Eliot shows how women are denied their due influence, but any protest is rigidly controlled, primarily as the bitter censured outcry of a sinning woman. In the process of writing this novel, I would suggest, Eliot tempered her feminist argument, deflecting attention from female characters onto male and deploying impersonal descriptive passages and a title that subordinated the perspective of the women. Mrs. Transome and Transome Court are only part of the story of 1832, and a less timely part; Esther, similarly, remains outside public life, more like Maggie Tulliver than Romola. The struggles of Harold, Jermyn, Rufus, and Felix, in contrast, appear almost identical with the historical crisis of the novel. It is as though the implied author concurs with at least the first part of Harold’s sweeping exclusion of women from historical mobility: “women keep to the notions in which they have been brought up. It doesn’t signify what they think—they are not called upon to judge or act” (117). In Eliot’s world of course it does signify what ladies think and how they judge and act, but they scarcely show signs of the times. In response to the grand political turmoil of the Reform Era, Eliot offers two private pacifications: Harold, a Byronic colonialist, misogynist, and cynic, is finally swayed by Esther and reconciled with his mother, while Esther adapts herself to (and begins to influence) her romantic hero of the working classes.

These pacifications obey the central principle of Felix Holt : that “we” are each one among many, parts of a general pattern of interdependent private and public lives that foil our egotistical plans; hence the impersonal overview of the narrator, particularly in the “Author’s Introduction” and in the epigraphs to each chapter, added late to the manuscript. A close look at the way we are conducted into the novel and at the subtle politics of certain unobtrusive scenes will help us uncover the unacknowledged propaganda in the work. A tendency to universalize a Victorian, masculine norm is tempered by a critique of particular manly egotists and radicals of all walks of life.

Eliot’s narrator is kin to DeQuincey (“The English Mail-Coach”), Thackeray’s showman (chapter 7 in Vanity Fair) and the future Theophrastus Such: “Five-and-thirty years ago the glory had not yet departed from the old coach roads,” he begins in a comradely tone, savoring a lost era of conservative immobility (75-76). The departed glory must be seen through ever-receding frames of nostalgic retrospect, since elderly gentlemen of 1831 resent the coach itself as an innovation going beyond “packhorses” (20). Then, on a narrated coach ride through the Midlands that is also a chronological history, the traveler “passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another,” from pastoral harmony to market towns to manufacturing districts where miners and weavers turn day to night (76-79). Our narrator, like the coachman another “Virgil,” will lead us into the Dantesque inferno of untold “human histories,” such as the hereditary tragedies lurking on estates like Transome Court that try to resist social change (81-84). Thus we pass through changing social conditions to enter Mrs. Transome’s hell in chapter 1—from the public and diachronic to the private and perpetual. At once we focus on a particular yet typical scene, a woman restlessly waiting in her drawing room for a man to return from his affairs in the world outside and to fulfill her ambitions. Mrs. Transome will bitterly learn that her son means to rule at home as he did abroad. The novel, then, opens with a wide-circling bird’s-eye view, only to perch in a gilded cage with sexual and social politics coming home to roost. Two chapters later the novel reverses this move and examines surrounding conditions, so-called men’s affairs of business and politics, in light of such domestic tragedy.

The action of Felix Holt is compressed into a brief period of gestation, the nine months from Harold’s arrival to Esther’s wedding, as though mimicking dramatic unities.20 This compression, while it implausibly hastens Esther’s metamorphosis from a creature of Byronic sensibility to one of Wordsworthian duty, calls attention to the formal design of the work. Each of the main characters undergoes a crisis essential to Eliot’s view of tragedy and of society: an “irreparable collision between the individual and the general,” that is, between “our individual needs” and “the dire necessities of our lot.”21 Such tragic unity as Eliot might have found in the Transome story alone is subordinate to an inclusive study of society; all the varied lots meet their necessity and discover their interdependence. When we turn in chapter 3 to the humorous history of Treby Magna as though on a layover on another introductory coach ride, or when we abandon Mrs. Transome or Felix for long passages until Esther comes to them in their prisons, we should perceive the pattern in a larger web than the fate of one hero or heroine. Just before Felix, Mrs. Holt, and Rufus Lyon are introduced as analogues to Harold, Mrs. Transome, and Matthew Jermyn, we are asked to attend to the process of the common life:

And the lives we are about to look back upon … are rooted in the common earth, having to endure all the ordinary chances of past and present weather. As to the weather of 1832, the Zadkiel of that time had predicted … unusual perturbations in organic existence … that mutual influence of dissimilar destinies which we shall see unfolding itself.


Social history evolves naturally and, as a rule, unpredictably, this suggests, regardless of individual will or perspective. Such a vision may make the “universal custom” of the “subjection of women to men” appear “natural” rather than merely customary, as John Stuart Mill observed in The Subjection of Women (1869), a work that like Felix Holt elaborated a response to the 1867 Reform Bill.22 But Eliot’s emphasis on organically interdependent social development is aimed not at mystifying class and gender hierarchies—these are exposed as awkward customs in Felix Holt — but rather at chastening the egotism of the individual who does not acknowledge “mutual influence” and who denies his subjection to a collective historical plan. Women, the novel shows, may be egotists, “selfish and cruel,” but they perforce acknowledge mutual influence.

As the novel unfolds, however, the law of consequences that the novel enforces against the male radicals, upstarts and opportunists like Harold or Jermyn and their various hired guns, seems to lose its power. Social life may be metaphorically an organism “rooted in the common earth,” or it may be as random as stormy weather; disparate elements of the social microcosm and of the narrative that creates it are uprooted and blown out of place. Many of the episodes seem to lack clear relevance; the pretext of a revelatory plot, with its punitive consequences, is often inadequate to account for the amplitude of Eliot’s history. At times it seems that Eliot’s historical curiosity about the detail of English common life undermines her respect for the public priorities of traditional political history. Perhaps the novel is designed to “denature” the customary and to displace the scene of political progress from the market square to the home.

In the domestic interior it is perhaps easier—and less regressive—to dramatize the ethical imperative of memory, of fidelity to the past, because historically the women’s sphere has been forgotten. In Eliot’s own conscientious, public-spirited act of memory, she precisely records the detail of past domestic life in order to retrieve evidence of women’s experience. She perpetuates the tradition of the apparently apolitical novel that offers a realistic social history, including indisputably political events. Simply to note the trivial matters of lives of the obscure can be, of course, a form of protest. If women have been consigned to lives of repetitive domestic detail, it is time the history of such detail were related. No details of women’s lives should be dismissed as “small airs and small notions,” as Felix calls them. On the contrary, the key to the history of nineteenth-century parliamentary reform was kept in the work-baskets of mothers, daughters, wives. Yet the novelist saw no solution in women’s rivaling men: Mrs. Transome’s cold lust for power seems a sign of the self-wounding that comes of angry confrontation with men, as well as a forerunner of hostile images of suffragettes and women’s-libbers. Eliot’s narrator remains more sympathetic than hostile, of course, in keeping with her unbiased humanist persona. The novel suggests that the sexes will be reconciled only if men and women are able to change, but they must not fruitlessly resist inevitable sexual differences. These differences, for Eliot, have some positive value in the exclusion of women from power and ownership, which are sources of violence and exploitation. The influence of Esther is presented as the feminine alternative to the corruption of masculine power. Indicting the treatment of women, the novel then, in the forgiving form of Esther, softens the judgment when the case comes to trial. Men are brought to acknowledge women’s claims on them. As Harold must accept his dependence on others, Felix must accommodate his idealism to the fact of a wife.

To highlight the false division between the domestic circle and the outside world, women are depicted indoors, looking out; home becomes sanctuary or prison, while life outside beckons as well as threatens. At Transome Court, Esther opens the blinds to see the river and the trees: “She wanted the largeness of the world to help her thought.” To Mrs. Transome, the same vista only reflects “boundary” and “line,” “the loneliness and monotony of her life” (590, 596). (Compare Dorothea’s view from the boudoir at Lowick in Middlemarch. ) In the end, Esther rejects “a silken bondage” as a lady at the manor in favor of “the dim life of the back street, the contact with sordid vulgarity” (591-92). It appears that the social order itself is founded on the clear demarcation of domestic interior and public exterior, and on the liminal status of women who must pay if they cross the boundary.

In 1832, ladies depend on gentlemen’s protection; during the riot, Felix reassures Esther in her home before he tries to lead the mob, only to find himself swept along in its rampage toward Treby Manor. There, as earlier in an inn, his knightly impulse is to rescue the women, but ironically he is forced to pose as the aggressor, brandishing his “sabre” in a lighted window before “a group of women clinging together in terror,” frightened as much by him as by the pillagers he is preoccupied in turning away. The soldiers shoot him as though he were the leader of the rabble, wounding “the shoulder of the arm that held the naked weapon which shone in the light of the window.” The phallic image of the man who has entered the women’s interior remains indelible evidence against him at the trial, in spite of his chivalrous intentions (432). He appears to be another literary martyr to the cause of humbling and reforming men, like Rochester in Jane Eyre and Romney in Aurora Leigh.

Eliot’s political analysis of separate spheres takes the form not only of showing what happens when the threshold is violated but also of examining the significance of domestic details; female characters are represented in relation to household trappings. Esther is first introduced as the minister’s daughter who objects to the smell of ale and tallow candles. Her fastidiousness sets her apart from the vulgar, “weak sisters” who pester their minister Rufus (133), yet she herself threatens her father’s and Felix’s vocations. Felix sneers at Esther’s indulgence in wax candles: “I thank Heaven I am not a mouse to have a nose that takes note of wax or tallow” (140). Catherine Gallagher points out here the conflict of Felix’s contempt for such material “signs” and the narrator’s realistic method;23 misogyny and contempt for detail coincide in Felix with an egotistical denial of humanity’s common interdependence. Female sensibility is animal-like to Felix: “A fine lady is a squirrel-headed thing, with small airs and small notions, about as applicable to the business of life as a pair of tweezers to the clearing of a forest” (153). He will have to refine his sense of scale in order to learn how the sexes might collaborate in domestic and public life, while Esther will learn that wax candles may come at the price of a woman’s freedom.

As though her self-indulgent wish for refinement were granted, Esther is invited to choose a new home that has all the amenities lacking in Malthouse Yard. Transome Court seems like “Paradise” until she recognizes the role of the woman in it; it is “haunted by an Eve gone grey with bitter memories of an Adam who had complained, ’The woman … she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’” (585). In contrast with Felix, Harold prefers the decoration to the life, asking Esther to pose in finery like one of the Transome portraits. She refuses, however, to adopt a fixed, false image (498). The portrait of Mrs. Transome in young and hopeful days seems to admonish her to “put out the wax lights that she might get rid of the oppressive urgency of walls and upholstery,” and thus to reject her first vanity for a higher vision (47, 586). She is not to be the “doll-Madonna in her shrine” that Eliot criticized in “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wolltonecraft,” an essay in which the heroic feminists, certainly not doll-like, are praised for retaining domestic loyalties as well as for not overvaluing women who have been degraded by decorous captivity.24

Although like so many heroines Esther faces a choice personified by two lovers, she more clearly dreads two kinds of disempowerment. Both the man who sneers at domestic detail and the man who wants to pile it up around his women are dangerous suitors for a woman who likes self-definition, just as they are distressing sons to their willful mothers.25 Harold, like Felix, eagerly repudiates female claims on him. Harold’s “busy thoughts were imperiously determined by habits which had no reference to any woman’s feeling,” and he is incapable either of imagining “what his mother’s feeling was” or of swaying from his own imperious purpose (93). The radical who repudiates the past, the man who cannot be domesticated, is the man trying to his mother’s will; thus Mrs. Holt and Mrs. Transome, “women who appear … to have a masculine decisiveness … and force of mind,” have “come into severe collision with sons arrived at the masterful stage” (535). Whereas Felix is a kind of hippie (his mother grieves that he wears no stock), Harold is no genuine radical but a composite of all the prejudices of the privileged European male: he is imperialist, racist, classist, and sexist. As Esther senses, “to Harold Transome, Felix Holt was one of the common people who could come into question in no other than a public light. She had a native capability for discerning that the sense of ranks and degrees has its repulsions corresponding to the repulsions dependent on difference of race and colour” (522-23). Thus, accepting the power of prejudice, Esther shrinks from telling Harold that she has been intimate with Felix. Yet her repulsion when she hears that Harold’s first wife “had been a slave—was bought, in fact” (541) is more than dread of vicarious contact with the alien; it is also dread of the sexually abusive master. Esther’s “native” discernment has everything to do with her having been socialized as a woman; she may play along with ranks and degrees, but she begins to find them repulsive in themselves, since race and gender remain, like class, the registers on which the patriarch marks his supremacy.

Somewhat like Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda, Esther resists the surrender implied in accepting a man: “The homage of a man may be delightful until he asks straight for love, by which a woman renders homage.” Harold’s love “seemed to threaten her with a stifling oppression,” almost as though she intuits the opinion he declared when he first returned from Smyrna as a widower: “I hate English wives; they want to give their opinion about everything” (94). Perhaps less ominously, after having kissed Felix, “she felt as if she had vowed herself away, as if memory lay on her lips like a seal of possession” (592); he at least has taken the trouble to argue with her opinions. Crudely, she must choose between the radical who sees women as useless delights and the radical who sees women as temptations unless useful. With more conscience and foresight than Mrs.Transome, Esther chooses duty rather than pleasure (524), the man who scolds rather than the man who flatters her.

In outline, Eliot’s novel promises little for women. While Esther seemingly must submit to Felix in the end, for her adultery Mrs. Transome must endure a living hell, dependent on Harold’s belated understanding. Yet, as to the necessity for such sacrifices, the narrator offers contradictory commentary, generated especially by the figure of Mrs. Transome. Having married an imbecile, chosen a lover, and with him managed her failing estate, Mrs. Transome is now told she must become “grandmama on satin cushions” (95). Her power has not gained her love, and her illicit affair has rendered her powerless. The narrator can only advise resigned silence: “half the sorrows of women would be averted if they could repress the speech they know to be useless; nay, the speech they have resolved not to utter” (117). It is advice that Eliot herself, in the powerful voice of the narrator, does not follow. Observing Harold’s bulldozing egotism, the narrator offers this rebuke:

It is a fact kept a little too much in the background, that mothers have a self larger than their maternity, and that when their sons have become taller than themselves, and are gone from them to college or into the world, there are wide spaces of their time which are not filled with praying for their boys, reading old letters, and envying yet blessing those who are attending to their shirt-buttons. Mrs. Transome was certainly not one of those bland, adoring, and gently tearful women.


It may make us uneasy to be told that there are such bland women, but they seem to be relegated to the world of unrealistic fiction. Esther, too, is certainly not one of the quiescent type, but lacking power she can only hope for the less demeaning love that recognizes her as a “woman whose mind was as noble as her face was beautiful.” She complains of the injustice to Felix: “It is difficult for a woman ever to try to be anything good … when it is always supposed that she must be contemptible.” Men may choose “hard” and “great” lots, but women, apart from the rare “Saint Theresas,” “must take meaner things, because only meaner things are within [their] reach” (364-67). Esther’s growing humility and desire for a truly great lot in life excuse this complaint. She will grow to embody some of a saint’s grand calling, but she is a woman, not a saint—that is, she is not destined, as George Eliot was, to join in the vanguard of public historical movements.

For some time it seems likely that Esther will take Harold, a meaner thing within her reach. Mrs. Transome predicts Esther’s sacrifice to Harold with the bitterness of one of the damned:

"This girl has a fine spirit—plenty of fire and pride and wit. Men like such captives, as they like horses that champ the bit… . What is the use of a woman’s will?—if she tries she doesn’t get it, and she ceases to be loved. God was cruel when he made women.”


