Zelda Austen - Why Fem Critics are Angry with George Eliot...

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Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot Author(s): Zelda Austen Source:College English, Vol. 37, No. 6 (Feb., 1976), pp. 549-561 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/376148 Accessed: 25-08-2016 13:14 UTC REFERENCES Linked references are available on JSTOR for this article: http://www.jstor.org/stable/376148?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents You may need to log in to JSTOR to access the linked references. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://about.jstor.org/terms National Council of Teachers of English is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to College English This content downloaded from on Thu, 25 Aug 2016 13:14:32 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
College Vol. 37, NO. 6 * FEBRUARY I1976 y English ZELDA AUSTEN Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot FEMINIST CRITICS ARE ANGRY with George Eliot because she did not permit Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch to do what George Eliot did in real life: translate, publish articles, edit a periodical, refuse to marry until she was middle-aged, live an inde pendent existence as a spinster, and finally live openly with a man whom she coul not marry. While Dorothea lacks George Eliot's erudition and talent, and this is o course an enormous lack, Dorothea, like her creator, aspires passionately towards life beyond the provincial domestic confines of a Mliddlemarch, and wishes to be of use in the world. To this end she marries an elderly scholar and offers her un directed energies to his guidance. She is nearly smothered. Freed by his death, sh passes a short widowhood in introspection and a little active benevolence and agai thinks of fulfillment only in terms of marriage, this time to a young and passionate man with a political career. In her essay "Women, Energy and Middlemarch," L R. Edwards has expressed the feminist critic's resentment at George Eliot most completely. She had first read the book as an adolescent and perceived in its end- ing only a happy offer of the possibility of "combining marriage with intellectua aspiration." Later she began to perceive Dorothea's second marriage as a copout of some magnitude. Alluding to critics who object to Will Ladislaw as a fitting choic for Dorothea, she says, "The objection is not that Dorothea should have married Will, but that she should have married anybody at all, that she should ultimately be denied the opportunity given Will to find her own paths and forge her energi into some new mold....We could have had this vision if the author held the mir- ror to reflect.. .that world she forced into existence when she stopped being Mar
Ann Evans and became George Eliot instead." In other words, George Eliot shou have turned the mirror to reflect herself rather than the world out there. The Zelda Austen is at C. W. Post College of Long Island University. She teaches Victorian Lit- erature and WCninen's Studies, the latter "an offshoot of my interest in the nineteenth-century novel and its relation to historical 'truth'." 549 This content downloaded from on Thu, 25 Aug 2016 13:14:32 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
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550 COLLEGE ENGLISH reason she did not, Edwards argues, is that Eliot saw Dorothea's energies a to the community she loves," the Middlemarch whose values are "cheris the author," and consequently insisted that those energies be restrained an fied. Edwards concludes by rejecting the novel on the grounds of Eliot's betrayal: Middlemarch "can no longer be one of the books of my lif Millett dismisses George Eliot more briefly as "living the revolution" but ing about it; she is angry with Eliot on the same grounds as Edwards. "Do predicament in Middlemarch is an eloquent plea that a fine mind be allo occupation; but it goes no further than petition. She married Will Ladis can expect no more of life than the discovery of a good companion whom serve as a secretary."2 And a recent annotated bibliography for Women courses condescends: "It's difficult to avoid feeling some resentment of Eliot for making her heroines so much less venturesome than she was in life; she is, however, an excellent novelist."3 The feminists' resentment does not limit itself to George Eliot alone. It to Jane Austen for submitting the audacious and independent Emma to bandly authority of Mr. Knightly (Wolf, p. 213; Lefkowitz, p. 82). C Bronte shares it for marrying off Shirley.4 Vhile neither Austen nor Bro as openly unconventional as Eliot, nevertheless Jane Austen never marr Charlotte Bronte worked at the despised tasks of governess and school tea marrying till her mid-thirties. Yet their spirited heroines are all made to the yoke their authors themselves did not assume or assumed only late in feminist critic argues that these authors were themselves victims of the prev myths of their culture and lacked the vision to allow their heroines any h fillment other than marriage. And it is true that despite their extraordinary ities, all three novelists could be disconcertingly trivial: Jane Austen wrote to her sister about dress patterns; Charlotte Bronte could drop a manuscript to see that the potatoes were properly peeled; George Eliot, after her union with Lewes, told a woman correspondent, herself a feminist, "any one who has a regard for me will cease to speak of me by my maiden name."5 In George Eliot's case it would seem that the feminist critics have a point when they accuse her of supporting the prevailing values of Victorian culture. In her novels the woman who breaks the mold of convention is doomed. Hetty Sorrel in l Woman: An Issue, ed. Lee R. Edwards, Mary Heath, and Lisa Baskin (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1972), pp. 235-38. 2Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1970), p. 139. 3Images of JVomen in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillon (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972), p. 357. For other expressions of this judgement of George Eliot, see Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "A Mirror for Men: Stereotypes of Women in Literature," in JVoman: An Issue, pp. 214-17; Mary Lefkowitz, "Clas- sical Mythology and the Role of Women in Modern Literature," in A Sampler of Women's Studies, ed. Dorothy Gies McGuigan (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1973), p. 83; and Florence Howe, "Feminism and Literature," in Images of Women in Fiction, p. 257. 4Carol Ohmann, "Charlotte Bronte: The Limits of Her Feminism," in Female Studies VI, ed. Nancy Hoffman, Cvnthia Secor, and Adrian Tinsley, for the Commission on the Status of Women of the MLA (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1972), p. 162. 5Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 336. This content downloaded from on Thu, 25 Aug 2016 13:14:32 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
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