Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 26 (1995) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
In this densely-argued and fascinating study Miriam Bailin begins by noting the frequency with which the sickroom figures in Victorian fiction as 'a haven of comfort, order and natural affection' in which an alternative, and more congenial, society is created around the invalid and the tormenting moral complexities of life outside, the difficulties of reconciling past and present selves, are simplified. In 'Janet's Repentance', a key text for Bailin, George Eliot writes: 'Within the four walls where the stir and glare of the world are shut out, where a human being lies prostrate, thrown on the tender mercies of his fellow, the moral relation of man to man is reduced to its utmost clearness and simplicity .... As we bend over the sick-bed, all the forces of our nature rush towards the channels of pity, of patience, and of love'. This luminous moral clarity is for Eliot, who wrote when she was nursing her father, 'These will ever be the happiest days of life for me’, one of the greatest 'consolations of debility' (to quote the title of one of Bailin's chapter-sections). Bailin points to the tender relations established between nurse and patient with the potential eroticism of the situation transformed into what Charlotte Bronte calls in Villette 'the passion of solicitude’. She also, illuminatingly, argues that Victorian writers seem often to be presenting nurse and patient as 'two sides of the same self’, noting how often the roles are exchanged between pairs of characters such as Shirley and Louis Moore in Bronte's Shirley or Janet Dempster and the Reverend Tryan, 'or the constant shifting from one role to another by a single character (Caroline Helston, Ruth 'Hilton, and Romola)’.