The narrator understands such bitterness without forgiving it or offering women any recourse. In complaints or reproaches, “poor women, whose power lies solely in their influence, make themselves like music out of tune, and only move men to run away” (437). Pointing out the selfish, cowardly response of men, however, is not the surest way to recommend women’s submission. Though the sexes mirror each other unflatteringly, ultimately women appear less base than men. Mrs. Transome’s servant Denner comically declares: “I shouldn’t like to be a man—to cough so loud, and stand straddling about on a wet day, and be so wasteful with meat and drink. They’re a coarse lot, I think” (488). Mrs. Transome tells Jermyn, “I would not lose the misery of being a woman, now I see what can be the baseness of a man” (519).

To all appearances, Harold is the opposite of coarse, but the narrator, like Mrs. Transome and eventually Esther, detects the flaws of egotism beneath his veneer:

"A woman ought never to have any trouble. There should always be a man to guard her from it.” (Harold Transome was masculine and fallible; he had incautiously sat down this morning to pay his addresses by talk about nothing in particular; and, clever experienced man that he was, he fell into nonsense.)


The corollary of Harold’s gallantry is that women should protect men from wounded vanity, much as the narrator does by this backhanded parenthetical excuse. In practice, Victorian gender ideology depends on mutual blindness; thus Harold is uneasy when he suspects that Esther has a mind as well as a beautiful face:

She was clearly a woman that could be governed… . Yet there was a lightning that shot out of her now and then, which seemed the sign of a dangerous judgment; as if she inwardly saw something more admirable than Harold Tran—some. Now, to be perfectly charming, a woman should not see this.


The final caustic comment belongs to the wise and, in spite of the counsel of resignation, feminist narrator (the voice seems that of the unguarded Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey).

There are signs that the narrator realizes the unsatisfactory compromise in the romantic ending supposedly so devoutly to be wished. Really, Esther cannot do better than to marry, the narrator, in Shakespearean guise, maintains: “she was intensely of the feminine type, verging neither towards the saint nor the angel. She was ’a fair divided excellence, whose fulness of perfection’ must be in marriage” (551).26 Characteristically, Eliot presents feminine independence as the exception to the common order, a possibility for rare spirits like St. Theresa or Romola. Yet an inert and ignorant Angel in the House will spread a curse as much as any demonic Mrs. Transome. Esther must retain her will and aspiration. At her great moment, she assumes the role of a heroine of history:

When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour which breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious influences… . Her inspired ignorance gives a sublimity to actions … that otherwise … would make men smile. Some of that ardour which has … illuminated all poetry and history was burning today in the bosom of sweet Esther Lyon. In this, at least, her woman’s lot was perfect: that the man she loved was her hero; that her woman’s passion and her reverence for rarest goodness rushed together in an undivided current.


The “divided excellence” finds a rare undivided opportunity to act. There could hardly be a more explicit image of the compensations of influence, yet Esther does not consume her life in obeisance to her manly hero. Like another Elizabeth Bennet, she could only be happy with a man “greater and nobler than I am,” but she reserves a little of her wealth and, playfully, of her power: “You don’t know how clever I am. I mean to go on teaching a great many things"—including Felix—"and you will not attribute stupid thoughts to me before I’ve uttered them.” She will enjoy the “retribution” of demanding that he be worthy of her sacrifice (602-3).27

Eliot has captured perfectly the strange balance of power in the ideology of influence; she would later present a more convincing portrait of such a relationship in that of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, where the man learns virtue by living up to the woman’s standard for him. Felix must play the part of Esther’s mentor, but it is a role she creates and makes him worthy of. Significantly, the union is cleansed of any hint of sexual mastery. Felix and Esther unite rather as though Maggie and Tom Tulliver were able to prolong their last moment outside of gender difference, like children or angels:

He smiled, and took her two hands between his, pressed together as children hold them up in prayer. Both of them felt too solemnly to be bashful. They looked straight into each other’s eyes, as angels do when they tell some truth.


Male and female lots have been shown to be separate though tensely intertwined; the fusion at the end belies the instructive disunity of the novel. Felix and Esther leap out of history and out of gendered sexuality in order to unite as novelistic closure demands.

The comments on women’s lot in Felix Holt are remarkably outspoken, more so than in Middlemarch or Daniel Deronda. Here lovers and mothers and sons openly negotiate power and ownership, and, in spite of the plot of reconciliation, the sexes seem to glare at each other unappeased. Eliot’s drama of 1832 remains a puzzle in which the pieces of private and public life seem to fit and yet do not. Social divisions are exposed along the fault lines of class as well as gender. As in Romola, Eliot represents the common people as both the medium of continuity and as a volatile force for change; common people and upper-class women are implicitly linked in their shared exclusion from corrupt modes of power. As before, the novel exalts less the crowd or the suffering masses than individual, uncommon, but obscure beings such as Felix Holt and Rufus Lyon who are willing instruments of progress; the radicalism of their visions is tempered by fellow-feeling, love of tradition, and domestic sentiments. Their influence may be narrow and unsteady, but it is the ingredient heretofore missing from public life, where all men do appear selfish and cruel. Ladies at times are able to collaborate with such decent meliorists as Felix and Rufus, as when Esther rises in court in defense of Felix, “break[ing] through” the rigid systems of men (571). Felix holds an article of faith that “there’s some dignity and happiness for a man other than changing his station” (557), but the spirit of the age is against him (as well as his own rejection of vulgar parents). The challenge to inherited station during the Reform Era jarred the Treby Magnas of England out of an apparent slumber of centuries. Eliot appears to dramatize the crisis of her times primarily in terms of class politics, but public events are upstaged by the skirmishes between men and women, which the novel suggests more profoundly determine the course of human history.

In a commentary on the disjunction between those interlocked spheres, private and public life, Eliot’s narrator analyzes a society ostensibly governed by men whose public personae deceive everyone, including themselves—though perhaps not the women who know them in private life. “Under the stimulus of small many-mixed motives … a great deal of business has been done in the world by well-clad, and, in 1833, clean-shaven men, whose names are on charity-lists, and who do not know that they are base” (471-72). Certainly, young men who learn to integrate public forms and private relations offer some hope for change. Felix refuses to join the fashionable parade of self-deceiving educated men, but he must also learn to value the trivia of domestic life and to respect as a fellow human being what he mistook for “a squirrel-headed thing.” Influential young women such as Esther were beginning in the 1830s to step out of the house and not only to put their own names on the charity lists but also to organize widespread reforms aimed at reconciling public and private morality. The novelist herself was such a reformer, urging that the business of the world be conducted in a less deceptive, impersonal manner, so that signs of authority—upper-class English manhood—could not be mistaken for signs of virtue or merit. The feminist political message is certainly muted, especially by Mrs. Transome’s heartlessness and the forced concluding marriage. But such muting, like the moderation of Victorian feminism in general, enabled the very real advances that women like Eliot were able to make. The disjunctions of Felix Holt can be attributed largely to the strains on a writer sustaining the position of a great woman of letters, wishing to affirm a continuous tradition yet to integrate the different voices that had been silenced, wishing to narrate a political history of pre-Victorian society that incorporated the private experience of middle-class women, and finally wishing to expose bias and false consciousness while herself appearing impartially human and omniscient. These diverse wishes are impossible to fulfill entirely, of course. Whatever the “many-mixed motives” of the author herself, however, her text makes the most of these contradictions by not resolving them, exposing an unassimilated feminist argument.


Adapted from Alison Booth, Greatness Engendered: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Copyright 1992 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

1. Suzanne Graver, George Eliot and Community (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 176-78. Eliot offers a good example of what Naomi Black calls “social feminism.” See Social Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 1-3.

2. See, for example, The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon Haight, 9 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-1978), 4:364-65, 467-68.

3. George Eliot, Felix Holt: The Radical, ed. Peter Coveney (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 310. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page number. We are reminded of the warning in the “Author’s Introduction” that progress has its price as well as its benefits: “Posterity may be shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes; but the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory” (75).

4. Esther Lyon, like Emma Woodhouse, is the spoiled darling of a widower, but she learns to reject the lord of the manor for the yeoman, the Robert Martin figure, Felix Holt. Ellen Moers has pointed out Eliot’s alteration of Austen’s class scale. See Literary Women: The Great Writers (1976; repr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 50.

5. Bonnie Zimmerman, “Felix Holt and the True Power of Womanhood,” English Literary History 46 (1979): 432-37.

6. Obviously, many “great” novels have political themes, and many even stage battle or election scenes (War and Peace, The Red and the Black, Waverley, Vanity Fair, and Middlemarch come to mind). But it seems that the arbiters of the canon prefer not to be reminded that the implied author is also politically situated and that the novel, much like the tract, takes sides.

7. Early critics of Felix Holt, while generally admiring, laid out two lines of attack: against the political novel of the Reform era and against the moral drama of the Transomes, Lyons, and Holts. See David Carroll, George Eliot: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), 251-70; and Florence Sandler, “The Unity of Felix Holt,”in George Eliot: A Centenary Tribute, ed. Gordon S. Haight and Rosemary T. VanArsdel (London: Macmillan, 1982), 137. Felix Holt was more a critical than popular success (Gordon Haight, George Eliot: A Biography [New York: Oxford University Press, 1968], 387). Though it appears to belong in the company of political novels such as Disraeli’s Sybil or of multiplot social-problem novels such as Bleak House, it defies generic expectation. See Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 103.

8. Fred C. Thomson, “Felix Holt as Classic Tragedy,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 16 (1961): 47; “The Genesis of Felix Holt,PMLA 74 (1959): 576.

9. Norman Vance, “Law, Religion, and the Unity of Felix Holt,” in George Eliot: Centenary Essays and an Unpublished Fragment, ed. Anne Smith (London: Vision, 1980), 103-20.

10. “‘Felix Holt the Radical,’” Critical Essays on George Eliot, ed. Barbara Hardy (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970), 106. David Carroll diagrams the novel’s “spheres of politics, religion, and love” as deliberately interrelated, yet he claims that Esther has “usurped Felix’s central position” (“Felix Holt: Society as Protagonist,” in George Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. George R. Creeger [Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970], 134, 140). See also Michael Edwards, “George Eliot and Negative Form,” Critical Quarterly 17 (1975): 171; and Joseph Wiesenfarth, “Felix qui non potuit,” in George Eliot’s Mythmaking (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1977), 170-85.

11. Eliot’s journal and notebooks record extensive research on the economic and political contexts of 1832 in the Times, the Annual Register, the House of Commons’s Report from the Select Committee on Bribery at Elections (1835), Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, Samuel Bamford’s Passages From the Life of a Radical, and Daniel Neals’s History of the Puritans, among other sources. See Haight, George Eliot, 381; and Thomson, “The Genesis of Felix Holt,” 577-83, and the introduction to his edition of Felix Holt (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), xiii-xlii.

12. His suggestion for the statement by the attorney-general was inserted in chapter 35. See Appendix B, 629-37, in Coveney’s edition of Felix Holt, and the introduction, xxii-xxv, to Thomson’s edition. The collaboration was unusual for her (George Eliot Letters 4:214-302).

13.George Eliot Letters, 4:258.

14.George Eliot Letters, 4:300-301.

15. Catherine Gallagher sees Felix Holt as a crisis in Eliot’s “inductive” method of “metonymic realism,” when the social tension of the 1860s made “the discontinuity between facts and values” impossible to ignore (The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985], 237-43). The righteous eponymous hero, generally seen as “too good to be true,” tries to deny his affiliation with domestic life (see Laurence Lerner, The Truthtellers [New York: Schocken, 1967], 49). He has been condemned as a spokesman for Eliot’s dread of public up-heavel, in line with Arnold’s response to the Hyde Park Riots in Culture and Anarchy (1869), but he is also the common man “feminized” and elevated by fellow-feeling. Williams, Culture and Society, 109, reproaches Eliot for excluding the common people from her vision of the interdependence of public and private life. See W. F. T. Myers, “Politics and Personality in Felix Holt,Renaissance and Modern Studies 10 (1966): 27; David Craig, “Fiction and the Rising Industrial Classes,” Essays in Criticism 17 (1967): 64-74; and Linda Bamber, “Self-Defeating Politics in George Eliot’s Felix Holt,Victorian Studies 18 (1975): 419-35.

16. The Lyons receive the news of Esther’s inheritance as “magic"; Felix says her fitness for ladyship gives “chance sanction to that musty law … the appropriate conditions are come at last” (557).

17. Wiesenfarth, “Felix qui non potuit,” 177-78.

18. Carroll, Critical Heritage, 267. Compare Little Dorrit, in which Arthur Clennam undergoes a more dramatic development than the eponymous guiding light; a woman might have named it Arthur Clennam.

19. The Book of Esther sets the context of Felix Holt, but the heroine’s role as political savior of her people has been privatized. Lawyer Jermyn is Haman the villainous minister; Felix, like Mordecai, is an unruly outsider yet a guide for Esther inside the palace. See Zimmerman, “Felix Holt,” 411n.11. Charlotte Brontë’s “Vashti” is judged as a woman rather than as an artist, suggesting a precedent for Eliot’s defiant Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda.

20. Thomson, “Felix Holt as Classic Tragedy,” 54.

21. Eliot, “Notes on’,The Spanish Gypsy,’” George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, ed. John W. Cross, 3 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, n.d.), 31-32.

22. John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (New York: D. Appleton, 1870), 22-23.

23. Gallagher, Industrial Reformation, 237-43.

24. “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft,” Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), 201-5.

25. Felix rejects the dishonest occupation of his dead, mountebank father, thus distressing his mother; Harold repudiates his Tory lineage, neglects his imbecile “father,” and almost kills Jermyn, his real father, all in a contest of wills with his mother.

26. The quotation is from King John 2:1.

27. Coveney points out that Esther’s “laugh as sweet as the morning thrush” in this concluding scene echoes the scene in prison when Esther, “like a thrush … a messenger of darkness,” warns Felix of failure (chapter 45, n. 1; chapter 51, n. 2).

Virginia Woolf (Essay Date 1925)

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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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Sherri Catherine Smith (Essay Date June 1996)

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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 critical essays were shaped in large part by the anonymous male persona she assumed long before she emerged on the literary scene as the novelist "George Eliot." Her theatricals also extended beyond her authorial persona to encompass her everyday conduct with her closest friends and literary acquaintances. While the novelist Eliza Lynn Linton remembered her to be "uncouth," "unkempt," "unwashed and unbrushed," this reputation for gracelessness suited Eliot quite well in the social contexts in which she often found herself. A great number of intellectual men regularly invited her to gatherings made up chiefly of other intellectual men, and where the parties and soirées were of mixed company, Eliot could routinely be found fraternizing with the men.2

When Jacques Derrida remarked 120 years later that "[f]eminism is nothing but the operation of a woman who aspires to be like a man"3, Eliot, no doubt, would have made a choice candidate for admission into the feminist fold. But it was a sisterhood to which she never wanted to belong, on either a personal or a political level. Convinced that "women were interested only in ephemeral subjects and not likely to use their vote wisely," Eliot did not support John Stuart Mill's proposal to alter the language of the Second Reform Bill to include women in the franchise.4 Moreover, Eliot shied away from projects associated with women, including projects of a practical rather than a strictly political nature, which might otherwise have engaged her interest and energies. When approached by Bessie Rayner Parkes about contributing to the fledgling English Woman's Journal, for example, Eliot refused on the grounds that "a public display of inferior work by women would do more harm than good."5 Her infamous essay, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," written just before she took up the novel-writing craft herself, is also unabashedly critical of the "foolish facility" that most women mistake for "mastery."6 More baffling still, especially to feminist literary critics, is the conservatism of Eliot's novels.7 Most of her fictional heroines seem almost ritually unable to achieve the level of autonomy and possibility that Eliot herself enjoyed.

