*****es Be Lazy: Female Characters That Feed Victorian Expectations

** MAJOR SPOILER ALERT – JANE EYRE. **

* SMALLER SPOILER ALERT – PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. PROCEED WITH CAUTION. *

At the heart of the novel Daniel Deronda, an important question seems to be whether Gwendolen is in control of her life or a passive being who waits for things to happen to her. While Gwendolen manipulates people with her charms and therefore can certainly in some ways change the course of events, she remains ever-aware that marriage, an institution she considers dreary and restrictive, must be the only way she can secure her future. It is curious that for all her strength of spirit in other matters (being mean to people, for instance), she is not given something important to do with her life than flirt with men, occasionally show off the few talents she has, and gamble. (My question is, then, why isn’t she?) Mary Poovey’s article “The Ideological Work of Gender” refers to WR Greg’s 1862 essay, “Why Are Women Redundant?” and attempts to “challenge Greg’s assertion that certain instincts, however they are defined, ‘lie unanimously in the hearts of humanity…in all times and amid all people.’” Greg’s essay essentially identifies unmarried working women as a “problem” because these women were supposed to be helpful accessories in a man’s life, and were doing neither themselves nor the rest of society any favors by being independent. George Eliot values realistic portrayals in her work, and thus does not want to hold up an image of Victorian women that simply isn’t true – that of an unmarried, successful, career-driven woman who can escape all the judgments and questions of society. However, I feel that this prevents her readership from having something inspirational (and not altogether impossible) to read about. Jane Eyre, for example, becomes a governess and refuses to marry Rochester when she finds out that he has a mad wife in the attic – even though there are strong grounds for them to be together; after all, Rochester and Bertha cannot live with each other in any fulfilling way. Gwendolen, on the other hand, has no inclination to get a job, and no trouble marrying Grandcourt despite knowing that he has a mistress with four children. I find that this compounds the attitude WR Greg shows in his essay: that women are not to work or remain single. This is particularly puzzling in the case of Gwendolen, who is not weak of mettle and vitality, as I mentioned. She is no Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice), who happens to be plain and has nothing to offer and must therefore jump at the mention of a good proposal. Gwendolen is told twice that marriage is the only happiness in a woman’s life, and while she instinctively knows this to not be true, she undertakes no action to occupy herself with something else to ward off pressure. She thinks men (including Grandcourt) ridiculous, even swears off them for a while, but there is that ceaseless preoccupation to get married, followed by repeated justifications. Mrs. Davilow tries to tell Gwendolen that she does not want to have to be dependent on Grandcourt, and that financial troubles should not determine whether Gwendolen marries him, but Gwendolen does not listen. In a story in which the female protagonist has potential (not just in terms of beauty, as that leads back to finding oneself a mate), it is comes across as a peculiarity that Gwendolen should be so idle.

Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. New York: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. University of Chicago Press. 1988.

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