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.

This is honest. But ‘trivial’ texts can be difficult to find. Various contributors to the volume deal with everyday lives, but they tend to be exceptional in some way. Thus we learn about the work patterns of women weavers in Saxony who feature, unusually, as inheritors, since mothers passed on their looms to daughters; about the living and working conditions of a particular group of factory workers in Berlin at the end of the 19th century; about the often strained relations between socialists and women who belonged to, or wanted to belong to, the general workforce. In all these cases, documents exist which in some way describe the women’s lives: local censuses and written wills, a commissioned report in the case of the Berlin workers, manifestos, labour newspapers and the transcripts of speeches in the case of the socialist women. The written or printed word ensures that we can know something about the working lives of these groups of women.

But that still leaves the unrecorded lives of the majority. Gudrun Wedel in her essay on biographies and autobiographies asks, but avoids answering, what might be called the ‘cream cake’ questions. She quotes first from the apologetic opening of Agnes Sapper’s (exceptional) biography of her (unexceptional) mother, Pauline Brater:

Who is Mrs Brater, or who was she? Why should we take an interest in her? Was she an artist, a scholar, a benefactress for mankind? Did she excel in any field and make herself known throughout the world? These justified questions have been the cause of considerable doubts since they must all be denied. Mrs Brater never entered public life, she was nothing more than a German woman. Those who did not know her personally know nothing about her.

Next the harsh verdict of a reviewer in a Munich newspaper is quoted: ‘It should be quite irrelevant to posterity whether Mrs Brater had at one time received a cream cake or not.’ The historian is in a dilemma: how interesting is the eating of cream cake? Does one magnify its importance in order to justify its being studied? Or does one admit its limitations, in which case do they render study valueless? One sympathises with the researcher, who too often, as in Gudrun Wedel’s case here, evades the issue while seeming to meet it with stern rhetoric: ‘Criticism did not only revolve around the fact that in a woman’s biography a woman is actually the main figure but also that many unimportant and redundant details are conveyed – unimportant and redundant being characteristics specifically tied to the woman’s sphere. And this contempt for the woman’s world is typical of prevailing contemporary opinion.’ This may seem to dissociate the author from ‘prevailing’ – and of course male – opinion: in fact, it only dissociates her from the contempt while endorsing – necessarily – the opinion.

The novelist has an enormous advantage over the historian vis-à-vis the cream cake aspect of women’s lives. The former looks behind the working-class domestic drudgery or middle-class domestic dullness of women to show the qualities of heart and mind which are compatible with dispensing comestibles and advice, but which are nonetheless interesting, important, not redundant. The historian, relying on the written record which, in the nature of things, illuminates not the everyday but rather the periodic events – birth, marriage, death and its consequences – may well be at a loss to fill in the interstices between them. There is a gap between the narrow statistical content of such studies as make up the volume on German women – numbers of single versus married women working in factories over a given period in a given region, and so on – and the larger sense of women’s lives. Several of the feminist historians writing here use anger to fill this gap: ‘the educated Bürgertum in Germany was developing an elaborate ideology to justify’ the division of labour according to gender; ‘we recognise the need for asking new questions, attempting a re-vision of literary history that can make that which has become invisible visible once again’ (no hint is given as to how this desirable piece of magic is to be managed); and, most angry because most impotent: ‘The way women’s everyday life is organised in bourgeois society is marked by contradictions and ambivalences; they are subjected to a double alienation. For women, everyday life means an exile, as well as a mystification. Consider, for example, the supposed ahistorical character of everyday life which has long implied that women have no histories, this being an ahistorical viewpoint itself which only reproduces the subjective mystification of everyday life.’ What is this but an elaborate cry of frustration at there being nothing to say? We may all agree that a male culture is to blame – but there is still nothing to say.

Another way of confronting the annoying fact that many women ‘have no histories’ is to invent histories for them. A historian or biographer may take a leaf out of the fortunate novelist’s book and exercise a flair for imaginatively entering the heart of his or her subject. The knack is perhaps most needed when a woman has lived a not entirely invisible life, but one partially hidden behind a famous husband. Such a woman is Jenny Marx, the subject of a new biography by H.F. Peters and one of the three ‘wives of fame’ dealt with by Edna Healey.