While Eliot's gender politics may be difficult for today's feminists to classify, Eliot was not ambivalent about the practicalities of self-fulfillment. Attracted to erudite circles, she went where she could find them. And her animosity toward most women's activism was, above all, self-interested. Still, Eliot's discordant relations with women appear so germane to the pleasure she took in the company and discourse of men that she is left vulnerable to the charge of misogyny. Are her respective sentiments toward men and women fundamentally unrelated, or does her desire to act like a man in fact facilitate her disaffection toward women? Christina Crosby, among others, has speculated in this vein: "As the Prophetess of Humanity, Eliot had to rule women out.…One might ask her what [Daniel] Deron da's mother asks her son: 'You speak as men do—as if you felt yourself wise. What does it all mean?'"8

If we are talking about where to place an unruly Eliot in a history of feminism, then Crosby's question invites us to complicate that history, to take account of the misogyny not only in Eliot but also in feminism.9 To that end, Eliot's reluctance to identify with women as a class—despite her commitment as a woman to overcome the ascription of social and intellectual deficiencies—opens up an important perspective on the paradox inherent in Derrida's definition of feminism as well as in that branch of academic feminism which champions the quest for "equality" as the central creed of women's movements over the past two centuries. The suggestion that feminist objectives merely duplicate male desire (for control, knowledge, self-possession, and the like) would seem to recommend a feminism set against itself, or at least one willing to risk its collective goals in the interest of the unsystematic attempts of individual women to make it in a man's world.10 Many theorists have looked at the apparent conflict of interests in egalitarian feminism and have concluded that this tack is best abandoned, not only because it slowly erodes the coalitional politics that often justify feminism as a critical method but also because it advances like a snake eating its own tail, using what is most appealing about humanist incorporation to destroy the specificity of women's bodies and women's experience. As Nancy Cott has noted, however, paradox is part of the very nature of feminism:

[Feminism] aims for individual freedoms by mobilizing sex solidarity. It posits that women recognize their unity while it stands for diversity among women. It requires gender consciousness for its basis yet calls for the elimination of prescribed gender roles.11

The paradoxes of feminism demand a variety of methods, most of which are in conflict with one another. It is with this understanding that I propose a re-examination of one strategy that is quickly and unfortunately losing currency among feminist theorists today. Specifically, my purpose here is to consider the political and aesthetic advantages of masculinism in Eliot's critical writing and to show how Eliot's identification with men should be regarded as an outgrowth of feminism at the same time it appears to be—and perhaps is—a rejection of it. While part of my assessment will involve taking sober account of the misogyny that made Eliot's feminism such an oxymoron to the nineteenth-century women's movement12, I also intend to describe the excesses of her feminism as sites of ingenuity and resourcefulness. If "feminism continues to require its own forms of serious play," to use Judith Butler's formulation13, then Eliot's investments in the masculine become politically significant for us today as studies in impersonation, "in-vestment," drag. A closer look at Eliot's life and work not only brings to light the risks of this type of feminist play but also clarifies the returns we can expect on such questionable investments.


The satisfactions of drag have already been claimed for feminism by Judith Butler in her landmark text on gender performativity.14 Much like Eliot, Butler does not shrink from a strategic appreciation of so-called masculine modes of behavior. She contends, in fact, that feminism must work "within the terms of power itself" or, more precisely, engage in deliberate play with the male/female binary which structures identity politics.15 But as to method and purpose, Eliot and Butler part ways altogether. Butler views gay drag as a more conspicuous, and hence politically necessary, version of the gender performances already undertaken by straight men and women. Revealing gender as performative would consequently undermine its status as a natural and apparently fixed determinant of power. Eliot, on the other hand, invests herself in masculinity as a straight woman, not in order to displace gender distinction but, as I will show, in order to exploit its significance.

Above all, gender is illusory for Butler, and because such "illusions of [gendered] substance" underwrite the subjugation of women, Butler believes that the logic and political efficacy of gender must be challenged. This is best accomplished by multiplying gender distinction ad nau-seam, "to the point where it no longer makes sense."16 Where gender codes overflow, "mascu-line" and "feminine" attributes will inevitably turn up on bodies that are not correlatively sexed. Both the lesbian parody of heterosexual exchange (e.g., "butch" and "femme") and gay drag, for example, effectively dislocate gender from a physiological and psychological essence, according to Butler, and thus double back to publish the performative and unprotected nature of normative heterosexuality.

What is most striking about Butler's central trope, gay drag, is that she uses it as though it were feminism's last, best hope, even though it is meant only to help her speak more shrewdly about heterosexual paradigms. If, "[i]n imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency"17, then further attention to "the imitative structure of gender itself" might be in order. Is gay drag the only thing that is going to reveal this structure to us?18 Or is there any room for such play—such "gender trouble"—in the everyday practices of heterosexual populations? Despite George Eliot's ambiguous sociosexual posturing, she repeatedly rebuffed the lesbian advances of Elma Stuart and Edith Simcox, telling Simcox that "she had never all her life cared very much for women."19 Eliot, then, would be unwilling to associate her "masculine" social predilections with some sort of libidinal interest in women. But if gay drag makes the gender binary available to feminism for subversive ends, as Butler argues, then perhaps something like straight drag would do the trick as well.20

By the age of 26, Eliot had become quite used to participating in a rigorous, intellectual, and masculine world, well aware, also, of the very conventions that had linked reason with masculinity in the first place. She had already completed translations of Alexandre Rudolf Vinet's Mémoire sur les libertés des cultes and David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, and when her unorthodox friend and confidant Charles Bray purchased the Coventry Herald, he found in Eliot a clever columnist and book reviewer. Eliot, in fact, had been moving quite comfortably within the Coventry intelligentsia for nearly 5 years. Yet, remarkably, she refused to reconceptualize her strength of intellect as an unsexed human attribute. She chose, instead, to account for her intellectual authority by reinventing her social identity. In other words, rather than feminize her intellect, Eliot set out to resolve the apparent social incongruities of her life by masculinizing her public and private persona.

The complex nature of Eliot's investment in the masculine becomes more intelligible if we examine a tongue-in-cheek letter that she sent to Bray in October of 1846. In the letter, Eliot spins a tale about a German professor who appears on her doorstep asking for her hand in marriage. The suitor, a Professor Bücherwurm ("Bookworm"), has come to London to "secure a translator in the person of a wife" and, at the recommendation of others, has determined that Eliot presents "the required combination of attributes": the ability to translate German, "a very decided ugliness of person," and a fortune sufficient to the publishing and smoking needs of the prolific scholar. Although she pleases him in most respects, he is compelled to confess that "I am rather disappointed to see that you have no beard, an attribute which I have ever regarded as the most unfailing indication of a strong-minded woman." Thrilled to be saved "from the horrific disgrace of spinster-hood," Eliot accepts the proposal and allays the professor's sole misgiving with the following response:

As to my want of beard I trust that defect may be remedied, since I doubt not there must be creams and essences which gentlemen … employ to cherish the too reluctant down, and it is an interesting physiological experiment yet to be tried, whether the feminine lip and chin may not be rendered fertile by this top-dressing.


Eliot's sense of her own large and manly physical features clearly amuses her, for she recognizes that the earnest self-deprecation of homely femininity turns out to be of a piece with the daily masculine affectations of any unfortunately effeminate young gentleman. She has no particular interest here in detaching her genius from the norm of masculinity, for in suggesting that a gentleman's toilette could produce the desired effects on either a man or a woman, she implies that the norm of masculinity is itself detached and available.

That this anecdote is conceived in the context of a traditional marriage proposal ensures that the "femaleness" of Eliot's body is not forgotten, however. The professor has come to London to take a wife, after all, not simply a translator. Here we see the dynamics of what Butler calls the "compulsory system" or "situation of duress under which gender performance always and variously occurs."22 By narrating a domestic scene, Eliot presents first the orthodoxy of the "original," the expectation that biological sex retains its essence beneath her investment in masculinity. But the link between masculinity and reason—scrupulously maintained as it is in the image of a bearded, strongminded woman—actually begins to call the female body into question. Eliot notes that "the Professor prefers as a female garb a man's coat, thrown over what are justly called the petti coats, so that the dress of a woman of genius may present the same sort of symbolical compromise between the masculine and feminine attire of which we have an example in the breastplate and petticoat of the immortal Joan."23 Once the professor accepts Eliot as a "woman of genius," Eliot's femaleness inevitably turns into femininity, a garb rather than an essence, as much an effect as the cultivation of facial hair. Accordingly, as the professor's translator-wife, Eliot enters a new sphere of action and influence that both depends upon and undermines the "compulsory system" that gives it social intelligibility. Unwilling to displace gender distinction altogether, Eliot never discards her petticoats; they give shape to the difference which distinguishes masculinity as politically serviceable to her. By putting a man's coat over her petticoats, therefore, she claims her social, intellectual, and professional freedoms out of the very sexual differences that she appears to contest.

So it is with pointed irony that 8 years after such raillery, in the course of praising the intellect of French women, Eliot turns to rebuke her British sisters for deigning to imitate men. In her 1854 review essay, "Woman in France," Eliot writes:

With a few remarkable exceptions, our own feminine literature is made up of books which could have been better written by men;… when not a feeble imitation, they are usually an absurd exaggeration of the masculine style, like the swaggering gait of a bad actress in male attire.


Eliot's brusqueness and lack of sympathy with women in general makes some sense so long as her identification with men takes on the character of a personal project of self-determination and success. But why admonish other women for choosing the same course for themselves? Why celebrate French women who "wrote what they saw, thought, and felt … without any intention to prove that women could write as well as men, without affecting manly views or suppressing womanly ones"?25

Eliot's discrimination between the mimicry of other women and her own intellectual cross-dressing derives from her assessment of the quality of the performance and the measure of dissonance that the impersonation generates. As I have suggested above, Butler valorizes drag as parody, pastiche, a "failed copy," as it were—the protraction of observable distance between sex, gender, and the gender performance.26 Because the drag queen is subversive only in her failure to "pass" as a straight woman, bad acting, for Butler, turns out to be feminism's chief stratagem. Eliot, on the other hand, would find such parodic impersonations unconvincing, absurd, unproductive. Instead, the careful, contrived style of social intercourse in the seventeenth-century French salon captures Eliot's attention as the gender performance par excellence, valued not only for its self-consciousness but also for its precision.

The evolution of social interaction between French men and women was founded first of all on what Eliot believed to be an earnest appreciation of sexual difference. Because the reigning "womanly characteristics" of the day included "affection," "imagination," and a "dread of what overtaxes [the] intellectual energies," these "réunions of both sexes" forced French women, on the one hand, to invent a "new standard of taste" and French men, on the other, to conform to it. Exalted sentiment and "simplicity of language" were all the rage in the salon; "everything was admissible, if only it were treated with refinement and intelligence." Hence, the great thinkers of the day (Balzac, Richelieu, La Rochefoucauld, to name a few) were expected to "present their best ideas in the guise most acceptable to intelligent and accomplished women." And the by-product? An increase in dramatic facility with every attempt at self-presentation, and a decrease in the margin between acting the part of the genius and acting the part of the man.27

In sum, Eliot's regard for this highly stylized form of social interaction ("genre précieux," as she calls it) is grounded not only in its performative character but also in its inherent attachment to the original ideas of the French men who frequented the salons. No mere pretense, the "guise" here is a form or genre, a kind of ad hoc self-fashioning, yes, but with roots embedded in a larger history of genius, intellectual communion, and liberty of thought and practice. Eliot goes on to critique some of the later imitative salons, where "simplicity degenerated into affectation, and nobility of sentiment was replaced by an inflated effort to outstrip nature."28 But what Eliot wants to duplicate in her own life is this so-called original "genre précieux," where to cross-dress, even metaphorically, is to do more than simply put on the trappings of masculinity; it is, rather, to be implicated in those myriad histories which underwrite the political significance of masculinity. Eliot, therefore, finds masculine traits and accoutrements to be insufficient as feminist ends in themselves. Women who imitate men badly are merely foolish rather than subversive, and remain unqualified to abandon the feminine sphere of thought and duty for larger social responsibilities and privileges.29 Given this attention to the meaning as well as the shape of masculinity, Eliot's defence of genre précieux is particularly provocative today in the face of renewed feminist interest in essentialism and the body.30 Although Eliot does not overlook the fact that gender is a mobile construct, she does appreciate an originality in gender that Butler misses, an essential promise of intellectual and social privilege that makes mimicking the observable silhouette of gender alone an inadequate strategy for her.

These subtle distinctions between the mobility and the originality of gender become somewhat clearer, at least theoretically, in a brief essay called "Notes on Form in Art" (1868). Eliot essentially re-evaluates prevailing aesthetic philosophies, offering in their stead an expressly organic reading of the constitutive elements of art, including, most importantly, form.

Even in the plastic arts Form obviously, in its general application, means something else than mere imitation of outline, more or less correctness of drawing or modelling—just as, with reference to descriptive poetry, it means something more than the bare delineation of landscape or figures.… Artistic form, as distinguished from mere imitation, begins in sculpture and painting with composition or the selection of attitudes and the formation of groups, let the objects be of what order they may.… [T]he choice and sequence of images and ideas—that is, of relations and groups of relations—are more or less not only determined by emotion but intended to express it.


Form is no mere frontage that can be imitated by the student without recourse to the idea that unifies a particular work of art. To capture and reproduce form, then, one must have some sense, or aesthetic sensibility, for the "design" or purpose that governs it.

Not surprisingly, Eliot applies her analysis of art to the human organism, the "highest Form." This analogy has its own significance in the context of her aesthetic inquiry, but it also helps us to reread Eliot's skepticism about the democratization of English society in general and the women's movement specifically. Eliot suggests that it is pointless to regard affectation or "airs of superiority" as the effects of "true culture." Such pretenses are nothing more than "mere acquisitions carried about, and not knowledge thoroughly assimilated so as to enter into the growth of the character."32 Where form (or gender) is reduced to "mere acquisitions," the return on one's investment is negligible. Masculinity is politically useful for Eliot only in so far as it is socially and intrinsically linked with genius. Silly lady novelists, on the other hand, have atomized gender and culture, copying the "mere outline" of what they deem to be socially empowering. Although it is important to remember that Eliot does not consider the "masculine" to be available exclusively to men, she is never tempted to feminize the power, privilege and society that she seeks. "Women become superior in France," she notes, "by being admitted to a common fund of ideas, to common objects of interest with men."33 Eliot recognizes that, at least for Victorian society, the value attached to these "ideas" and "objects of interest" proceeds from the judgement of men and governs the aspirations of men—even if some of those "men" are only playing at it.


In suggesting that we consider the resource of non-libidinal appropriations of masculinity by women, I have concentrated on a figure from the nineteenth century whose life and work were fashioned out of the expectation that equality between men and women would be worth pursuing personally and locally but that such equality must be manufactured from the very differences that threaten to suppress its further possibilities. Therefore we should take care not to construe Eliot's play at being a man as disregard for an "original" difference between herself and her model. The originality of gender—and hence its value—comes, for Eliot, out of history itself, out of the narratives that precede and follow traditions, institutions and nations, giving meaning to social and political order as well as to "the growth of the character." These histories are intrinsic to the experiences and identities of both individuals and groups, and while they may not be "essential," they are inevitable, at least within the contexts in which they are told.

