English, Department of



Phyllis Weliver

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019


The title and subtitle of this book must intrigue anybody who ·takes an interest in the cultural background of nineteenth-century literature. The familiarly stereotypical figures of the 'accomplished' Victorian girl at her piano, the evolutionary scientist and the domestic hearth where they might meet have often been analysed - and questioned. In fact, Phyllis Weliver's chapter on sensation fictions shows the seductive, female demon lurking behind the deceptively correct musical performances of two 'fallen' heroines. In East Lynne, the protagonist, who is to abandon her husband and children to live abroad in shame, starts out playing hymns, and Lady Audley 's Secret - namely, that she has just pushed her first husband down a well- is betrayed by marks on her wrist when she is dutifully playing Beethoven to her second spouse. Similarly, Trilby, the tone-deaf artists' model mesmerized into performing as an opera singer, is more than just Svengali's innocent victim: Weliver convincingly points out certain androgynous characteristics and a personal choice of repertoire that show an unexpectedly independent personality even under hypnosis. Similarly, her nude modelling makes Trilby unsuitable for society at first, but later her beauty serves on stage to attract just that society's concertgoers. The proverbial female domestic angels and demons may have been far less apart than the cliche suggests.

However: the international diva Trilby 'La Svengali', the grisette made good, is anything but a figure from a 'leisured home'. Also the chapter on Rosa Bud's unexpected resistance to her mesmerizing music-master Jasper in Edwin Drood is perceptive but centres more on his frustrated musicianship than hers: neither gender nor the professional status of the 'women musicians' under discussion are what the book's title promises to investigate. The analysis of Daniel Deronda concentrates, more pertinently, on Gwendolen and Daniel, although given that professional female musicians are discussed, it might have been interesting to see Alcharisi compared with her fellow-professional Trilby. Rosamond Vincy is a classical example of an 'accomplished' social-climber-by-music, but for Maggie Tulliver, to whom one of six chapters is devoted, musical experience is almost exclusively passive. 'Musical women', as the first chapter goes on to call them, is certainly a better - if still not completely apt - term for this array of very diverse figures.

Unfortunately, similar problems of inconsistency and incompletely substantiated claims recur on different levels throughout the book - not for a lack of things to say but because the text is not completely in control of the many things that could be discussed. This is especially noticeable in the introduction and the two background chapters which deal with mesmerism and evolutionary theories respectively. The word 'harmony', for instance, is made to link concepts as diverse as Rameau's eighteenth-century analysis of thorough bass, neoplatonic ideas of souls vibrating together, mesmerism and Herbert Spencer's explanation of the origins of music in automatic muscular responses. The chapter on Edwin Drood plays with 'fugue' as a term for flight, a musical form and a medical condition; the introduction cites - among many others - Forster's Aspects of the Novel, Lacan and Foucault, Walter Pater, Edward Said, opera, Darwin, Helene Cixous and ecriture jeminine as well as statistics on female professional musicians in Britain.