Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)
Throughout her novels, George Eliot points out the deplorable state of education for women in the nineteenth century and the effects that poor education has upon the individual. Only limited schooling, if any, was available to girls whose parents could not afford to pay substantial sums, and too much schooling for girls was commonly viewed as unnecessary and even dangerous. In addition, schools generally spent a large proportion of their time teaching various "accomplishments" and very little on more academic subjects. Characters in most of Eliot's novels reflect common perceptions on education for women and illustrate the undesirable results of inadequate or inappropriate schooling.
An assortment of Eliot's characters make statements to the effect that women should not know too much. Regarding Dorothea's studies which she undertakes to help Casaubon in his work, her uncle Mr. Brooke says, "We must not have you getting too learned for a woman, you know" (Middlemarch 174). When Maggie Tulliver is a child, her father states (in her presence):
She understands what one's talking about so as never was. And you should hear her read - straight off, as if she knowed it all beforehand. And allays at her book! But it's bad ... a woman's no business wi' being so clever; it'll turn to trouble, I doubt. (Mill 15)
Tulliver earlier told his wife that Maggie is "twice as 'cute as Tom. Too 'cute for a woman, I'm afraid" (Mill 11). Tom Tulliver feels threatened by his sister's abilities with books. In an attempt to obtain support for his belief that girls are too silly to learn subjects such as Latin, Tom appeals to his teacher. Mr. Stelling pleases Tom and wounds Maggie by stating that girls "can pick up a little of everything, I daresay .... They've a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn't go far into anything. They're quick and shallow" (Mill 132).
Many of Eliot's male characters prefer women who lack education or even intelligence. Tulliver describes his wife to Mr. Riley: "I picked her from her sisters o' purpose, 'cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn't again to be told the rights 0' things by my own fireside" (Mill 17). Harold Transome in Felix Holt does not want any competition from women; he is interested only in subservience (292). He tells his independent-minded mother, "I hate English wives; they want to give their opinion about everything. They interfere with a man's life" (19-20).
In contrast, several of Eliot's women are criticized because of their lack of education or intelligence. When Felix Holt first meets Esther Lyon, who teaches French and has been reading Byron, he decides that she is shallow and silly (66). Similarly, Daniel Deronda perceives Gwendolen Harleth as an "ill-educated, worldly girl" (385; ch. 35). A common explanation for the lack of any necessity for education for women is presented by Duncan Crow in The Victorian Woman:
What was the point of proficiency in the use of globes or in Latin, Italian or even French when the girls would never have the need to use such knowledge? What a girl needed to know was how to care for the sick and how to sew and how to cook, and these things she did not learn at school. Furthermore, the competitive spirit which prevailed at school gave them the wrong ideas. When they came home there would be no question of competing; it was their duty to submit to the will of their elders, especially their male elders.(60)
All too often, this opinion was shared by both men and women.