Still, there are problems with using Eliot as a case-study for feminism today, problems that may be obscured by the antiseptic character of academic writing as well as by the historical and critical distance that scholarly work presupposes. David Lehman has wisely reminded us of Orwell's dictum that "[t]he problem of jargon … is that it can all too easily confer a bogus veneer of respectability on barbarous behavior."34 WhatIwantto consider now are the liabilities of a theoretical analysis of a role model for feminism. What dilemmas ensue when we celebrate, or perhaps construct, behaviors in Eliot that we would condemn in our own academic departments and political life?35

In her retrospective on feminism and the academy over the last 30 years, Mary Ellen S. Capek admits that what has been judged by many as feminist progress may have become, in fact, a new form of "barbarous behavior":

With few exceptions …, writers cited in the current debates about feminist literary theory are white scholars writing from bases in prestigious institutions, often writing in traditional male academic writing styles. This is not to knock success. In the process of staking our claims in the academy, however, we need not abstract ourselves from our sources.…As we struggle for tenure and recognition in the academy, tools that have helped us deconstruct embedded sexism and heterosexism in texts too often fail to help us find the embedded racism and classism, those status needs that shape our own language and styles of discourse.


In reconsidering the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexual preference, Capek believes that contemporary feminist appropriations of "male academic writing styles" are no longer about a feminist assault on the Old Boys Club.37 According to Capek, the "status needs" that have driven the individual feminist to mimic masculine virility have left intact other forms of discrimination (racism and classism) and thus support a picture of feminism that is corrosive at best, spurious at worst. Should we be surprised, then, when stories of Eliot's repeated affronts against her female contemporaries and friends as well as her frequent opposition to the women's movement begin to lose their theoretical appeal upon closer inspection?

Furthermore, were we to follow Eliot in her insistence that mimicking mannerism isn't enough—that we must reach further into the heart of masculinity to find genius, to find a solid basis on which to build notions of responsibility and freedom for women—then we would come into direct conflict with feminist theorists and philosophers such as Elizabeth Grosz, Carole Pateman, Sandra Harding, Teresa de Lauretis and Dale Spender, who have been instrumental in piloting a systematic critique of knowledges in the interest of maintaining "an essential difference between a feminist and a non-feminist understanding" of "woman, women, and the world."38 These theorists read the quest for equality as both delusive and distracting, and propose instead a feminist program for theorizing women's specificity en route to securing women's autonomy from rather than equality with men. This strategy, it is argued, works toward not only disabling men as a dominant class but also undermining their position as a standard for comparison. Eliot's reliance on a masculinist definition of genius would ultimately defeat the purpose of that investment for feminism, according to these critics, and contribute "to the very forms of male dominance feminism should be trying to combat."39

Without further elaboration, these two brief examples illustrate the likelihood of theoretical slippage when feminists try to write a coherent and continuous history of feminism.40 Why, for example, don't feminists of earlier generations ever appear adequate to the collective cause of later generations, and what are we to do with this inadequacy, this inappropriateness, this annoying naiveté, if not to disavow it? Have we given up too much when we theorize the possibilities that inhere in a nineteenth-century feminist strategy of straight drag? And what fundamental contradictions are produced by calling this strategy "feminist" in the first place?

We would not go wrong in remembering the slogan with which Fredric Jameson christened the preface of his book, The Political Unconscious. "Always historicize!" he exhorts, and with that in mind, Eliot's investment in masculinity takes on a radically contingent character.41 We begin to see that the narrative which links masculinity with both genius and its consequent philosophical and political liberties is a narrative that is subtly transformed every time women tap into its logic. Over time, as this narrative shifts under the inclinations of feminist play, the terms of that play will shift as well, in response to the specificities of what is original to masculinity at given moments in history. Hence the so-called inadequacy of Eliot's investments, from a late twentieth-century feminist perspective, reflects not Eliot's lack of relevance as a feminist but masculinity's lack of fixity and unity as a cultural and historical product. For if it is true that "the pervasive threat of misogyny brought into being feminist discourse," to quote Susan Gubar, then where that threat migrates, feminist discourse will tend to follow.42

The nature of these misogynist and feminist migrations, however, goes beyond a simple game of follow the leader. Even Susan Gubar's dialogic theory—where feminism and misogyny are said to "bob and weave" or "feint and jab" their way through history43—does not account for feminism's own investments in masculinity in feminist terms. Although Eliot's intellectual cross-dressing emerged first and foremost from personal ambition, defined by a set of goals achievable in her lifetime (respect, intellectual and vocational fulfillment, public mobility), her value as a role model for feminism turns on a different axis altogether, one that draws our attention to the marked historicity not only of straight drag but of feminism itself.

In the first instance, we learn from Eliot to read straight drag as a means (of critique), not an end (to inequality). In forcing us to recognize that straight drag is neither ahistorical nor revolutionary, this lesson heightens our awareness of the broad spectrum of women's oppressions and fosters, more generally, a healthy realism to counter the utopian strains of some feminist theory and activism. Thus, we see that even as straight drag mimics potency, it is ultimately impotent (at least in a revolutionary sense) and must repeat itself in order to put any critical strain on misogyny. When the feminist woman "aspires to be like a man," both the narrative and physical features said to constitute masculinity lose their political importance as a mark of difference, and misogyny is forced to revise its justifications and move on. Acting like a man, then, does not have to be about women suppressing the historical specificity of their own gendered subjectivity, nor must it mean that women think themselves historically, if not essentially, inferior to men and hence rely on legislation to answer this inequality. Rather, straight drag—a non-utopian feminist strategy—simply publishes the fault lines concealed by the story that unifies masculinity and power. What it does not do is produce any sort of equality that should ever satisfy us.

This tack, of course, repeatedly compels misogyny to reconsolidate masculinity, to invent new marks of difference even as it loses the efficacy of its old ones. Hence the crisis of feminism in an age of backlash: if feminist play invokes new and reactionary forms of misogyny, feminism could be said to circulate the very thing it seeks to disrupt. Furthermore, straight drag, by definition, is unable to bring about any end to masculinity as an organic product of history and culture and is limited, at best, to motivating the perpetual mutation of the political functions of masculinity. While it is true, then, that feminism is to some extent implicated in misogyny, it is not the repetition or mimicry of masculinity itself that puts the integrity of the feminist project at risk, but the way in which straight drag obliges misogyny to reinvent itself in order to survive. More specifically, if Eliot is to be labelled a misogynist, it is not her manliness that should give us pause but the fact that her play will, over time, render the identification of masculinity with intellectual authority politically moot and force the narratives which underwrite sexual hierarchy to reinvest in another site of sexual difference—say, for instance, citizenship.

It could be argued that the reactions and consequences which feminism invites by virtue of its critical methods stand beyond the scope of feminist responsibility. I would assert, to the contrary, that this is perhaps the only real risk feminism ever takes—and it is, indeed, feminism's distinctive wager. There is still room for women to agitate "as duplicate men" precisely because the benefits of such agitation have been repeatedly embraced, however grudgingly, by almost anyone willing to call herself a feminist today. Recognizing and then taking responsibility for the limitations of egalitarian feminism has, for example, enabled someone like Elizabeth Grosz to build a theory of sexual difference atop, as well as in spite of, a foundation of legislative progress for women over the past 150 years. This is not to say that Grosz is uninterested in critiquing equality politics. Such a critique is clearly one of her chief aims in re-evaluating knowledges that have been produced by men and uncritically mimicked by women. But where feminism begins to accept its byproducts for what they are likely to bring with them, critics such as Grosz are compelled to presuppose, even as they investigate, the hallmarks of egalitarian feminism. Along with the prohibitive perspective of phallocentric institutions comes the irresistible materiality of women's greater access to education; the pernicious "double load" and equitable child custody laws are available only as a package deal. Whatever beginnings, means, or ends feminism is ready to avow—without going so far as to sanction wholesale—constitutes the measure of feminism's responsibility to itself.

Today, a feminist's contributions as a woman will always also include her satisfactions in emulating men (whether she argues for equality or not) because the material resources and institutional supports on which her work depends are rooted in feminisms of equality. This wider frame of reference also gives the feminist access to a larger battery of techniques and perspectives that compel greater nuance in comprehending and describing the nature of women's oppressions. The risks of this expansiveness may mean that the future of feminism is uncertain, but its past will be less so, since the paradox of what feminism wants will always require the divisions, gaps, misunderstandings and multiple origins that define feminism historically, no matter what is in or out of vogue at the time.


  1. George Eliot (6 December 1857) "Journal Entry," The George Eliot Letters (Ed. Gordon S. Haight; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-55), vol. 2, p. 409.
  2. Ina Taylor (1989) A Woman of Contradictions: The Life of George Eliot (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.), pp. 67, 103-105.
  3. Jacques Derrida (1978) Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles/Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche (tr. Barbara Harlow; Intro. Stefano Agosti; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 65.
  4. Taylor, A Woman of Contradictions, p. 188.
  5. Ibid., p. 171.
  6. George Eliot (October 1856) "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Westminster Review, 56, p. 254.
  7. For a good summary of feminist reaction to George Eliot's fiction, see Ellen Ringler (1983) "Middlemarch: A Feminist Perspective," Studies in the Novel, 15.1, pp. 55-61. For a more recent picture of Eliot's reception history among feminists, see Jeanie Thomas (1988) Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press), pp. 47-65; Laurie Langbauer (1990) Women and Romance: The Consolations of Gender in the English Novel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), pp. 188-232.
  8. Christina Crosby (1991) The Ends of History: Victorians and "The Woman Question" (New York: Routledge), pp. 42-43.
  9. See Susan Gubar's recent work on "feminist misogyny." As Gubar puts it, "although feminism historically has not been the condition for misogyny's emergence, the pervasive threat of misogyny brought into being feminist discourse." The two are lifelong "slam dance" partners in dialogic relation to one another, co-implicated in one another's projects to such a degree that traces of both feminism and misogyny can be teased out of virtually every major author and work of the literary canon (Susan Gubar [1995] "Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of 'It Takes One to Know One,'" Feminism Beside Itself [Eds Diane Elam & Robyn Wiegman; New York: Routledge], pp. 142, 144).
  10. Some critics have begun to challenge openly the notion that collectivity is politically necessary or desirable at all for feminism, although I am not sure to what extent this shift can ever be achieved self-consciously. I am thinking, in particular, of the anthology Feminism Beside Itself, co-edited by Diane Elam & Robyn Wiegman, as well as its companion conference held at Indiana University in April of 1995. In both cases, the governing logic of the editors/organizers betrays an orchestration behind the discord—perhaps a remnant of anxieties about giving up the political leverage of unity too soon?
  11. Nancy Cott (1987) The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press), p. 5.
  12. Karin Cope might argue that my refusal to absolve or "exonerate" Eliot is a presumption of greater authority on the part of my feminism because of its apparently more enlightened (read: later) position in feminist history, and is likewise an attempt to reify the shifting moral values that label someone a role model in one age and a misanthrope in another. Cope's point is well taken, although my desire to preserve Eliot's misogyny in all its offensiveness does not stem from my disappointment in her as a feminist "foremother." Rather, I simply want to take seriously this example of feminism's masculine investments in order to understand more clearly how feminism might be served by them. Karin Cope (1995) "'Moral Deviancy' and Contemporary Feminism: The Judgment of Gertrude Stein," in Feminism Beside Itself, pp. 155-178.
  13. Judith Butler (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge), p. viii.
  14. Butler, Gender Trouble.
  15. Ibid., p. 30.
  16. Ibid., pp. 146, 127.
  17. Ibid., p. 137 (Butler's emphasis).
  18. As Diana Fuss assesses the problem, "[m]uch lesbian-feminist theory sets up the lesbian subject as a natural agent of subversion, an inherent revolutionary subject." While Butler makes several attempts to distance herself from this sort of valorization (particularly in her discussion of Monique Wittig in chapter 3, part 3), her theory of gender performativity is too dependent on gay drag to avoid this problem altogether (Diana Fuss [1989] Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference [New York: Routledge], p. 46).
  19. Gordon S. Haight (1968) George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 535; see also Taylor, A Woman of Contradictions, pp. 207-209.
  20. The lack of theoretical attention given to straight drag becomes even more remarkable when Butler quotes Parker Tyler's "The Garbo Image" in an epigraph: "Garbo 'got in drag' whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man's arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck … bear the weight of her thrown-back head.…How resplendent seems the art of acting! It is all impersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not" (Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 128). Although I am interested primarily in Butler's oversight with regard to straight forms of cross-sexual drag, one wonders why she does not use this epigraph to launch an extended analysis of what might turn out to be the most subversive form of drag - an excess of femininity on the female body.
  21. George Eliot (21 October 1846) "George Eliot to Charles Bray," in The George Eliot Letters, 9 vols (Ed. Gordon S. Haight; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-55, 1978), vol. 8, pp. 13, 14.
  22. Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 139.
  23. Eliot, "George Eliot to Charles Bray," p. 15.
  24. George Eliot (October 1854) "Woman in France: Madame de Sablé," Westminster Review, 62, p. 448.
  25. Ibid., p. 449. Elsewhere, Eliot praises Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century because "[t]here is no exaggeration of woman's moral excellence or intellectual capabilities, no injudicious insistence on her fitness for this or that function hitherto engrossed by men" (George Eliot [13 October 1855] "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft," The Leader, 6, p. 988).
  26. Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 146, 137.
  27. Eliot, "Woman in France," pp. 452-453.
  28. Ibid., p. 453.
  29. It is worth noting that ethical responsibility and aesthetic genius were always linked in Eliot's mind. Both were the chief measure of a masculinity to which she aspired; both were void of the femininity which she often disparaged: "For it must be plain to every one who looks impartially and extensively into feminine literature, that its greatest deficiencies are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence—patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer's art" (Eliot, "Silly Novels," p. 319).
  30. See, for example, Elizabeth Grosz (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press); Rosi Braidotti (1991) Patterns of Dissonance (Cambridge: Polity Press); Naomi Schor & Elizabeth Weed (Eds) (1994) the essential difference (Bloomington: Indiana University Press); Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking.
  31. George Eliot (1868) "Notes on Form in Art," in Rosemary Ashton (Ed.) (1992) George Eliot: Selected Critical Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 356-357.
  32. Eliot, "Margaret Fuller," p. 989.
  33. Eliot, "Woman in France," p. 472.
  34. David Lehman (1992) Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (New York: Poseidon Press), p. 89.
  35. Here again Karin Cope's insightful essay is relevant as I consider the extent to which feminists of an earlier generation can be ethically appropriate or politically expedient role models for later generations, given the contingency of moral value and politics (Karin Cope, "'Moral Deviancy' and Contemporary Feminism").
  36. Mary Ellen S. Capek (1992) "Post-Tweeds, Pipes, and Textosterone: Perspectives on Feminism, Literary Studies, and the Academy," in The Knowledge Explosion: Generations of Feminist Scholarship (Eds Cheris Kramarae & Dale Spender; New York: Teachers College Press), pp. 74-75.
  37. For further reflection on the question of academic writing and feminism, see Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres (1992) "Editorial: On Writing Feminist Academic Prose," Signs, 17, pp. 701-704.
  38. Teresa de Lauretis (1994) "The Essence of the Triangle or, Taking the Risk of Essentialism Seriously: Feminist Theory in Italy, the US, and Britain," the essential difference, p.1. See also Elizabeth Gross & Carole Pateman (Eds) (1986) Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory (Boston: Northeastern University Press); Sandra Harding & Merrill B. Hintikka (Eds) (1983) Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and the Philosophy of Science (Dordrecht: Reidel); Dale Spender (Ed.) (1981) Men's Studies Modified: The Impact of Feminism on Academic Knowledge (London: Pergamon).
  39. Elizabeth Grosz (1994) "Sexual Difference and the Problem of Essentialism," in the essential difference, pp. 90-91, 82. Judith Allen provides an excellent bibliographic history of the emergence of the feminist critique of knowledges in the late 1970s and its commitments up to the present day (Judith A. Allen [1992] "Feminist Critiques of Western Knowledges: Spatial Anxieties in a Provisional Phase?" in Beyond the Disciplines: The New Humanities [Ed. K. K. Ruthven; Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities], pp. 57-77).
  40. For a discussion of some of the assumptions of periodization and classification that have kept historians of feminism locked into unproductive methods of historiography, see Judith Allen (1990) "Contextualising Late-Nineteenth-Century Feminism: Problems and Comparisons," Journal of the CHA/Revue de la S.H.C., pp. 17-36.
  41. Fredric Jameson (1981) The political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), p. 9.
  42. Gubar, "Feminist Misogyny," p. 142. This is not to say that men and masculinity are logically prior to women and femininity, or that women are or should be defined relative to men. But it would be a mistake to think that feminism as a political and theoretical strategy is not guided in important ways by the character of the misogyny and patriarchalism it aims to undermine.
  43. Ibid.

