Tuesday, March 3

Magnificently ugly: the real power of George Eliot

(This post was written as part of a university assignment last term. Thought I'd put it here too.
I'm actually studying The Mill on the Floss at the moment, and the secondary reading I've been doing has thrown up even more I could've talked about here. Which has taught me that maybe there is never really a complete conclusion, a full stop, an end to the debate.
I was going to get rid of all the academic referencing, but figured there might be somebody out there who wants to read the readings behind the post. The Zadie Smith essays are a lovely place to start.)

image source: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/7500/7582/eliot_7582.htm
George Eliot was no looker. Or so we’re routinely reminded, by sources as great as Henry James (1) who described her as ‘magnificently ugly - deliciously hideous’, and as dubious as Wikipedia (2) which mentions her ‘ill-favoured appearance’. But, as James (1) continued, ‘in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty ... yes, behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking’. Note the word ‘powerful’. Just as Eliot’s lack of feminine charm as a successful female novelist challenged the social norms, so too did her writing. Her work steered away from what she termed the ‘mind-and-millinery’ (3) saturating women’s writing at the time, and instead concentrated on serious political and social issues, consequently broadening the world of English Literature to include more high calibre female writers.

In 1856, whilst editor of the liberal quarterly publication The Westminster Review, Eliot contributed an article titled Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. The article – just as amusing, sharp and, arguably, pertinent today – mocks the triviality and pseudo-intellectualism of contemporary female writing, arguing that the ‘particular quality of silliness that predominates’ (3) suggests ‘the average nature of women is too shallow and feeble a soil to bear much tillage’ (3). This unfair representation of the female intellect was something Eliot worked hard to change through her own novel writing. Her well-informed focus on ordinary people, social outsiders and close detail of rural life in stories such as The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch tackled wider political and social issues of the time. Born Mary Ann Evans, her pen name George Eliot maintained, as Sanders (5: p.448) states, a ‘public distinction between a highly moral narrator and a woman who, according to the narrow standards of her time, was an outcast, an adulteress and a religious sceptic’, ensuring she was one of the first female novelists to win respect ‘on the merits of her work alone’.

But why was George Eliot considered an outcast and an adulteress by her contemporaries? Well, she was a ‘woman journalist’ (6) who was virtually running The Westminster Review, a very unusual role for a woman to be in at that time; she was ‘notoriously living ‘in sin’' (6) with married man George Henry Lewes; she’d all but rejected her Christianity. Yet clearly this social dissent did not prevent Eliot from becoming one of the most important novelists of the Victorian era. In fact by following her ambition and achieving success from such a position, Eliot confronted the prevailing patriarchal attitude of the age. Virginia Woolf (7) put it better than me when she implored readers to always remember ‘all that she [Eliot] dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her - sex and health and convention - she sought more knowledge and more freedom’. Eliot’s work, which dealt with ‘the slavery of being a girl’ (8: p.541), kept up ‘a constant effort to hold high the torch in the dusky spaces of man’s conscience’ (9), gradually directing the light towards feminist issues which came to the fore in the following century. By proving women were worthy of an education and could have just as significant an impact on literature as men, Eliot’s success, furthering the achievements of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, influenced some of the great female writers of the future, including Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and more recently Zadie Smith.

It goes without saying that the changes Eliot’s writing brought about in English Literature (both as an art form and an academic discipline) are still being felt today. She has helped provide a voice for a new, discerning, female breed of writer. She has contributed greatly towards establishing and advancing the novel as a key form of literature. ‘What twenty-first-century novelists inherit from Eliot,’ writes Smith (10: p.40) in her essay Middlemarch and Everybody, ‘is the radical freedom to push the novel’s form to its limits, wherever they may be’. Maybe it can be argued that Eliot’s subjects of ordinary folk and rural life aren’t as thrilling as the turbulent romance of Heathcliff and Kathy – maybe Eliot’s significance in English Literature isn’t as obvious or as exciting as we’d like - but it doesn’t matter. Her power lies elsewhere. As AS Byatt (11) says, ‘the truth is that she is wise - not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world.’

It’s worth noting that whilst doing the research for this blog post, my research relating to Eliot’s physical appearance brought up more material than my research regarding her significance in English Literature did. Perhaps George Eliot still has work to do.

Works Cited

1.       Tóibín, C. Creating ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. New York Review of Books. [Internet.] 2007. [Accessed October 22 2014]; 54 (12). Available from: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/jul/19/creating-the-portrait-of-a-lady/

2.       Wikipedia. George Eliot [Internet]. October 21 2014. [Accessed October 21 2014]; Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eliot

3.       Eliot, G. Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. The Westminster Review. [Internet.] 1856. [Accessed October 22 2014.]; 66: 442-461. Available from: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/silly-novels-by-lady-novelists-essay-by-george-eliot

4.       The Guardian. Daniel Deronda: a Victorian novel that’s still controversial [Internet]. February 10 2009. [Accessed October 28 2014.]; Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/feb/10/zionism-deronda-george-eliot

5.       Sanders, A. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2004.

6.       Hughes, K. The mystery of Amos Barton. The Guardian. [Internet.] January 6 2007. [Accessed October 21 2014.] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jan/06/fiction.georgeeliot  

7.       Woolf, V. George Eliot. The Times Literary Supplement. [Internet.] November 20 1919 [Accessed October 21 2014.] Available from: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/woolf/VW-Eliot.html

8.       Eliot, G. Daniel Deronda. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks; 2009.

9.       James, H. George Eliot’s Life. Atlantic Monthly. [Internet.] 1855. [Accessed October 21 2014]; 55 (331): 677. Available from: http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/a/atla/

10.   Smith, Z. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. London: Penguin Books; 2011.

11.   Byatt, AS. Wit and wisdom. The Guardian. [Internet.] August 4 2007. [Accessed October 21 2014.] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/aug/04/fiction.asbyatt

1 comment:

  1. Most interesting! (I also think I might go and buy Zadie Smith's essays now. Have you got Margaret Atwood's 'Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing'? - kind of a similar idea of a book with loads of her essays and articles inside. Have found many a gem in there.)