Homage to Mrs Brater

Rosemary Ashton

  • George Eliot by Gillian Beer
    Harvester, 272 pp, £16.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7108 0506 3
  • German Women in the 18th and 19th Centuries: A Social and Literary History edited by Ruth-Ellen Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes
    Indiana, 356 pp, $29.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 253 32578 1
  • Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx by H.F. Peters
    Allen and Unwin, 182 pp, £12.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 04 928053 8
  • Wives of Fame: Mary Livingstone, Jenny Marx, Emma Darwin by Edna Healey
    Sidgwick, 210 pp, £12.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 283 98552 6
  • A Mid-Victorian Feminist: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon by Sheila Herstein
    Yale, 224 pp, £16.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 300 03317 6
  • George Eliot and Blackmail by Alexander Welsh
    Harvard, 400 pp, £20.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 674 34872 9

Was it sisterly or unsisterly of George Eliot to celebrate in Middlemarch Dorothea’s contribution to human progress by means of ‘unhistoric acts’ carried out under limiting social conditions which ensured that, unlike St Theresa, she remained ‘foundress of nothing’? Certainly, Dorothea’s sphere of action is represented as being – true to life for her class and time – confined to the domestic. She passes from eligible spinster to helpmeet, wife and mother, and on the whole George Eliot describes that passage as one to fulfilment. Contemporary women readers, lacking the vote and still, despite decades of agitation by reformers, without rights over their own property – the Married Women’s Property Act was not passed until 1883 – were perhaps expected to take comfort, even pride, in the conclusion that ‘the effect of [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’

Yet, as has often been pointed out, the tone of this is equivocal: ‘incalculably diffusive’ may suggest an impressively far-reaching stretch for Dorothea’s influence, but it is a phrase instinct with doubt and the probability of that influence going largely unnoticed. ‘Unvisited tombs’ has a melancholy, even accusing ring when applied to the life of one we have come imaginatively to care for. And how do we interpret the female author’s assurance of things going ‘not so ill with you and me’? It is difficult not to think that the male persona of the narrator is speaking here exclusively to his fellow men, congratulating them on having women willing – or doomed – to live helpful hidden lives so that they may thrive. Many women readers might have expected to find George Eliot, herself an achiever, pronouncing more single-mindedly on the hampering conditions endured by most women.

The case of George Eliot is, of course, complicated. Her peculiar personal circumstances no doubt released her into novel-writing: they also cast a melancholy shadow over her life as a woman, so that it is not inconceivable that she should have seen marriage and a life of child-rearing for Dorothea as a prize of great worth. George Eliot’s ambivalence on the woman question is discussed, among other things, in two recent books, by Gillian Beer and Alexander Welsh. Gillian Beer, with a nice sense of the difficulty of taking up a single-minded position on the question of whether George Eliot was more liberated or more constrained about women’s lives in her fiction than in her life, notes mildly that ‘fiction, with its exploration of consequences, possibilities, its pursuit of paths eschewed in life, gave her further lives to pursue.’ Both Beer and Welsh turn with pleasure (and relief?) to Daniel Deronda, talking of George Eliot’s achievement in that book of a stance ‘beyond gender’. Deronda is discussed as being influential in a ‘womanly’ way, acting as conscience and consciousness to Gwendolen in the way Dorothea does to Lydgate and Rosamond. Neither critic points out, however, that Deronda, in the end, surrenders the womanly function to Mirah by marrying her and setting off to be a founder of something – viz. a ‘national centre’ in the East for ‘restoring a political existence’ to the Jewish race.

Perhaps my opening question about George Eliot’s sisterliness was, after all, not the right one to ask. If she had written a novel in which she followed with imaginative sympathy the career of a woman who did not opt for, or find herself caught in, a life of unnoticed domesticity, but rather struck out for success in areas normally occupied by men, commentators could have breathed easily and pronounced her a member of the sisterhood. But the fact that she did not (with the exception – unsuccessfully rendered, in my view – of Deronda’s mother) does not, conversely, allow them to claim, or sorrowfully concede, unsisterliness on her part. Since the norm in 19th-century culture was for women to live quiet undocumented lives, responsible historians interested in representing women’s lives may find themselves wishing to illuminate just such domestic, workaday lives as those George Eliot celebrates with melancholy admiration in the novels she did write. For it is possible to think an exclusive attention to the few successful professional women of the 19th century distorting, and liable to set back rather than further the cause of understanding the position of women in general. If, however, one thinks this way one also has to find a strategy with which to face insuperable problems.

In this connection, many historians who see themselves as feminists are now taking stock. Less concerned than their predecessors to claim the historical importance of exceptions, of those women who rose to heights despite unpromising conditions, they are turning their attention to other kinds of women. On the other hand, to put the spotlight on the near-invisible one might have to resort to desperate or deluding rhetoric, as do several of the contributors to German Women in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Regula Venske, in an essay on the novelist and aquaintance of George Eliot, Fanny Lewald, states the problem:

Feminist criticism today should ... beware of ready-made emancipatory concepts, of ‘instant emancipation’. We should no longer search for Great Women in History, but investigate also the weakness and contradictions of women’s histories ... We have to accept the historical texts in their triviality and triteness. They are trivial and trite – just like women’s everyday life.

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