Principal Works

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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: 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 them "joy in things for their own sake" (L V:107). While George Eliot laments their lack of fulfillment, she insists, especially in her early works, on its necessity.

Prior to the revival of interest in George Eliot in the fifties, most readers had seen her as conservative, if not retrograde, in advocating women's rights—"shar[ing] the conventional Victorian views of a woman's proper role" (Spacks 58).3 At the same time, readers have always seen Middlemarch as posing the Woman Question. And many, like Virginia Woolf, affected by George Eliot's seeming identification with her aspiring heroines,4 and by her criticism of the oppression women suffer, have sensed that she rebels against women's conventional roles.

Since the seventies, feminists interested in George Eliot have been preoccupied with trying to ascertain her precise position on the Woman Question. At first, feminists, looking for support in one who had successfully rebelled against society's strictures on a woman's pursuing a vocation outside marriage, but, persuaded, as Kate Millet says, that George Eliot's advocacy of women's right to vocations is little more than "an eloquent plea" (139), often denounced one by whom they felt betrayed.5 then, when her critics had exhausted the vein they worked, others began to reclaim George Eliot as one of them. Some argued that she infuses the conventionally feminine with dignity, rejecting the notion that women's different nature makes them inferior to men.6 Others suggested that she views women as intellectually equal to men and deserving of the same autonomy, though tempering her enthusiasm for women's pursuit of the vocations men enjoy.7

But no one has seen in George Eliot that "healthy anger" that Ellin Ringler regards as appropriate in an author who depicts the imbalance between male and female strength (59). No one disputes Françoise Basch's contention that George Eliot's awareness of woman's tragedy "never leads to militant feminism" (94), or Jeanie G. Thomas's that George Eliot's sensibility is not "a reforming one" (393; cf. 412).8 Without disputing that George Eliot is ambivalent, I want to suggest that she presents her most authentic view of the Woman Question in Middlemarch, and that that novel is a systematic indictment of a society that proscribes achievement for women—an indictment that tears at the very fabric of the social order. I shall show that, in Middlemarch, George Eliot denies that women do good by sacrificing, rather than fulfilling, themselves; and, demonstrating that men do appreciable good only when allowed to develop their own potentialities in a sympathetic environment, I will argue that she damns a society that deliberately deprives women of such an environment, only to satisfy its own selfish interests.


Though Dorothea yearns to find a channel for doing great good, she fails both in her chosen vocation as helpmate to her first husband and in her attempts to secure independent work. Readers have often explained her failure to do good to Casaubon, her first husband, by saying that she was selfishly concerned to do what she, rather than he, sees as helpful (see Harvey, "Intro." 14-16). But while George Eliot admires Dorothea's ultimate attainment of selflessness, she does not (always allowing for her ambivalence) confound this virtue with doing good, as in her early novels (where a superhuman ideal of selflessness only makes George Eliot irrelevant for the modern reader). On the contrary, she seems to make Dorothea conform to the nineteenth-century ideal of women as self-sacrificing in order to explode the common view and show that a woman does good by fulfilling herself—by following her bliss, to use Joseph Campbell's phrase (see, e.g., Hero's Journey 33, 63-66, 210-214).

Intending to do good by trying to make herself into the person Casaubon wants her to be, Dorothea, "shut[ting] her best soul in prison" (xlii, II: 374), becomes a veritable Griselda. But no sooner does she attain this character than she understands that her self-sacrifice will be useless. Prepared to pledge that she will carry on Casaubon's work after his death, she knows she is consigning herself "to work as in a treadmill fruitlessly" (xlviii, III: 94). Only after his death, when "Dorothea's native strength of will was no longer all converted into resolute submission" (liv, III: 198)—when, possibly superstitious, she writes him that she will not go on with his work: "I could not submit my soul to yours, by working hopelessly at what I have no belief in" (liv, III: 202)—does she do good.

All her major acts after Casaubon's death show her doing good by following her inner warrant in opposition to society, though readers often cite two of these acts as evidence that Dorothea has finally become self-sacrificing and submissive enough to do good. Learning that Lydgate's reputation is besmirched, she sets about clearing his name. In disregarding others' "cautious weighing of consequences" (lxxii, IV: 180), she is seemingly moved by the same self-sacrificing passion to do good as Fedalma envisions in disciples spending their all, even if vainly, to save Christ from the cross (SG I: 154). But doing good being what she likes, she is by no means disregarding her own will. "The idea of some active good within her reach 'haunted her like a passion,' and another's need having once come to her as a distinct image, preoccupied her desire with the yearning to give relief" (lxxvi, IV: 230). Moreover, Dorothea succeeds in helping Lydgate because, in following her own inner warrant, she ignores the world's opposition. George Eliot creates an entire chapter to show that Farebrother, James, Brooke, and Celia all object to Dorothea's involving herself in Lydgate's problems. Likewise, in order to carry out her crowning work of charity—the ministrations that save Rosamond's marriage—Dorothea, believing that Rosamond has robbed her forever of all joy, must clutch her own pain. Yet because "[s]he yearned towards the perfect Right" (lxxx, IV: 282), her apparent self-denial is self-fulfillment—"self-forgetful ardour" (lxxxi, IV: 293). Furthermore, George Eliot seems bent on suggesting that Dorothea acts in opposition to public opinion. Even though no third person presumably knows what Dorothea says to Rosamond, George Eliot says that if Dorothea had not undertaken to save Rosamond, "why, she perhaps would have been a woman who gained a higher character for discretion, but it would certainly not have been as well for [Rosamond, Lydgate, and Ladislaw]" (lxxxii, IV: 309). Finally, defying both Casaubon's and society's proscription, she marries Ladislaw. And because she could have liked nothing better than that she should give Ladislaw "wifely help," she becomes the helpmate Casaubon had rejected, living a life of "beneficent activity" (Finale, IV: 366, 365) by fulfilling herself.

When Dorothea follows her own passionate impulses, she does the good that her renunciations do not accomplish. But despite her ardor, she never succeeds in building cottages, becoming learned, or founding a village. At the end of the novel, she tells her sister that she could never do anything she liked (lxxxiv, IV: 340). What good she accomplishes is "not widely visible" (Finale, IV: 371). And since George Eliot sees doing good as the summum bonum, she laments Dorothea's failure—laments it especially because it is not in "the supreme unalterable nature of things" ("Address to Working Men" 10).


Asking herself in this novel what in the nature of things enables one to do good, George Eliot argues that success requires commitment to follow one's "inward vocation" (L VI: 438; FH xxvii, II: 181), which in turn requires sympathetic support, especially of a spouse. Ranging over the whole of her society in this "Study of Provincial Life," she depicts each of her main male characters as encountering difficulties at the outset of his career that tempt him to succumb to the pressures of the world—either to ignore "the voices within" (xv, I: 254) in choosing a vocation, or to get entangled in money cares that cause him to abandon his calling. Only by marrying "a good unworldly woman" (xvii, I: 314) whom he cherishes as a partner—an intellectual equal—can he weather the battle with the Adam within and without (see xvii, I: 311-12), and succeed. He who marries one unsympathetic to his concerns or one his equal whom he refuses to regard as a partner—because supported in his vanity by tradition and a priori assumptions that women are ornaments, toys, or nurses—fails. Whereas, in Felix Holt, Esther says the lot of a woman depends on the love she accepts (xliii, III: 149-50; cf. M xxv, II: 58), in Middlemarch, George Eliot says the lot of a man depends on the love he accepts (see xv, I: 257).

Different as they are, Lydgate, Casaubon, Bulstrode, and Farebrother, for want of sharing their concerns with a sympathetic wife, all abandon their true vocations and so fail.

Classmates surely would have voted for Lyd-gate as the man most likely to succeed. "He was one of the rarer lads who early get a decided bent and make up their minds that there is something particular in life which they would like to do for its own sake, and not because their fathers did it" (xv, I: 253). Despite opposition from his guardian, Lydgate in pursuing medicine, which he considers "the grandest profession in the world" (xlv, III: 53; cf. xv, I: 258), is, as Farebrother says, "in the right profession, the work you feel yourself most fit for" (xvii, I: 314). But Lydgate never becomes another Vesalius. For when he tries to enlist his wife's aid, she, not identifying her interests with his, sabotages every one of his expedients for paying their creditors, with the result that he capitulates to the way of the world, renouncing his aspirations in order to amass money. Giving adornment "the first place among wifely functions" (xi, I: 163) and supposing it characteristic "of the feminine mind to adore a man's pre-eminence without too precise a knowledge of what it consisted in" (xxvii, II: 77), Lydgate supposed he had found the ideal wife in a conventional, small-souled woman. Too late he learns that to have married help, not care, he must have been able to accord equality to a wife who, like Dorothea, would share his concerns.9

Casaubon, regarding his scholarship as "an outward requirement," by which he is to acquit himself in the eyes of others (xxix, II: 102), is driven by none of Lydgate's enthusiasm for his work. But, having married a good unworldly woman, he, unlike Lydgate, has help at hand. "[A]nxious to follow [the] spontaneous direction of his thought" (xx, I: 357), Dorothea might have enabled him to refocus his energies; "in spite of her small instruction, her judgment in this matter [of his opus] was truer than his" (xlviii, III: 92). But the same male ego that kept Lydgate from choosing a proper wife keeps Casaubon from seeing in his wife the "heaven-sent angel" (xlii, II: 372) he needs. Like Lydgate, having married "to adorn his life with the graces of female companionship, to irradiate the gloom which fatigue was apt to hang over the intervals of studious labour with the play of female fancy, and to secure … the solace of female tendance for his declining years" (vii, I: 104); and expecting his wife to observe "his abundant pen-scratches and amplitude of paper with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary-bird" (xx, I: 363), he regards one who exhibits a mind as something he had to contend against (see xxix, II: 105), and thus he "achieve[s] nothing" (xlii, II: 357).

Bulstrode likewise fails because, like Casaubon, he seeks mastery in marriage and rejects the wifely help at hand. Like Lydgate, he early felt called to his work, but, seduced by the opportunity to make easy money that ultimately leads him to disgrace, he abandoned his dream of becoming a missionary. Candor with his first wife, "a simple pious woman" (lxi, III: 348), would have saved him by forcing him to give up a dishonest trade.

Like Lydgate, Farebrother is a clever man who does not fulfill the promise of his nature (see motto to xvii, I: 301). Possibly influenced by a dominating mother, whose father was a clergyman, he took "the fatal step of choosing the wrong profession" (xl, II: 333). Without interest in the Church, he is no more than "a decent makeshift" of a clergyman (xvii, I: 316). In love with Mary Garth and conscious that a woman may play so important a part in a man's life that "to renounce her may be a very good imitation of heroism" (lxvi, IV: 75), he might well have turned out differently if he had had Fred's luck in winning her. But he did not win her, and he cannot do anything remarkable.10

Those who succeed are no more ambitious or able, no less liable to difficulties, than those who fail. But Caleb Garth, Fred Vincy, and Will Ladislaw succeed because, truly loving one who identifies her interests with his, each is able to stay focused on his true vocation.

Garth, motivated by his love of "business" (xxiv, II: 45; xl, II: 329; see also lvi, III: 238-39; lxxxvi, IV: 354), has pursued the work that had early been to him as poetry, philosophy, and religion (xxiv, II: 44-45)—the work that he regards as "the most honourable work that is" (xl, II: 329; see also xl, II: 321). But unable to manage finances, he once failed in his business (xxiii, II: 8). Only because he leaned on his exemplary wife, who "[a]doring her husband's virtues" (xxiv, II: 29), devoted herself to supporting his aims, did he ultimately succeed. Only because he so much respected his wife's opinion that he took no important step without consulting her—in fact, allowed her to rule in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred (lvi, III:247)—did he survive his money difficulties to become another Cincinnatus. As Farebrother says, without the partnership with his wife, Garth would hardly have pulled through (xvii, I: 314). With the partnership, Caleb, like his Biblical namesake, sees the promised land.

Fred, at the beginning of the novel, is as unpromising as Lydgate is promising. Desirous of feeding "a good appetite for the best of everything" (xii, I: 210), and pressured by parents to follow a genteel profession, he threatens to follow Bulstrode in letting the desire for money determine his vocation. But "thoroughly in love" (xiv, I: 248) with one who makes the condition of marriage with him renunciation of both his extravagant habits and a vocation in the Church for which he has neither taste nor aptitude, he takes up farming for which he has a penchant. Because he cherishes the love of a good, enlightened woman, he succeeds in becoming a distinguished farmer.

Ladislaw, not having early discovered his vocation, resists pressure that would make him "submissive to ordinary rule" (ix, I: 138)—in settling in a solid profession. Understanding that "[o]ur sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettanteism [sic]" (xlvi, III: 59), he awaits "those messages from the universe which summon [genius] to its peculiar work" (x, I: 141; see also 142). But, abundant only "in uncertain promises" (xlvii, III: 78), though brilliant (xxxvii, II: 246; lxii, III: 369), he might have remained a dilettante but for his dread of doing what the woman he worships would disapprove (xxxvii, II: 263, 265; lxxvii, IV: 251). Without hope of winning Dorothea, he not only thinks to work at "the first thing that offers" (lxii, III: 377), but, dallying with a married woman, sees himself sliding "into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance" (lxxix, IV: 272) that destroys Lydgate. With hope of winning Dorothea, he disentangles himself from Rosamond's snares and refuses to compromise himself by accepting Bulstrode's ill-gotten money (lxi, III: 362; lxxxiii, IV: 318). Married to Dorothea, he fulfills his dream of becoming an important reformer (see li, III: 146). For, humble enough to take "the pressure of [everyone's] thought instead of [like Casaubon] urging his own with iron resistance" (l, III: 126), and so respecting Dorothea's opinion (see xxii, I: 385; xxxvii, II: 251) that his feeling for her was "like the inheritance of a fortune" (xlvii, III: 74), he makes a partner of his wife. Readers who judge Ladislaw unworthy of Dorothea because of his dilettantism and dependence on a beloved woman are approving the conformist values George Eliot contemns.

