English, Department of



Graham Handley

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


This is a very well documented and impressive study of Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. It is more than that: it is directly inspirational, stimulating one to re-read and re-assess in the light of Miss David's analyses. There are glancing but important references to Ruskin and the significance of his 'Of Queens' Gardens', his views being 'the essence of patriarchal thought'. There is the weighted idea that 'education disfigures -and makes it difficult for girls to find husbands.' But it is when Deirdre David gets down to the individual writers under examination that her insight and sympathy becomes clear to the reader. She traces Harriet Martineau's 'need of utterance' and defines her 'auxiliary usefulness to a male dominated culture'. She read Milton at the age of eight, but turned from poetry to political economy (of course much later). She went to America and tellingly exposed the position of women there. Elizabeth Barrett is self-tutored in the male classical tradition. She read widely, from Greek literature to shocking contemporaries like Eugene Sue and George Sand. Miss David focuses most strongly and rightly on Aurora Leigh. noting that its main concerns are Victorian society and the Victorian poet. Elizabeth Barrett daringly for her time also deals with prostitution and rape. She recalls that Thackeray rejected one of her poems for The CornhilI magazine which attacked male hypocrisy. Miss David notes that Elizabeth Barrett Browning foreshadows the ending of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles in her emphases.

On George Eliot Miss David is particularly interesting: 'her career is a narrative of self-creation, the story of a powerfully intelligent woman graced with an impressive ability to discipline and expand her intellect through sustained scholarly study.' Yet of course she was subject to the same conflicts as other women. Miss David succeeds in placing her firmly on political and historical ground. She analyses the dubious praise George Eliot received for (supposedly) not thinking like a woman, and notes that she has acquired too the reputation of being a 'timid feminist'. Thomas Pinney's evaluation of George Eliot is given a just prominence. There follows an invigorating and expansive investigation of Romola and Felix Holt (there is much fresh interpretation here), while for Miss David The Mill exemplifies 'the sad containment of female intelligence by male morality’.