Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)
The view that Eliot presented her female characters with only very limited possibilities for self-realization in either marriage or martyrdom, and that Eliot herself '1ived" but did not "write" the "revolution" is one that has dominated the feminist assessment of George Eliot. This tradition regards Eliot as an author who served unintentionally to bolster a reactionary, phallocentric ethos. Further, Eliot is suspect as she has been, particularly since F. R. Leavis gave her prominence in The Great Tradition a part of the accepted literary canon. Nevertheless, as Elaine Showalter, for example, has pointed out in "The Greening of Sister George," George Eliot's life and work has had enormous impact on women writers and theorists. The tension between these different attitudes is an indication of the vitality of feminist writing in general, and it has produced perhaps the most stimulating new reading of Eliot's work. Here, I wish to examine recent feminist critical discourse on The Mill on the Floss, and to attempt to demonstrate that significant aspects of the novel have been consistently overlooked.
A crisis in feminist criticism has been noted by a number of critics.! One of the major causes of this crisis is the very acceptance of feminist writing and of many feminist ideological positions. To a degree this is understandable as the very attempt to create a feminist poetics or a female canon was based on the model of traditional canon production.2 American feminist criticism has attempted to address this problem, and to investigate all areas of female experience, including the political, sexual and economic, necessarily ignored in the traditional canon. Much French feminist writing has examined women's writing using a Marxist or psychoanalytic framework, and has been questioned for employing such value-laden methodologies. The problem of discovering a "I' ecriture feminine, " that is not biased by the patriarchical structures embedded in language, has dominated much feminist writing. Finally, the very notion of an inviolate, autonomous voice for feminist criticism, or "gynocriticism," has been regarded with suspicion. The diversity of approach and perspective in feminist criticism, the plurality of voices, and the on-going analysis of the very methods and goals of the feminist programme demonstrates a vitality in the field which can only be hinted at here to indicate the foundations upon which some of the feminist writing on George Eliot is based.
Feminist literary criticism is wary of the standards and values of traditional criticism, and refuses to ignore biographical information and such notions as authorial intentionality, and the historical context of a work's production in considerations of a text. There is an inherent difficulty in defining feminist literary criticism in that its relationship to dominant modes is problematic and as it uses approaches ranging from legislative and theoretical criticism to applied criticism. Two recent studies by Jennifer Uglow and Gillian Beer have examined Eliot's work from different feminist perspectives. Gillian Beer demonstrates how a certain type of feminist interpretation of Eliot has become a critical orthodoxy, and, in the light of a perceptive critical formalism, and with the aid of much new material, particularly about Eliot's close activist friends, she provides a new feminist reading of the novels. Jennifer Uglow's aim is not to examine Eliot's use of language, or to locate her in a female tradition, but to examine the interplay between Eliot's life and work. The difference in their approaches may be seen in their treatment of The Mill on the Floss.