Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 43 (2012)
'There is no such thing as natural barrenness in natural women' wrote the eminent French psychologist Eugene Becklard in the 1840s, and, in general, physicians agreed with him. Certainly in mid-nineteenth-century literature children were the sine qua non of a successful marriage; courtship novels rarely ended at the altar, happy endings demanded babies. Unlike lady novelists who wrote silly novels, George Eliot thought marriage, with its complications, compromises, and lack of easy exits, was quite as interesting as courtship, and childless marriages were generally more interesting than generative ones. The two childless marriages' in Silas Mamer and The Lifted Veil present an interesting contrast in Eliot's treatment of the condition. Nancy Lammeter's childlessness stands sui generis in Eliot's work as providing one of the plot's pivots, and for afflicting an otherwise happy marriage, whereas Bertha Grant is an early representative of a series of wives in Eliot's work, where childlessness is symbolic of a deep-rooted incompatibility between husband and wife.
In Romola the narrator opines 'the little children are still the symbol of the eternal marriage between love and duty', and in the nineteenth-century novel that is exactly what they represent, a 'completed' marriage. Wilkie Collins produced a satirical take on this convention in his essay, 'A petition to the Novel-Writers' (Household Words, 6 December 1856). A reading group of dull people, who prefer travel books, are discussing a Novel. One gentleman accuses it of glorifying crime when the villain is shot by a handsome highwayman, another criticizes the death-bed scene for being too sad:
But the great effect of the day was produced by a lady, the mother of a large family, which began with a daughter of eighteen years and ended with a boy of eight months. This lady's objection affected the heroine of the novel - a respectable married woman, perpetually plunged in virtuous suffering, but an improper character for young persons to read about, because the poor thing had two accouchements - only two! - in the course of three volumes. 'How can I suffer my daughters to read such a book as that?' cried our prolific subscriber indignantly. A tumult of applause followed. A chorus of speeches succeeded, full of fierce references to 'our national morality,' and 'the purity of our hearths and homes.' A resolution was passed excluding all novels for the future; and then, at last, the dull people held their tongues, and sat down with a thump in their chairs, and glared contentedly on each other in stolid controversial triumph.