Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 35 (2004) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Mirah, the Alcharisi, Gwendolen, Dinah, and Rosamond are all, to various degrees, performing women. Eliot's grandest diva, however, is also her least studied. The opera singer Armgart takes centre stage in the poetic closet drama of the same name that Eliot wrote in 1861. A focused study of an exceptional woman, Armgart conveys both Eliot's belief in the dangers of the influence of public opinion and her belief that exceptionally talented women could gain power through interacting with audiences. Armgart demonstrates that Eliot advocated for community among exceptional women and ordinary women. Finally, Armgart's examination of the talented female performer allowed Eliot to consider the role of the woman writer.
Armgart depicts an opera star in her glory and then in her desolation after she has lost her voice due to medication she received during a life-threatening illness. Criticism of Armgart places it within a tradition of operatic diva heroines created by women writers and focuses on how voice provides self-expression, agency, and spiritual meaning.! Such analyses neglect Eliot's detailed consideration of the relationship between performer and audience and, therefore, fail to see that, in Armgart, despite the power that the audience wields over performers and, particularly, female performers, interacting with a public audience is an empowering alternative to domestic life.
Louise Hudd has noted that Armgart 'restages the themes of Aurora Leigh, continuing Barrett Browning's disquisition upon the place of the female artist in Victorian society' and 'explores the obligations of the exceptional woman to her society and to other women' (68).' Suggesting that Eliot manifested a feminism that united women across class and talent lines, Hudd views Walpurga's criticism of Armgart's self-centeredness as a response to Barrett Browning's elimination of the fallen working-class woman, Marian Erle, from the plot of Aurora Leigh (1856) in order to focus on Aurora and Romney. While I agree with Hudd, I argue that there is an additional critical contrast between Aurora Leigh's characterization of the female artist as a transcendent, quasi-religious prophet who eschews public exposure and Armgart's notion of the female artist's greatness - her exceptionalness - as inseparable from her interaction with audiences.