Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 46 (2015)
This luminous new work - dedicated to 'the millions of women deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by society's misogynist myths' - casts fresh light on George Eliot's feminism, which has often been the subject of controversy. 'I want to show' , says the author, 'that however ambivalent George Eliot was about practical matters, she strongly accepted most of the ideals of contemporary feminists […]. [S]he moves, through her works, from a repudiation of rebellion against conventional views of women to an acceptance of that rebellion in her later works; and, in each of her major works, she supports one or more causes of contemporary feminists [….] against patriarchy's privileging of men' (32).
Benjamin Jowett commented: 'There was a time when [Eliot] greatly desired to write something for the good of women' (27); but she was doubtless also afraid that overtly expressed ideas combined with her anomalous position with Lewes in society would harm the women's movement. Attitudes have shifted so much that we now find it difficult to grasp how, especially early on, Eliot was marginalized as a dangerous 'scarlet woman'. The alcoholic heroine of 'Janet's Repentance', a brave depiction of a woman suffering at the hands of her brutal, drunken husband, though even with legal sanction (77), was then the least popular of Eliot's characters, in a story, according to Harriet Martineau, pervaded with 'moral squalor'; but the strong disapproval of Janet's own drinking, manifest in (and out of) the novel, betrays the double standard then prevalent in a society which often admired her husband's large capacity for alcohol consumption. Maggie Tulliver was seen as wicked, and The Mill was often forbidden reading for girls, who, as Florence Nightingale complained, were taught that 'women have no passions' (228, n68). Lady Amberly, four years before her marriage, was allowed only to read the first half, while in 1885, when 19-year-old Harriet Weaver was caught reading the novel, the village minister publicly reprimanded her from the pulpit (230, n89). Indeed, the sexual passion between Step hen and Maggie still has the power to move and disturb readers: we are here in stormy Bronte territory.