English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 29 (1998) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (29)


The intensity of Edith Jemima Simcox's passion for George Eliot has been known to a twentieth- century reading public since the publication of K. A. McKenzie's Edith Simcox and George Eliot in 1961. McKenzie's book is a combination of summary and quotation of a manuscript acquired by the Bodleian Library in 1958, This manuscript, entitled The Autobiography of a Shirtmaker, is a journal kept by Simcox from 10 May 1876 until 29 January 1900. Gordon Haight wrote the introduction to McKenzie's book, relied on the Simcox manuscript in his 1968 biography of Eliot, and printed lengthy passages from it in The George Eliot Letters, Vol. IX (1978). Yet, as Constance M. Fulmer notes, more than half of Simcox's journal 'has never been published in any form' (ix). Fulmer and co-editor Margaret E. Barfield have produced a new annotated edition of this intriguing text which will be of interest to readers of George Eliot, scholars of late nineteenth-century culture, and to historians of women's sexuality.

Among the many advantages to the recovery of this unique work by two women scholars is its record of one nineteenth-century woman's passion for another woman. While I wish that Fulmer and Barfield had done more in their introduction to suggest the implications of their own scholarship, the complete Autobiography is now available to be read through the lens of recent revelations about and interpretations of Victorian women's sexuality as focused by historians like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Lillian Faderman, Martha Vicinus, and Sheila Jeffreys among others. Writing before this important research, Haight cautioned readers against seeing the obvious: 'The Victorians' conception of love between those of the same sex cannot be fairly understood by an age steeped in Freud. Where they saw only beautiful friendship, the modern reader suspects perversion' (McKenzie, xv). This defensive pronouncement is particularly curious when we consider that Simcox herself struggled with what she called her 'unwholesome reveries' (16) and 'unhealthy dreams' (45). Haight compares Simcox to fictional characters created by Henry James and George Meredith in The Bostonians and Diana of the Crossways. These male authors have dissected 'the twisted psychological strands without apparent horror of what the schoolgirl today labels Lesbianism' (xv). In fiction, as with Simcox, 'we must avoid reading back interpretations that could never have been suspected when they were written' (McKenzie, xvi).