for this or that human lot, for this or that experience” (1)
“Dismiss the heroines without sympathy”? (3)
Why have George Eliot’s heroines been catching all that flak? (2) Even Virginia Woolf, though lavishing praise on Eliot, seems to do so rather despite Eliot’s heroines. (3) "Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her"
So what's supposed to be wrong with these heroines? Are they not assertive enough? Are they too meek, too reflective? Do they perhaps commit the cardinal sin of not pursuing personal happiness single-mindedly enough? Does their behaviour smack too much of the sentimental-stoic ” though I can’t be happy – I can be good” ? (4)
Let’s simulate the prosecutors’ case, to find out what exactly these heroines are charged with (and to prepare their defense).
There is of course Dorothea in Middlemarch, who, for all her ardent personality does not rise to greatness. She first wastes her youthful energy on the vain scholarly efforts of a dour husband, and then, widowed, marries again the wrong sort of man.
So what does Eliot give her as a fate: “perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity”.
And then, at the end, Eliot does not only keep alive her un-heroic heroine , but even seeks to justify this “blundering life”!
“Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive”.
Yeah .... you see, lots of self-sacrifice and doing good without ever attaining glory or even personal happiness.
Or take Romola (from the eponymous novel) – here’s a fine, honourable and well-educated woman in 15th century Florence, who however has the misfortune to marry a dishonest opportunist. (5) The scoundrel-husband, Tito, is charming and ingratiating enough, but does not feel bound by any moral obligations and sees life merely as a “game of skill and luck”.
When Romola becomes aware of his moral failings, she is repulsed and resolves to flee. She briefly envisages a grand, though lonely, future “to go to the most learned woman in the world, Cassandra Fedele, at Venice, and ask her how an instructed woman could support herself in a lonely life there”.
But just when a chapter bravely concludes with “She was free and alone”, just as the sympathizing reader feels like cheering her on, wishing her the best of luck, the plot takes a stern turn with Romola being called back to her domestic and civic duties by Savonarola himself (that ancient Florentine paragon of Christian virtues).
So, reading on, we cringe to see Romola going back home to her husband, obeying him but living a parallel life of selflessly tending to the poor and the sick in pest-ridden Florence .
Meanwhile, Tito has been putting his charms and duplicitous skills to good use, making headway in the complicated Florentine political world (in the process disowning his old and needy foster parent and also managing to father a couple of children with an unsuspecting naive mistress).
So again, a case of feminine self-sacrifice and doing good , easily outwitted by selfish duplicity which single-mindedly pursues its own goals.
Depressing, really. How the reader yearns for a more indomitable and “fierily egotistical” heroine – such as the saucy Jane Eyre, fighting rejection with the proud battle cry: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself”
At the end of the Romola-novel, some sort of justice is done though: Tito’s double-dealing is exposed and he’s killed by the foster father he had disowned. In the epilogue we find a placid Romola (“an eager life had left its marks upon her” ), in her well-furnished Florentine study, surrounded by friends, teaching Tito’s son. But this “happy-ending-of -sorts” has not placated the detractors of Eliot’s virtuous heroines .
For them, it is precisely the unlikely, far-fetched way in which Tito gets his final just desserts which confirms that George Eliot did not wish to grant to Romola herself the personal strength and guts to prevail but instead resorted to outrageous, near supernatural, twists of the plot to set things right.
A harsh verdict...: guilty because not happy?
Encapsulating the prosecutors’ case, here’s a very selective quote of Virginia Woolf on Eliot’s heroines – seemingly harsh (but perhaps already containing the seeds of the defense) (5):
“Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness [...] In learning they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the wider service of their kind. They do not find what they seek and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. [...]
Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself.”
Summing up the accusations: why couldn’t George Eliot give us more combative heroines - who could both fulfill their personal ambitions and find domestic bliss with a suitable mate? Heroines who find what they seek, heroines who are happy for all the world to see!
Especially since such a happy fate was not utopian, as George Eliot herself had shown through her own, brave, choices in life.(6)
“the greatness that belongs to integrity”! (7)
But let me now, at last, rush to the defence of Dorothea and Romola !
First of all, why blaming Eliot for writing novels with a realistic, though pessimistic, assessment of the human condition? Isn’t it a fact of life that “the unscrupulous are more likely to succeed in any struggle for power” (8)? Do not examples abound of the fact that “ virtue, after all, is far from being synonymous with survival; duplicity is” (8).
And yet, and yet, despite all our disillusioned realism don’t we indeed carry some idea, some desire of justice within us? And isn’t longing (9) integral to the human soul, and not to be dismissed as a mere fancy even if it is not within our power to realize it? So again, why blaming Eliot for novels that evoke exactly this ambiguity of the human condition?
“Justice is [...] not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning”.
And then, secondly, I personally cannot find that much fault with Eliot’s heroines. I don’t think they’re that downtrodden, actually I find them far braver than many of their more cheeky sisters in literature. They may not find a suitable mate, they may not rise to fame (10) – but they do retain their full personal integrity. In fact, they cope with life’s adversities, with the world’s “meanness of opportunity” and , not least, with their own limitations with “all the grace and dignity they can muster”.
Why would Jane Eyre be worth more just because she finds “perfect concord” with Mr Rochester?
And speaking of depressing literary heroines ... please spare me the female figments of 19th Century male imagination. Spare me the likes of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, even Effi Briest ... victims of their presumed irrationality, mercilessly convicted to death by their creators.
Really, I very much prefer Eliot’s heroines. Because of their genuine though unsuccessful yearnings, their reflectiveness, their tenacity, their honesty and, most of all, because of their unfailing integrity...
They may not triumph on the world’s stage , but at least they stay alive, they potter on, they don’t go mad – which is actually quite an achievement for a 19th century female literary character!
Notes & Quotes
(1) Joseph Brodsky
(2) discussing the worth of fictional characters (beyond technical considerations), boils down to assessing possible ways of being as represented by the writer – so these are inevitably highly subjective discussions ...
(3) Virginia Woolf on George Eliot , article first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 20th November, 1919.
(4) “though I can’t be happy, I can be good” : an exhortation that indeed, throughout the ages, has kept too many a good woman from rebelling against crushing conditions
(5) But then, VW’s text is delightfully brimming with nuances and ambiguities – a text worth reading and savouring again and again
(6) from the introduction to Romola by Dorothea Barrett: “None of these heroines is permitted to find the answer that George Eliot found for herself”
(7) Romola, p 582
(8) Joseph Brodsky
(9) Ah, Longing! How I cherish longing.
Longing in its most ineffective form, as an agnostic but metaphysical desire. Desires for instances of beauty, goodness, justice, ... that are not of this world.
Surely there must be many profound philosophical treatises on the subject. But for now I’ll stick to a couple evocative quotes:
- “The narrator declares her agnosticism, but at the same time describes human desires that history and reality cannot accommodate, desires that find their fulfillment only in the imaginative world of romance. “Justice is like the Kingdom of God – it is not without us as a fact, it is within us as a great yearning” “(again Dorothea Barrett in her Romola-introduction)
- “[Eliot’s heroines] demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence” (again VW on GE)
- (nothing to do with Eliot but a great occasion none the less for one my favourite Walter Benjamin quotes): “the new is mythic because its potential is not yet fully realized – the old is mythic because its desires never were fulfilled “
(10) And, frankly, isn’t Romola’s 15th Century fate somehow consistent with Virginia Woolf’s own historical hypothesis in “if Shakespeare had a sister”?