None of her usual ambivalence infects the answer George Eliot gives in these stories to the question what enables one to do good. At the height of her career in 1871, she is writing out of experience that made her believe "devoutly in a natural difference of vocation" (xxii, I: 405) and in the worker's need for a sympathetic spouse. Unattached and lonely for years, during which she lost hope of ever fulfilling her dream of writing a novel (L II: 406), during which she could scarcely envision any future for herself except as the lamp-holder Dorothea aspires to,11 Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot only because, faithful to her "inward vocation,"12 she linked her life to one who, caring more for her work than for his own (see L II: 260; III: 179; IV: 59; V: 175, 215, 261, 322; VI: 380), anxiously watched over her career. Having refused a marriage that would have "involve[d] too great a sacrifice of her mind and pursuits" (L I: 184)—having understood the difficulty for "a woman [to] keep her steadfastness / Beneath a frost within her husband's eyes / Where coldness scorches" ("Armgart" ii, Legend, 1st ed., 110)—George Eliot succeeded because she formed a liaison with one whose "perfect love and sympathy" stimulated her to "healthful activity" (L II: 343).


The stories of George Eliot's male characters suggest that Dorothea Casaubon fails to effect great good because she can neither follow her bliss, except in befriending the Lydgates, nor secure her husband's approval. But why is Dorothea, married to Ladislaw—a sympathetic spouse, modelled on George Eliot's helpmate—"absorbed into the life of another" and "only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother" (Finale, IV: 366)? The answer is that the "epic life" she hungers after requires not only nurturing by a spouse but by society. Society's support is not lacking for the males in the novel, for an androcentric world approves of a man's pursuing a vocation, whereas it condemns a woman's ardor for meaningful work outside marriage as "extravagance" (Prelude, I: vii). And in a world where "the social air in which mortals begin to breathe" (Finale, IV: 370) lends no encouragement to the aspiring woman, where Dorothea's ardor finds no answering response in anyone but Ladislaw (xxii, I: 401; xxxvii, II: 252; see also xxviii, II: 89-90), she feels stymied. Never able to rally support for her projects (Celia regards Dorothea's interest in drawing plans for cottages as only a "favourite fad" [iv, I: 56]), she gives up. She says she might have done something better if she had been better, but no one in her environs "stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done" (lxxxiv, IV: 342; Finale, IV: 366). In passages that enclose Dorothea's story—and George Eliot specifically directed a friend to the Prelude for an explanation of the story (L V: 330)—George Eliot plainly tells us that Dorothea fails because she cannot carve a life for herself outside "the framework of things" (xiii, I: 225).13 Forewarning us in the Prelude that Dorothea is a St. Theresa who is "helped by no coherent social faith and order" (I: vi), George Eliot explains in the Finale that Dorothea's "tragic failure" (Prelude, I: vi) is due to "the conditions of an imperfect social state" (Cabinet ed. III: 464), "[f]or there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it" (IV: 370; cf. SM iii, 40; FH iii, I: 88; see also MF VI, vi, III: 76; R xxi, VI: 577; M, motto to iv, I: 52).

Some strong souls will say that an unsympathetic environment is too simple-minded an explanation for Dorothea's failure. Assuming that genius will out regardless of circumstances, or perhaps unwilling to assume responsibility for having sent their infecting breath toward Dorothea (see xv, I: 257; see also Finale, IV: 370), some have insisted that Dorothea would have succeeded had she had the ability (as Maggie, had she had the initiative).14 But George Eliot stresses the worker's need for a sympathetic environment. In "Amos Barton," she had written, "That is a deep and wide saying, that no miracle can be wrought without faith—without the worker's faith in himself, as well as the recipient's faith in him. And the greatest part of the worker's faith in himself is made up of the faith that others believe in him" (ii, 7). In 1863, she commiserated with her friend Barbara Bodichon, who, living abroad, felt cut off from any artistic society that would help her and feed her faith:

It is hard to believe long together that anything is "worth while" unless there is some eye to kindle in common with our own, some brief word uttered now and then to imply that what is infinitely precious to us is precious alike to another mind. I fancy that, to do without that guarantee, one must be rather insane—one must be a bad poet, or a spinner of impossible theories or an inventor of impossible machinery.

(L IV: 119)15

In Middlemarch, George Eliot concerns herself with the influence of domestic conditions on success. But in other works, she shows that ardent men succeed or fail according as society smiles or frowns on them.16 The Rev. Mr. Tryan, supported by his congregation, does great good, but his pastoral work is cut short by his early death, due partially to his enemies' persecution of him; dependent on sympathy, suffering acutely from hatred and ridicule ("JR" viii, 203), and seeing death as the only escape (see xviii, 467), he "seemed bent on wearing himself out" (xi, 333). In "The Lifted Veil," written when George Eliot was suffering keenly over idle talk about her authorship, Latimer, endowed with the poet's sensibility but deprived of "the listening ear and answering soul"—suffering from "a fatal solitude of soul"—never becomes a poet: his nature "grew up in an uncongenial medium, which could never foster it into happy, healthy development" (i, 26). Savonarola is a formidable power as long as his party is dominant; when an antagonistic government imprisons him, he loses the faith in himself that no one, lacking external support, can sustain without "a stupid inflexibility of self-confidence" (R lxxi, VIII: 146), and withal his influence. Felix Holt, foiled by circumstances in which he is a lone voice crying in the wilderness, argues that he does not fear failure (FH xlv, III: 201), but, like Dorothea and George Eliot, he eventually moves away from his old home, presumably in search of a more sympathetic community. Zarca is, except for an assassin's blow, destined to save his people because he inspires their "savage loyalty" (SG V: 338). Daniel Deronda has good hopes of uniting his people because he feels supported by his ancestors and friends.

Except for Janet, who does not aspire to independent work, all George Eliot's ardent, idealistic heroines, who "care supremely for great and general benefits to mankind" (DD xlvi, III: 308), fail to find permanent, fulfilling work outside marriage because the world no more favors their aspirations than Dorothea's. Dinah gives up preaching when it is no longer sanctioned by the Wesleyan Conference. As "the only way of escaping opprobrium, and being entirely in harmony with circumstances" (MF I, xi, I: 193), Maggie renounces her aspirations for love and learning. Romola, commanded by Savonarola, abandons her hope to live as "an instructed woman" and devotes herself to charitable labors, for which "[s]he had no innate taste" (R xxxvi, VII: 25; xliv, VII: 294). Fedalma, obeying her father's commands, renounces love and undertakes the futile, and hence dreary, task of governing her people.

Behind George Eliot's insistence on the worker's need for sympathy lies her own insatiable need for it, which proceeds from insecurity so deep that she could write in 1859, "[I]t is so difficult to believe what the world does not believe, so easy to believe what the world keeps repeating" (L III: 44). Necessary as Lewes's constant support was to her, it was not sufficient. She craved universal praise. Her "extraordinary diffidence" (L V: 228) having kept her from writing for years, she was so depressed by adverse criticism that she could continue to write only by ignoring criticism. Lewes wrote in 1862, "A thousand eulogies would not give her the slightest confidence, but one objection would increase her doubts" (L IV: 58; see also III: 157, 164, 397; IV: 481; VI: 218, 224, 318). But even general popularity did not satisfy her after the early years of her authorship; she must have understanding and influence (see L III: 198; V: 213, 228, 229, 244, 245, 250, 367, 374; VI: 258, 379; Selections 370). Repeatedly she wrote her worshippers that their approval, after her husband's, was encouragement she desperately needed. Imagine, she wrote an admirer in 1866,

the experience of a mind morbidly desponding, of a consciousness tending more and more to consist in memories of error and imperfection rather than in a strengthening sense of achievement—and then consider how such a mind must need the support of sympathy and approval from those who are capable of understanding its aims.

(L IV: 300; see also II: 399-400; III: 6, 88, 170, 246, 393; IV: 248, 405, 434; V: 29, 185, 201, 229, 325, 358, 373; VI: 116, 226, 244, 394-95; Selections 370, 524)

The adulation did help to dissolve her "paralyzing despondency" (L V: 29). Lewes wrote Blackwood in response to the publisher's praise of Daniel Deronda, "Your note has been as good as a dose of quinine. As the drooping flower revives under the beneficent rain, so did her drooping spirits under your enthusiastic words" (L VI: 228). Though helplessly dependent on others' judgments—"I never think what I write is good for anything till other people tell me so" (L II: 260)—she came to have a sort of precarious belief in her power that enabled her to function. As Lewes wrote in 1871, when she was basking in the acclaim that followed publication of Book I of Middlemarch, "[S]he begins to feel that her life has indeed not been unavailing" (L V: 228). For while "[a]ll the ringing chorus of praise … does not stifle her doubt," "by repetition the curing influences tell, for they become massed, and … enable her to apperceive the fact that her books are something more than mere amusements" (L VI: 226; V: 228; see also II: 406; VI: 219).

Four of her characters, three in poems she wrote while working on Middlemarch or shortly after, and the other in the novel succeeding Middlemarch,suggest that the "excessive diffidence" (L IV: 58) that paralyzed her in the absence of sympathy is rooted in her neurotic character. Like George Eliot and Zarca (see SG I: 153; III: 251), all four fulfill their "Caesar's ambition" for a "[s]upreme vocation" ("Armgart" i, Legend, 1st ed., 77, 104) by determination to wrest success from a hostile world. But, deprived of their vocations and thus of the world's applause, they are assailed by guilt for the greatness they have secured by refusing to submit to the way of the world and "to be shapen after the average" (xv, I: 257). Recognizing the truth of the angel's words "'Twas but in giving that thou couldst atone / For too much wealth amid [others'] poverty," Jubal renounces his "little pulse of self" and accepts an ignominious death ("The Legend of Jubal," Legend 1st ed., 45, 38). Accepting the condemnation in her friend's asking, "Where is the rebel's right for you alone?" when there is "the mighty sum / Of claims unpaid to needy myriads" ("Armgart" v, Legend, Cabinet ed. 130), Armgart, reborn from "that monstrous Self" nurtured by her success, does penance by resigning herself to a life in which she feels herself "Beating upon the world without response" ("Armgart" v, Legend 1st ed., 140, 133). Arion expiates the "born kingship" ("Arion," Legend 1st ed., 237) that song confers on him, by consenting to his death. Though Leonora Alcharisi only temporarily loses her voice, she does not resume her glorious career. Behind her mysterious explanation—"I could not go back. All things hindered me—all things"—is loss of will begotten by guilt that she has pursued a career in defiance of her father and society. "I have been forced to obey my dead father," she says. "[E]vents come upon us like evil enchantments" (DD li, IV: 45, 29). With thunderous applause in her ears, George Eliot could forget that in writing she, like Leonora, was transgressing her family's and society's proscription against pursuing a vocation. But when the applause died away, then, aware that she had bought success by alienating the love that the child within her could not survive without, she ached for sympathy.


George Eliot's enormous need for sympathetic support, which she shared with many of her female contemporaries, was partly due to the world's belittling of women. She had early understood the a priori notions upon which her androcentric society was founded: a woman is intellectually inferior to a man—"[a] man's mind … has always the advantage of being masculine,—as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm,—and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality" (ii, I: 27),17—or if undeniably superior, then a "mistake of nature" (MF I, ii, I: 14; cf. M x, I: 161)—"a woman's no business wi' being so clever" (MF I, iii, I: 22)—who would master her husband. In Middlemarch, explaining the important role women play in making their husbands successful, George Eliot tries to show that in fact some women are the intellectual and moral equals of men, and that, as she had said in her essay on Fuller and Wollstonecraft, these women are not the threat to men that unenlightened women are. But in her late works, perceiving the oppression and exploitation of women—seeing that society's notions of women's inferiority are only rationalizations of ruthless egoism—understanding at last that society projected its own selfishness on women who pursued vocations, she savagely turned on a world that she more and more saw as stupid and sinister. In Middlemarch, she not only indicts society for depriving Dorothea of the support she needs to succeed in the projects she undertakes after marriage, but she bitterly accuses society of consciously and insidiously sacrificing Dorothea on the altar of sexism when she chooses her first husband. In the Finale of the first edition of the novel, George Eliot enumerates the conditions responsible for Dorothea's disastrous choice. She could not have married Casaubon if society "had not smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age—on modes of education which make a woman's knowledge another name for motley ignorance—on rules of conduct which are in flat contradiction with its own loudly-asserted beliefs" (IV: 370). Whatever reason George Eliot had for later deleting these words that have generated much controversy, she did not thereby delete from the novel the argument here.18

Society says nothing to disabuse Dorothea of the notion that in making a January-May marriage she is entering on what she thinks is a nurturing father-child relation. For indeed society approves what is in reality the master-slave relation that Casaubon seeks in deliberately choosing as wife "a blooming young lady—the younger the better, because more educable and submissive" (xxix, II: 98). When the "winter-worn husband" (xxxvii, II: 250) tells her, "The great charm of your sex is its capability of an ardent self-sacrificing affection, and herein we see its fitness to round and complete the existence of our own" (v, I: 80), he is clearly expressing a commonplace idea. Dorothea's friends would only substitute one such relation for another in preferring to Casaubon, James, who thought he would have been willing to put up with some predominance in Dorothea, since he could put it down when he liked (ii, I: 27).

In order to judge Casaubon rightly, Dorothea, who, as a woman, had been denied all but a toybox education (see x, I: 147; iii, I: 39), should have been privy to masculine learning. For what she needed to know was that Casaubon's clergyman's gown concealed no holiness, and his voluminous notes, nothing but dryasdust pedantry—information that her world, regarding Casaubon as "a man of profound learning" (i, I: 9; see also xxx, II: 114) could hardly have supplied. Furthermore, the objections of her circle—"Mrs Cadwallader's contempt for a neighboring clergyman's alleged greatness of soul," "Sir James Chettam's poor opinion of his rival's legs," "Mr Brooke's failure to elicit a companion's ideas," and "Celia's criticism of a middle-aged scholar's personal appearance" (x, I: 143)—could not rightly carry any weight with one "whose notions about marriage took their colour entirely from an exalted enthusiasm about the ends of life" (iii, I: 39; see also v, I: 79).

Readers who argue that "Dodo" is culpable for her mistake in marrying Casaubon point out that none of her friends would have made her mistake (see ix, I: 124). But friends who would have had her marry one (James) who not only would have made her miserable but would not have been so obliging as to leave her a young widow, are hardly wise counselors. If Dorothea's friends happen to be right in opposing her marriage, they are so only because, as George Eliot says in another context, "wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions" (iii, I: 34). Readers who dispute the world's responsibility for Dorothea's marriage often impute to George Eliot an ironical view of her heroine's mistaken notions ("Dorothea … retained very child-like ideas about marriage"; "Celia, whose mind had never been thought too powerful, saw the emptiness of other people's pretensions much more readily" [i, I: 7; ii, I: 107]), forgetting that when Dorothea's marriage has failed, George Eliot no more blames Dorothea for her choice of husband than she blames Romola for hers. "Was it [Dorothea's] fault that she had believed in [Casaubon]—had believed in his worthiness?" (xlii, II: 374). Attributing Dorothea's naïveté both to ignorance for which she is not responsible, and to ardor that is more admirable than calculation and prudence,19 George Eliot merely smiles at Dorothea's naïveté as she smiles "with some gentleness" (Prelude, I: v) at the innocent child St. Theresa seeking martyrdom. Dorothea's idealizing of Casaubon (see iii, I: 31; v, I: 81; ix, I: 125), which is due to "that simplicity of hers, holding up an ideal for others in her believing conception of them, was one of the great powers of her womanhood" (lxxvii, IV: 252).

Not only Dorothea's ignorance but society's hypocrisy, which Milton says "neither man nor angel can discern" (Paradise Lost Bk. III, ll. 682-83), blinds Dorothea. Vociferous as are Dorothea's friends in objecting to her marriage, they do not fundamentally oppose the match. For it satisfies their most deeply rooted concerns that she marry money and social position. Dorothea's uncle and guardian reveals the priorities society dare not flaunt. He tells her he could not "have consented to a bad match. But Casaubon stands well: his position is good" (v, I: 72). Even faced with the disappointment of Mrs. Cadwallader, who consoles herself that Casaubon has money enough (vi, I: 92), shilly-shally Brooke holds firm. "I should have been travelling out of my brief to have hindered [the match].…He is pretty certain to be a bishop, is Casaubon" (vii, I: 110).

