Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 17 (1986)
Pauline Nestor's book traces the prominence, the emergence of women writers by the mid-nineteenth century, and the making of a community available to themselves. As she puts it, they were banding together, for 'women were no longer merely victims of the pen, but were wielding it themselves.' She comments particularly on Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte and the unifying power of maternity in her fiction. In the essays of the period there was a 'prolonged discussion of women's capacity for friendship'. Pauline Nestor is particularly strong on Mrs. Gaskell, tracing her modesty and grace, her ability to get on with Other women writers and, unlike Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, she asked for advice and judgment about her work. A sense of female solidarity is to be found in her fiction, and there is a fine social, moral and sexual analysis of Lennox's proposal to Margaret in North and South. Even better is the tracing of Lois's manipulation in Lois the Witch, and of Holdsworth's intrusion upon Phillis in Cousin PhiIlis. With Charlotte Bronte she examines her 'sisterly self-sufficiency' and the collaboration of the sisters, goes on to look at Chariotte’s solitariness over Villette, her responses to Harriet Marineau and her falling out with the latter. She looks closely at Charlotte’s friendships with Mrs. Gaskell and Ellen Nussey and her deep respect for Mary Taylor. There is a very interesting focus on Miss Taylor’s novel Miss Miles (the reader feels moved to try and find a copy), while Ms. Nestor observes that ‘Bronte remained a defiant apologist for single women’ highlighting, of course, the plight of governesses in particular. There is an interesting analysis of Jane Eyre and its anti-maternal imagery, while she regards Shirley as the novel which best typifies friendship among women. The section on George Eliot is interesting but largely unsympathetic. She rightly stresses the importance of the move to London and the work on the Westminster Review and of the nature of her isolation (a) because of her liaison with Lewes and (b) his protection of her. She found 'social obligations a torment' (did she, later on, in view of those many Sunday afternoons?). George Eliot's friendships from Sara Hennell and Cara Bray right through to the slobberings of Edith Simcox are traced, but I suggest that the stories have been told many times before. At the same time, there are some interesting analyses of the women in her fiction, the note on the ending of Romola in particular. This is a very worthwhile book, fiIIing a needful gap.