Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 35 (2004)
Patricia Menon's title may be cumbersome, but her theme of the lover who becomes the instructor, guide and judge is a fascinating one. In her Prologue, she finds the 'mentor-lover' in Richardson's Pamela, Rousseau's Emile, Dryden's adaptation of Ovid's Pygmalion and Galatea, and the mediaeval letters between Abelard and Heloise which were widely read in the eighteenth century. She also sees a keen interest in moral judgements in those proliferating 'conduct-books' which sought to regulate behaviour, promote the right education for middleclass women and the right attitude to love and marriage. Such anxious concern with orderly living was intensified by the chaos across the Channel at the turn of the century when 'a flurry of reprinting occurred with every crisis of public confidence over the conflict in France'.
Patricia Menon's brief is a wide one, embracing three women novelists. She shows with admirable clarity how one writer illuminates another, and the comparisons and contrasts she draws are not only intriguing but closely illustrated from the text. Her Prologue whets the appetite: she maintains that Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot all use the figure of the mentor-lover extensively though to different ends. Thoughtful assessments are made, not least in the realm of sexuality. Menon believes that Jane Austen is the writer least threatened by the power of sexual attraction which, even if it sometimes induces blindness, 'is not necessarily in conflict with judgment, and may indeed prove a stimulus to better choices than may rational consideration'. Charlotte Bronte sees the dangers of sexual attraction, the risks of self-annihilation and loss of freedom, although at the same time 'that threat to freedom is as exhilarating and erotic as it is terrifying'. Of the three novelists, Menon sees George Eliot as the one most threatened by the perils of sexuality because its passionate force may endanger the selflessness she wants to encourage. Menon does not confine herself to heterosexual couples: she includes those intense relationships that exist between parents and children, between siblings, and between those of the same sex.