Professing to object to Dorothea's sacrifice of herself to Casaubon, her companions, regarding their own interest, actually manipulate her into making a sacrifice of the sort George Eliot had deplored in the forties. According to her pupil, Mary Sibree, Mary Ann

thought that though in England marriages were not professedly "arrangés," they were so too often practically: young people being brought together, and receiving intimations that mutual interest was desired and expected, were apt to drift into connections on grounds not strong enough for the wear and tear of life; and this, too, among the middle as well as in the higher classes.

(Cross ii, 58)

In fact, George Eliot emphasizes that society covertly approves of the match by implicitly comparing its reactions to Dorothea's two marriages. When Dorothea announces her intention to marry Casaubon, her friends do nothing but grumble behind her back. Brooke refuses to forbid the marriage until she is of age—considering marriage a cure for Dorothea's vagaries, he is disposed to hurry it on when he sees her opposed to marrying James (vii, I: 110)—and her clergyman, who says he knows no harm of Casaubon (viii, I: 114, 118), will not intervene. But when Dorothea marries a second time—marries one neither well born nor possessed of any fortune but his brains (xxx, II: 121)—society does not stand by helpless. Brooke threatens to disinherit her, and all her family excommunicate her. When one critic asks what more society could have done to prevent her marriage to Casaubon, short of putting strychnine in his tea (review of M 550; see also Harvey, "Criticism of the Novel" 133-34), the answer is plenty.

If society, while smiling on Dorothea's first marriage, is at the same time dismayed by it, that is so because, as George Eliot says elsewhere, "mortals have a great power of being astonished at the presence of an effect towards which they have done everything, and at the absence of an effect towards which they have done nothing but desire it" (DD xxii, II: 64-65). Not to see the malevolent character of a society that regards women as pawns in the marriage game is to identify with the world that George Eliot makes the object of her most trenchant irony—a world that she will excoriate in Daniel Deronda.


The angry feminist critics of the seventies have largely been silenced by feminist apologists who have rallied around George Eliot since the late seventies. Yet the battle is not over. Christina Crosby, focusing on Daniel Deronda, has recently written that George Eliot relegates women to "the realm of reproduction," making them "but instruments to further man's transcendence" (23, 27; see also 161 n. 20). One must still say that George Eliot "occupies a profoundly uneasy position among feminist literary critics," as Ringler wrote in 1983 (55).

And for many this is not likely to change, given certain ineluctable facts. Most important is George Eliot's emphasis on sacrifice and submission ("[a]ll self-sacrifice is good" [L I: 268]). But as I have tried to show, George Eliot questions the value of sacrifice in Middlemarch, even endorsing Ladislaw's dictum that "[t]he best piety is to enjoy" (xxii, I: 398). Her attitudes toward self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment are not the same throughout her works; at the end of her career, when she wrote Middlemarch, she was more given to "innovation" (TS ii, 40) than at the beginning.

Certainly, disposed to lead a contemplative, rather than an active, life (see L II: 383; IV: 473; V: 324-25, 344); plagued by a "doubting mind" (L IV: 472)—by "the labour of choice" (MF, II, i, I: 283);20 and hating to sit in the judgment seat (see L VI: 418; see also II: 306, 383; IV: 207; V: 76, 344, 367, 471; VII: 44; GE's "German Wit" 7), she embarrasses apologists by her hesitancy to take a stand on the Woman Question (see L II: 383, 396; IV: 364, 366; V: 58; VII: 44), except in the matter of women's right to a "masculine" education (see L IV: 364, 366, 399, 401, 468; "Woman in France" 472; "Art and Belles Lettres" 642-43). Cherishing "the relation of the sexes and the primary ties of kinship" as "the deepest roots of human wellbeing" (TS xvi, 286), she would not hold up a life of achievement as every woman's goal. Moreover, while she did not want any to suffer unjustly (L IV: 366; see also 364), she was, like her Armgart, an elitist, especially concerned that exceptional talent not be frustrated.21 Writing even as a radical youth22 that "woman does not yet deserve a much better lot than man gives her" (L II: 86; see also 157), she had no interest in spurring women on to imitate her in pursuing a career. Believing, as Klesmer insists in Daniel Deronda, that good work requires sacrifice23 andthatbadworkisan offense,24 she would not encourage dilettantes. Passionately concerned to disprove the conventional notion that women are inferior—convinced that they have "a precious specialty" ("Silly Novels" 461)—she was chiefly concerned with promoting the talented woman (see L V: 406).

Furthermore, if she would not encourage women to take up careers, neither would she tell women who needed no prodding to pursue a vocation that they, like her, could succeed if they, like her, were willing to suffer from prejudice. Many feminists are indignant that she did not present models of successful women. Lee R. Edwards says George Eliot could not imagine a world in which Dorothea could have succeeded by force of will ("Women, Energy, and Middlemarch" 234, 235-36, 237-38). Clearly she could, since she herself had succeeded by "willing to will strongly" (L VI: 166). But she wanted to expose the reasons of her suffering,25 not celebrate her expensive victory.26 Having dared to write only in middle age, though early preoccupied with fame (see L I: 7, 12, 47, 227, 237, 252; Cross ii, 53), and miserable that her life was of no consequence (L II: 93), then, able to write only by battling depression and despair that came partly from "suffer[ing] the slavery of being a girl" (DD li, IV: 30), she bitterly resented that, even though blessed with some conditions the most favorable for her development, she paid a terrible price, such as men do not pay, for her "far-resonant action" (M Prelude, I: vi). What she wanted to do, in her last three novels, Middlemarch especially, was to protest the sexism that made life intolerably hard for women like herself, able and ambitious—George Eliots who never find the living stream in fellowship with their own oary-footed kind (see M Prelude, I: vii).

And this brings me to another point. In an effort to ameliorate the conditions under which she labored, George Eliot, always aware of the arguments against granting women equality, wrote not so much for women as for men, especially young men, as still impressionable. At the end of 1867, when she was already contemplating Middlemarch, she wrote that "young men … are just the class I care most to influence" (L IV: 397; see also V: 212-13, 367; VI: 405). Having early understood that woman's lot in an androcentric society is dependent on the lot men give her (see FH xxvii, II: 182; xliii, III: 149-50), she strives in Middlemarch to enfranchise women not so much by inspiriting women, but by persuading men to see their own self-interest in according women the respect that would free them. Thus, while George Eliot, by showing Dorothea's support of Ladislaw's work, may not seem to have advanced an argument for women's right to an independent occupation, she was, by stressing Ladislaw's acceptance of Dorothea as his equal (if not his superior [see L VI: 394]), responding to those, like her Mr. Tulliver, who fail to see that their own interest lies in dispossessing themselves of the notion that women are too stupid to be partners with men.

Add to her ambivalence and elitism, her consciousness that radical views on the position of women did not come well from one damned for her irregular life (see L IV: 364, 425), as well as her lack of sympathy for some feminists (L V: 58),27 and one can understand her detachment, except as an "æsthetic" (L VII: 44), from the battle over the Woman Question.

Yet, despite the certainty that she would not have wanted to be called a feminist (had the word meaning an advocate of equal rights for women existed in her lifetime), I contend that her most authentic self was fiercely, if sometimes covertly, rebellious against the restrictions talented women suffered in pursuing a vocation, and that this self was passionately devoted to abolishing the prejudices of a society that would deny women public vocations. Having tried, unsuccessfully, in her earlier works to reconcile herself to women's sacrifice of their aspirations, as doing good; and having, in her latter years, won the "glorious achievement" (R lxxi, VIII: 147) that emboldened her to release her repressed anger at the establishment, she could express her true self in Middlemarch.

Feminists when they sensed in Middlemarch "a sacred text" saw more truly than when such of them as Edwards came to regard their original intuition as "an adolescent fantasy" ("Women, Energy, and Middlemarch" 238). Ellen Moers says that readers have always been surprised to discover that George Eliot was no feminist (194); and indeed one must disbelieve one's senses to think that George Eliot's experience would have made her other than passionately concerned with the right of women to pursue vocations. With Dorothea, commiserating with Lydgate over the failure of his life's work, George Eliot would have said, "There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that—to love what is great, and try to reach it, and yet to fail" (lxxvi, IV: 237; see also xlii, II: 367; lxxvi, IV: 243). And because in this novel she brilliantly and powerfully makes the case for reform—showing that women are deprived of their right to a public life because egoism and stupidity motivate the sexism of a society that exploits women to its own hurt—she has, I think, produced in Middlemarch the greatest feminist novel ever written28—a novel that the successes of the feminist movement have not rendered irrelevant in our time.


  1. Abbreviations of George Eliot's works are: Cross—George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, ed. J. W. Cross; DDDaniel Deronda; FHFelix Holt; "JR"—"Janet's Repentance"; LThe George Eliot Letters; MMiddlemarch; MFThe Mill on the Floss; RRomola; SGThe Spanish Gypsy; SMSilas Marner; TSImpressions of Theophrastus Such. Unless otherwise noted, references to M are to the first edition. In GE's works, part numbers (book, chapter, or scene, or some combination of these) precede page, or volume and page, numbers. GE refers to George Eliot.
  2. Saying she lives for her art (see L III: 184, 187), GE repeatedly identified her work with her worth: L V: 133, 212, 244, 437; VI: 52; IX: 192; see also II: 221; VI: 23, 163; VII: 230; Selections 524.
  3. Ellen Moers, in her brilliant study Literary Women, argues that GE was "no feminist" (194). John Halperin (161) uses the same words. Barbara Hardy says the novelist's "books make their feminist protest in a very muted way": she does not write "as a proselytizing feminist" (52, 51). In her classic study of literary women, Elaine Showalter (24) approvingly quotes Donald Stone as saying that nineteenth-century heroines "are hardly concerned with self-fulfillment in the modern sense of the term."
  4. Virginia Woolf says the story of GE's idealistic heroines "is the incomplete version of the story of George Eliot herself" ("George Eliot" 658b; see also 658a). Cf. Woolson 9. Lewes likened GE to Dorothea (L V: 163, 308, 332, 338, 352, 360).
  5. Lee R. Edwards, in "Women, Energy, and Middlemarch," regarding Middlemarch as cherishing the values of Dorothea's world (see especially 224, 231, 237), declared that what had been "a sacred text" "can no longer be one of the books of my life" (224, 238). See also her Psyche as Hero 91-103. Jenni Calder says GE "diagnoses … 'the common yearning of womanhood' [i.e., women's aspirations—a misreading of GE, who, in M Prelude I: vi-vii, uses the phrase to mean women's desire for love], and then cures it, sometimes drastically, as if it were indeed a disease" (158). See Zelda Austen 549-61.
  6. Several writers see GE's feminism in her very refusal to grant her heroines fulfillment. Patricia Spacks (36-47, 316) and Nancy K. Miller, the latter writing on Maggie (see especially 44), say GE views her heroine's selflessness as fulfilling. Kathleen Blake, in "Middlemarch and the Woman Question," claims that Middlemarch is "a great feminist work" because in it GE protests that depriving women of their work as helpmates—"[w]omen's work is men" (285, 300)—is depriving them of identity. (Her argument is further supported by GE's repeatedly identifying herself with her work [see n. 2 above], and by her denial that the good of happiness is possible without the exercise of faculty [L VIII: 209; see also IV: 155-56, 168; V: 173].) Jeanie G. Thomas sees GE as "profoundly feminist" (393) in acknowledging women's disposition for nurture as a special strength. Susan Fraiman sees the author of The Mill on the Floss questioning whether women do not more effectively build character through social interaction than men through self-culture.
  7. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar attribute to GE covert rage against the patriarchal society that oppresses women, but argue that, in her later works, considering that "the injustice of masculine society bequeathes to women special strengths and virtues" (498), she balances her vengefulness against the countenancing of women's renunciation (499; see also 530). George Levine finds an ideal of vocations open to women "fully present in George Eliot's world," but colliding with "a strain of misogyny" that makes self-sacrifice "quintessentially the women's vocation" (13, 4). Blake, in a revision of her earlier article, more explicitly sees GE as arguing for women's right to a public life, but not as protesting the "selfpostponement" women suffer in making men their work (Love 41). Carol A. Martin says GE protests against the obstacles that prevent women from realizing their aspirations, but seasons her protest with moderation. Gillian Beer says that GE, though "persistently work[ing] at the central dilemmas of feminism in her time," "was not … either a feminist theorist or activist" (1). Similarly, Deirdre David sees GE as sympathetic with intelligent women's desire for cultural and social power, but says her views of women's "womanly" character and love for the past make her complicit with male authority; she was not "actively feminist" (251 n. 3). Suzanne Graver, in "'Incarnate History,'" no longer seeing GE as ambivalent toward feminism (64), argues that, in M, GE tries to fuse women's ethics of care and of rights—but says she legitimizes, as well as challenges, the status quo (73-74). (Earlier, in "Mill, Middlemarch, and Marriage" and George Eliot and Community, Graver argues that GE's responses to the Woman Question are contradictory. Like Spacks, Graver finds that "George Eliot's belief in the redemptive power of suffering caused her to see the very liabilities women suffered in marriage as contributing to their moral evolution" ["Mill," 62].)
  8. GE's contemporary Abba Gould Woolson is a possible exception. She says GE holds that "society is bound to promote [her heroines' ideals] by every means in its power. If, instead of this, it employs its institutions, customs, and prejudices towards crushing them out. GE would assign the whole structure of civilized society, as tending to the waste of its noblest energies, and to the cramping and debasement of the individual soul" (78; see also 46-47)
  9. Lydgate's story powerfully illustrates GE's argument, in her article on Fuller and Wollestonecraft, that men, by denying women partnership in marriage jeopardize their vocations.
  10. Mary suggests that one reason she married Fred rather than Farebrother was that she could save the former, not the latter. When Fred tells her that Farebrother was far worthier of her than he, she retorts, "To be sure he was,…and for that reason he could do better without me" (Finale, IV: 362-63; see also lvii, III: 277).
  11. In 1849, she wrote, "[T]he only ardent hope I have for my future life is to have given to me some woman's duty, some possibility of devoting myself where I may see a daily result of pure calm blessedness in the life of another" (L I: 322).
  12. See L II: 419; III: 24, 63, 202, 226-27, 405, 417; IV: 28, 123, 347; VI: 335-36, 379; VII: 215. She protested that she could not write to please others (see L II: 400, III: 393).
  13. GE uses the same phrase in SM xi, 209.
  14. Some suggest that Dorothea is stupid; see Leslie Stephen 180, Felicia Bonaparte 128, pp. below. Most argue she is handicapped by not having GE's genius; see Laurence Lemer 119; Patricia Beer 181; Zelda Austen 553-54; Marlene Springer 140, 142; George Levine 8; Carol A. Martin 22. But we do not know that she is not extremely intelligent. Brilliant Ladislaw respects her opinion (see p. above); dying Casaubon trusts her to complete his work (l, III: 119-20); Lovegood says she has "a real genus" (sic) for planning cottages (iii, I: 45); even Brooke admits that Dorothea is "clever enough for anything" (xxx, II: 114); and GE compares her to St. Theresa (Prelude, I: vi; x, I: 148; Finale, IV: 370), probably the most learned female saint, and to St. Catherine of Alexandria (liv, III: 195-96), patron of students.
  15. See also L IV: 494; VI: 96; MF I, viii, I: 139; M lxviii, IV: 96; DD xlv, III: 300; liv, IV: 106-07. Virginia Woolf wrote, "Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others" (Room iii, 85). Csikszentmihalyi writes: "Most of us deep down believe that a person who is creative will prevail regardless of the environment." But "even the greatest genius will not accomplish anything without the support of society and culture" (330).
  16. Closely related to GE's notion that sympathy is necessary to one's successful pursuit of an occupation is her notion that sympathy may be essential for one's stability. Janet Dempster, Hetty Sorrel, Silas Marner, Esther Lyon, Rosamond Vincy, Gwendolen Harleth, and Mirah Lapidoth are saved from despair by another's sympathy, while Catherina Sarti, Latimer, and Don Silva are destroyed by rejection. Cut off from others' sympathy, Latimer, like GE, who in 1840 attributed a fit of sensitiveness to her need for sympathy (L I: 75), develops diseased psychic powers.
  17. Silas Marner, who continues his weaving though "cut off from faith and love" (ii, 35), might seem to be an exception. But the world does not reject his work. Moreover, his work does not involve his ego; he weaves "like the spider, from pure impulse, without reflection" (SM ii, 26). See L VI: 48.
  18. Cf. the impressions of GE's friend and biographer, Oscar Browning, after looking over examination papers, that, "irrespective of the marks he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man" (qtd. in Woolf, Room iii, 81).
  19. Readers have seen GE's excising of the offending words as admission of her mistake. But it is more likely that she deleted the words on grounds that she had already made the meaning of her story clear (she expressed a doubt that there should have been an Epilogue [L V: 405]). Furthermore, she may have had second thoughts about inflicting on her readers so savage an excoriation of society; elsewhere in her writings she deleted passages to tone down her original.
  20. GE comments ironically on the superior insight Celia has about Casaubon by virtue of feeling less than Dorothea: "To have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion" (vii, I: 107).
  21. GE uses similar phrases in "JR" xxiv, 525; / R lxi, VII: 705 (2 references); lxviii, VIII: 133.
  22. In 1857, she wrote a friend, "'La carrière ouverte aux talen[t]s,' whether the talents be feminine or masculine, I am quite confident is a right maxim. Whether 'La carrière ouverte à la sottise,' be equally just, when made equally universal, it would be too much like 'taking sides' for me to say" (L II: 396). Feminists have criticized GE for isolating herself from her sister artists (see Showalter 107), but one can scarcely blame a woman naturally reserved, who was spit at by "the world's wife" (MF VII: ii, III: 249, 253). Incidentally, indifference to one's sisters is not now thought reason for questioning a woman's feminism.
  23. GE became more conservative after her liaison with Lewes, and, then, after working through personal issues in her fiction, returning in later years to something approximating the radicalism she adopted after her apostasy.
  24. In 1864, GE said that study, hard work, and heroism "must always go to the doing of anything difficult" (L IV: 159). See also I: 277; III: 177, 467; "Silly Novels" 460; DD, xxiii, II: 97. Lewes thought GE was performing a service in setting forth in DD "the arduousness and difficulties of a career so facile in imagination" (L VI: 193).
  25. See L II: 210, 396 n.7; III: 226, 241; IV: 367, 376, 425, 467; V: 33, 185, 212; VI: 113, 409; VII: 3; VIII: 384; "Silly Novels" 460-61. In 1879, GE refused to encourage a young writer whom she thought unpromising (L VII: 177-78).
  26. In 1874, GE wrote, "[W]hat evil can be got rid of on a sudden? Only it makes a difference when the evil is recognized as an evil, because then action is adjusted to gradual disappearance instead of contemplated permanence" (L VI: 47).
  27. Woolf, "George Eliot" (658b), saw GE's work as wearing her life away, as indeed GE herself did (L VI: 415).
  28. GE insisted that women should remain feminine (L IV: 468; V: 406).
  29. Was Lewes alluding to the feminist message of the novel when he wrote in December 1871 that he has "all along felt that women would owe [GE] peculiar gratitude for that book" (L V: 225)?