The titles of both books indicate the problems they face. While in Wives of Fame Edna Healey claims that Mary Livingstone, Jenny Marx and Emma Darwin ‘deserve to be brought out of the shadows’, she ensures by her choice of title that our interest is aroused precisely through their famous husbands. Peters, with refreshing frankness, entitles his book Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx, thus acknowledging that he is capitulating to the difficulty. For the life that he finds himself telling is really that of Marx, with Jenny appearing as chorus, appreciative audience, and more or less willing victim. As he admits, there is not much separate material about Jenny’s life – a short autobiographical memoir she wrote, which Peters uses to the full; some letters, many of them written on Marx’s behalf to his friends and comrades; a few spirited newspaper articles – with the result that the book is filled up with an account of Marx’s doings seen, as much as possible, from Jenny’s point of view. In practice, this means Peters presuming to read Jenny’s mind: ‘Sometimes Jenny wondered whether she had married a man or a bookworm, but because she loved him, she made sure that his reading time was uninterrupted.’ A passage from, say, The German Ideology is quoted and Jenny is brought forward with the sentence: ‘Jenny was impressed by such words.’ When Marx publishes the first number of a new periodical, he does so ‘much to Jenny’s joy’. Only when she is bearing or losing children, and writing candidly to friends about these events, does Jenny naturally and touchingly become the central figure in her biography.

Perhaps not much more could have been done. Jenny’s life before marriage is examined thoroughly and well, but since she knew Marx from the age of five, when he was, as Peters notes, ‘a one-year-old baby still at his mother’s breast’, Marx dominates virtually from the beginning. Indeed, Peters even hastens the theme of domination by extrapolating from a family anecdote about Marx’s strong will as a child: ‘Jenny was 12 at the time and Karl only eight, but she submitted to his will then, as she did later when she was his wife.’ A more determined effort to keep Marx in the background and a more general knowledge of the Marxes’ circle of acquaintances in Brussels, Paris and London might have succeeded in bringing Jenny to the fore. Little use is made by Peters of, for example, her letters to and about her daughters as they were growing up in London. And her journalism, though slight in bulk, is sharp and witty enough to warrant more attention than it receives.

It is the childbirth, the poverty, the illnesses and deaths of children which form the main theme of Edna Healey’s book, at least as it relates to Jenny Marx and Mary Livingstone. (Emma Darwin appears to be arbitrarily chosen as a third, since, unlike the other two, she was not poor, seldom sick, and was not married to a moral monster.) The misery of their everyday lives emerges in the terrible details of Mary Livingstone’s dangerous journeys, almost always pregnant and with young children, across Africa, and Jenny Marx’s only relatively less dreadful experiences of expulsion, eviction and the pawnshop in most of the capital cities of Europe. The book’s interest lies, not so much in Edna Healey’s narrative, which is at once flat and relentlessly metaphorical (and often inadequate or wrong in historical detail), as in the stories she has to relate. Yet, as with Peters’s book, the stories really belong to the husbands, especially Livingstone and Marx, men ‘constructed’, in Huxley’s phrase, ‘on the high pressure tubular boiler principle’. The most memorable quotations in the book are theirs. Thus Livingstone, speaking to a Cambridge audience in 1857: ‘I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity’; and to his wife as she lay in Africa, separated from her children, dying of fever, aged 41: ‘My dearie, my dearie, you are going to leave me. Are you resting on Jesus?’ And Marx, motivated by a guilty conscience, writing Jenny a love letter in 1856:

And I truly love you more than the Moor of Venice ever loved. The false and worthless world views virtually all characters falsely and worthlessly. Who of my many slanderers and snake-tongued enemies has ever reproached me that I am destined to play the role of chief lover in a second-class theatre? And yet it is true. If the scoundrels had had wit, they would have painted ‘the production and direction’ on one side, and me lying at your feet on the other.

Or struggling with boils and Das Kapital: ‘The bourgeoisie will have cause to remember my carbuncles.’ Though this male prominence is partly inevitable, one could imagine a book in which the valour of the women might emerge more clearly. Edna Healey does not know enough about 19th-century European politics, about Victorian culture, or even about the individual women she discusses, and she seems strangely incurious.

Perhaps the only way for a historian of 19th-century womanhood to avoid the problems we have been discussing – lack of data, lack of event, and male predominance – is to choose as a subject one of the early feminists. Barbara Bodichon, George Eliot’s best woman friend, is the perfect choice. She combined in her idiosyncratic self all the factors needed for a feminist of that time: she was wealthy, independent, middle-class, educated, radical, married – but to a French eccentric who let her go her own way – and childless. Her background was nonconformist in two senses. She was one of five children of a Unitarian distillery-owner and Radical MP who had met in middle life a milliner’s apprentice and embarked on a ‘notorious cohabitation as man and wife’, as Barbara put it. She was thus illegitimate, but remained untroubled by this, partly because of her inherited radicalism and partly because of her inherited wealth. In 1854 she set up a school which was co-educational and inflicted neither uniform nor punishment nor creed on its pupils. Her specifically feminist activities included writing pamphlets on women and work, founding with Bessie Rayner Parkes (also a scion of Nonconformist stock) the English Woman’s Journal in 1858, establishing an employment register for women, agitating with John Stuart Mill for divorce and married women’s property reform, and helping to found Girton College, Cambridge.