Works Cited

Austen, Zelda. "Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot." College English 37 (Feb. 1976): 549-61.

Basch, Françoise. Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel, 1837-67. Trans. Anthony Rudolph. London: Allen Lane, 1974.

Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Beer, Patricia. Reader, I Married Him: A Study of the Women Characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. London: Macmillan, 1974.

Blake, Kathleen. "Middlemarch and the Woman Question." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31 (Dec. 1976): 285-312.

——. Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature: The Art of Self-Postponement. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester, 1983.

Bonaparte, Felicia. Will and Destiny: Morality and Tragedy in George Eliot's Novels. New York: New York UP, 1975.

Calder, Jenni. Women and Marriage in Victorian Fiction. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

Crosby, Christiana. The Ends of History: Victorians and "the Woman Question." New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1991.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Edwards, Lee R. Psyche as Hero: Female Heroism and Fictional Form. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1984.

——. "Women, Energy, and Middlemarch." Massachusetts Review 13 (winter-spring 1972): 223-38.

Eliot, George. "Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 103 (Jan. 1868): 1-11.

——. "Amos Barton." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 81 (Jan.-Feb. 1857): 1-22, 153-72.

——. "Art and Belles Lettres." Westminster Review 65 (April 1856): 625-50.

——. Daniel Deronda. 1st ed. 4 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1876.

——. Felix Holt, the Radical. 1st ed. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1866.

——. The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. 9 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954-78.

——. George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals. Ed. J[ohn] W[alter] Cross. New ed. Edinburgh: Blackwood, [1887].

——. "German Wit: Heinrich Heine." Westminster Review 65 (Jan. 1856): 1-33.

——. Impressions of Theophrastus Such. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1879.

——. "Janet's Repentance." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 82 (July-Nov. 1857): 55-76, 189-206, 329-44, 457-73, 519-41.

——. The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1874.

——. The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems, Old and New. Cabinet ed. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1879.

——. "The Lifted Veil." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 86 (July 1859): 24-48.

——. "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft." Leader 6 (Oct. 13, 1855): 988-89.

——. Middlemarch. 1st ed. 4 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1871-72.

——. Middlemarch. Cabinet ed. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1878.

——. The Mill on the Floss. 1st ed. 3 vols. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1860.

——. Romola. Cornhill Magazine 6 (July-Dec. 1862): 1-43, 145-86, 289-318, 433-70, 577-604, 721-57; 7 (Jan. June 1863): 1-30, 145-71, 281-309, 417-40, 553-76, 681-705; 8 (July-Aug. 1863): 1-34, 129-53.

——. Selections from George Eliot's Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

——. Silas Marner. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1861.

——. "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." Westminster Review 66 (Oct. 1856): 442-61.

——. The Spanish Gypsy. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1868.

——. "Woman in France: Madame de Sablé." Westminster Review 62 (Oct. 1854): 448-73.

Fraiman, Susan. "The Mill on the Floss, the Critics, and the Bildungsroman." PMLA 108 (Jan. 1993): 136-50.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Graver, Suzanne. George Eliot and Community: A Study in Social Theory and Fictional Form. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

——. "'Incarnate History': The Feminisms of Middlemarch." Approaches to Teaching Eliot's "Middlemarch." Ed. Kathleen Blake. New York: MLA, 1990. 64-74.

——. "Mill, Middlemarch, and Marriage." Portraits of Marriage in Literature. Ed. Anne C. Hargrove and Maurine Magliocco. Macomb: Western Illinois UP, 1984. 55-65.

Halperin, John. Egoism and Self-Discovery in the Victorian Novel: Studies in the Ordeal of Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Burt Franklin, 1974.

Hardy, Barbara. The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form. London: Athlone P, 1959.

Harvey, W. J. "Criticism of the Novel: Contemporary Reception." Middlemarch: Critical Approaches to the Novel. Ed. Barbara Hardy. London: Athlone P, 1967.

——. "Introduction." Middlemarch. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell. Ed. Phil Cousineau. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990.

Lerner, Laurence. George Eliot and Her Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews. Ed. John Holmstrom and Lerner. London: Bodley Head, 1966.

Levine, George. "Repression and Vocation in George Eliot: A Review Essay." Women and Literature 7 (Spring 1979): 3-13.

Martin, Carol A. "George Eliot: Feminist Critic." Victorian Newsletter 65 (Spring 1984): 22-25.

Miller, Nancy K. "Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction." PMLA 96 (Jan. 1981): 36-48.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.

Review of Middlemarch. Canadian Monthly and National Review. 3 (June 1873): 549-52.

Ringler, Ellin. "Middlemarch: A Feminist Perspective." Studies in the Novel 15 (spring 1983): 55-61.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Springer, Marlene. "Angels and Other Women in Victorian Literature." What Manner of Woman: Essays on English and American Life and Literature. Ed. Springer. New York: New York UP, 1977.

Stephen, Leslie. George Eliot. New York: Macmillan, 1902.

Thomas, Jeanie G. "An Inconvenient Indefiniteness: George Eliot, Middlemarch, and Feminism." University of Toronto Quarterly 56 (spring 1987): 392-415.

Woolf, Virginia. "George Eliot." Times Literary Supplement 20 Nov. 1919: 657-58.

——. A Room of One's Own. London: Hogarth P, 1929.

Woolson, Abba Gould. George Eliot and Her Heroines: A Study. New York: Harper, 1886.

Primary Sources

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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 comparative merits of these three writers; but no one can now doubt that the lady who, with the usual pretty affectation of her sex, likes to look on paper as much like a man as possible, and so calls herself George Eliot, has established her place in the first rank of our female novelists.

She has done us all one great kindness, for she has opened up a field that is perfectly new. She has, for the first time in fiction, invented or disclosed the family life of the English farmer, and the class to which he belongs.… There is nothing in which George Eliot succeeds more conspicuously than in [the] very nice art of making her characters like real people, and yet shading them off into the large group which she is describing. Some notion of what it requires to make a good novelist may be obtained by reflecting on all that is implied in the delineation of three farmer's daughters and their husbands with separate and probable characters, and in allotting them suitable conversation, and following the turns and shifts of their minds within the narrow limits of the matters that may be supposed to interest them. It is this profusion of delineative power that marks the Mill on the Floss, and the delineations are given both by minute touches of description and by dialogues. To write dialogue is much harder than merely to describe, and George Eliot trusts greatly to the talk of her farmers' wives in order to make her conception of these sisters come vividly before us. Both in the description and in the dialogue there are exhibited a neatness of finish, a comprehensiveness of detail, and a relish for subdued comedy that constantly bring back to our recollection the best productions of Miss Austen's genius. Like Miss Austen, too, George Eliot possesses the art of taking the reader into her confidence. We seem to share with the authoress the fun of the play she is showing us. She joins us in laughing at her characters, and yet this is done so lightly and with such tact that the continuity of the story is not broken. Every one must remember the consummate skill with which Miss Austen manages this, and if we do not quite like to acknowledge that our old favourite has been equalled, we must allow that George Eliot performs the same neat stroke of art with a success that is little inferior.

Portraiture, however, and the description of farmers and their wives, only occupies one portion of George Eliot's thoughts. There is a side of her mind which is entirely unlike that of Miss Austen, and which brings her much closer to Charlotte Bronté. She is full of meditation on some of the most difficult problems of life. She occupies herself with the destinies, the possibilities, and the religious position of all the people of whom she cares to think. Especially she seems haunted with the thought of the amazing discrepancy between what she calls "the emmet-life" of these British farmers, and the ideal of Christianity. She dwells on the pettiness, the narrowness, the paganism of their character. She even takes a pleasure in making the contrast as strong as she can. In her stern determination to paint what she conceives to be the truth, to soften nothing and not to exalt and elevate where she profoundly believes all to be poor and low, she shocks us with traits of character that are exceptional, however possible. (p. 470)

As it seems to us, the defect of the Mill on the Floss is that there is too much that is painful in it. And the authoress is so far led away by her reflections on moral problems and her interest in the phases of triumphant passion, that she sacrifices her story. We have such entire changes of circumstances, and the characters are exhibited under such totally different conditions of age and mental development, that we get to care nothing for them.…We hope that some time George Eliot will give us a tale less painful and less discursive. There is something in the world and in the quiet walks of English lower life besides fierce mental struggles and wild love. We do not see why we should not be treated to a story that would do justice to George Eliot's powers, and yet form a pleasing and consistent whole. (p. 471)

Further Reading

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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.

Dee, Phyllis Susan. "Female Sexuality and Triangular Desire in Vanity Fair and The Mill on the Floss." Papers on Language & Literature 35, no. 4 (fall 1999): 391-416.

Compares female sexuality in William Makepeace Thackeray's and Eliot's novels, addressing the ways in which female characters "struggle to escape the male-initiated bonds of sexual desire."

Dillon, Steven. "George Eliot and the Feminine Gift." Studies in English Literature 32, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 707-21.

Explores the "gift," which refers to the protestant religious gift associated with John Milton, in terms of femininity in Eliot's works.

Heller, Deborah. "George Eliot's Jewish Feminist." Atlantis 8, no. 2 (spring 1983): 37-43.

Explores the complexity of Eliot's attitude towards Judaism and feminism in Daniel Deronda.

Hudd, Louise. "The Politics of a Feminist Poetics: 'Armgart' and George Eliot's Critical Response to Aurora Leigh." In Poetry and Politics (Essays and Studies 49), edited by Kate Flint, pp. 62-83. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1996.

Discusses Eliot's critical response to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's epic poem Aurora Leigh, using examples from Eliot's writings in the Westminster Review to show that Eliot is engaging in a feminist debate.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. "George Eliot as the Angel of Destruction." In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer in the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 478-535. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

In a seminal feminist interpretation of Middlemarch Gilbert and Gubar suggest that the novel should be read as an attempt on Eliot's part to resolve the conflict between two opposing sides of her personality, her "man's mind" and "woman's heart."

Graver, Suzanne. "'Incarnate History': The Feminisms of Middlemarch. "In Approaches to Teaching Eliot's Middlemarch, edited by Kathleen Blake, pp. 64-74. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Addresses Eliot's ambivalence towards feminism in Middlemarch and suggests approaches to the novel in the classroom.

Lovesey, Oliver. "The Other Woman in Daniel Deronda." Studies in the Novel 30, no. 4 (winter 1998): 505-20.

Comments on the marginalization and restriction of female characters in Daniel Deronda.

Ringler, Ellin. "Middlemarch: A Feminist Perspective." Studies in the Novel 25, no. 1 (spring 1983): 55-60.

Argues that "feminists' uneasiness" about Eliot's novels in general and Middlemarch in particular is justified because Eliot ultimately reinforces "disjunctures between male and female social power."

Sypher, Eileen. "Resisting Gwendolen's 'Subjection': Daniel Deronda's Proto-Feminism." Studies in the Novel 28, no. 4 (winter 1996): 506-24.

Contends that Gwendolen Harleth, one of the heroines in Eliot's Daniel Deronda, displays many characteristics of early feminist thought because of her resistance to the limitations imposed by men.

West-Burnham, Joss. "Travelling towards Selfhood: Victorian Religion and the Process of Female Identity." In Women's Lives into Print: The Theory, Practice and Writing of Feminist Auto/Biography, edited by Pauline Polkey, pp. 80-95. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1999.

Discusses Eliot's transition from faith to unbelief, including a suggestion of the implications of religion on the feminist tendencies in Eliot's writing.


Additional coverage of Eliot's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 5; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 35, 55; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 4, 13, 23, 41, 49, 89, 118; Novels for Students, Vol. 17; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 20; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 8; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; and World Literature Criticism.


Eliot, George (Poetry Criticism)