Barbara both illustrated in her own life and commented on the ironic complexities of women’s status. As Sheila Herstein points out (in a rare embracing of irony in this detailed but dully written book), it is odd to think of her, the chief female advocate of reform of the marriage laws, exploiting at the time of her own marriage in 1857 one of those escape routes for the rich with which English law was signposted:

Put in simple terms, under the Common Law, a wife’s property, earnings, liberty and even her children all belonged to her husband. ‘My wife and I are one and I am he’ was one way of expressing the effect of the law. A wife could not sue, nor be sued. She could not be called as a witness. Her children could be taken from her. She could not free herself from her husband, no matter how cruelly she was treated. Until 1857, only a special act of Parliament could grant a divorce. Even after the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, divorce remained a costly and difficult procedure, almost impossible for a woman to obtain.

But Common Law could be bypassed by those wealthy enough to appeal to the Court of Chancery, which ‘had been successful for two centuries in arranging for upper-class married women to hold property independent of their husbands and to exert over this property the same rights which belonged to men or single women’. The aim of this alternative legal method was not so much to ensure equality for women as to protect estates, the keeping of land in the family being a principle beyond gender. It was to this tradition that Barbara’s father, Benjamin Leigh Smith, appealed on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage. A special marriage document was drawn up to give Barbara ‘separate use’ of her income. Jenny Marx’s family also availed themselves of such an opportunity when she married Marx in 1843. Not that it afforded her much protection in the event: the money was soon spent, the family silver almost permanently in pawn, or ‘in exile’, as Jenny wittily expressed it, and Marx – and therefore Jenny – chronically in debt for most of his life.

Like George Eliot before her, Barbara found herself at one point being exploited by her lover John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review, a Radical in politics but a chauvinist in his dealings with women, having a submissive wife and resident mistress, as well as liaisons with unorthodox young women. Barbara’s money was one of her attractions for Chapman: it took Benjamin Smith, acting in the unwonted role of the heavy-handed father, to save her from his clutches. Her French husband, a doctor based in Algiers, was an exotic figure in Arab dress, with whom she had a remarkably free arrangement that neither should interfere with the other’s career. Her work for women’s rights in education, the law and employment issued eventually in success, though in her shrewd way she saw that votes for women, despite Mill’s efforts in Parliament, were still a long way off. She told Emily Davies in 1865: ‘You will go up and vote upon crutches, and I shall come out of my grave and vote in my winding sheet.’ Barbara Bodichon died in 1891, and Emily Davies first went to the poll in 1919 aged 88. There is, happily, no question of Barbara Bodichon lurking in the shadow of a man, either because he was her husband or because he was a genius. There is, also happily, no lack of information about her life, as it was a life of writing as well as doing. The cream-cake problem does not arise, and angry rhetoric, from which Sheila Herstein wisely abstains, would be misplaced in the biographer when there is so much of it in the letters, pamphlets and articles of Barbara Bodichon herself and her circle. ‘I am one of the cracked people of the world,’ she boasted in 1857. Lucky for her biographer and her readers that she was.

It is the importance of the written word, of evidence, which gives Alexander Welsh’s book, George Eliot and Blackmail, its theme. The argument, pursued with ingenuity and a wealth of critical detail, is that the crime of blackmail arises relatively late in legal history, having to do directly with the growth of information and the spread of literacy in the age immediately preceding our technological one – that is, the Victorian age. George Eliot’s novels are examined microscopically for their reflection of the wider interest in the passing on – and withholding – of information. Welsh finds in Daniel Deronda not only a womanly man, but also, in his relations with Gwendolen, a proto-Freudian analyst-confessor, and, with his privileged access to Gwendolen’s secrets, a potential blackmailer. Deronda does not press his advantage; if he had, the case would have been a sexually discriminatory one, for Gwendolen, being a married woman, has no property, no profession, no legally recognised separate identity to lose and in this sense her case is quite different from that, say, of Bulstrode the banker in Middlemarch. Blackmail, though no respecter of persons, has two characters, a male and a female. The subject is an enticing one, not only for literary critics like Welsh, but also for historians of women’s lives in the years before the Married Women’s Property Act and the advent of education for women.