Domesticate This!

“The drive to domesticate such public figures and to idealize them at the same time, and the important related impulse to make them visible in a veridical age…was something that Eliot could not avoid.”


While reading Dillane’s chapter, “After Marian Evans,” the concept of the projected body and the danger of a woman’s body of written work — when attached to a physical body — struck me like an abusive sister.

The glory of Victorian women writer’s was the escape of the body. As women committed themselves anonymously, or pseudonymously, to a page their bodies were empowered beyond any sphere granted them by the surrounding culture. Reading Martineau and Eliot’s periodical work reminds readers that without the burden of their visible body women could explore social, economic, and artistic avenues with authority, without so much of the gendered apologistic rhetoric demanded of their opinions in company.

However, with the popularity of photography and the Hollywood-esque lionization rapidly rising in Victorian priority lists, the demands for the literary body to become physical was a danger. Whereas a woman could be an expert in the periodical, no one would credit her an expert in person. What that means is that the original, projected, authorial body, that ethereal intelligence and wit of women writers would be grounded, staked, examined, and dissected once that body became physical and represented through photography. The sight of a woman’s body also recalls the concept of the woman’s sphere. Seated and demure, serious, small — the woman’s sphere, replicated in the limited scope of a physical portrait, reminds the audience (particularly the male audience) that the ideas expressed by the author are not dangerous. Subversive, yes, but not dangerous, because the physical woman was not a social hurricane, but a little breeze to the public intellectuals. This reduction from hurricane to breeze, however, could be avoided if only the woman remain incorporeal, a generator of ideas and arguments without the physical vulnerability of the Victorian Woman.

In this way, Dillane is spot on about Marian Evans vs. George Eliot. As the distant authority, the wit, the philosopher, and sympathist, George Eliot could successfully impact the literary realm. Distanced from the physical body of Marian Evans upon whose appearance several cruelly commented, George Eliot could succeed. Reminders of her body, and the tying of George Eliot’s mind to that of Marian Evans’ body, would subject her to the damaging scrutiny of a society that saw her body as a violation of her gender and intellect, in addition to the social and ethical codes of the era.

The periodical disembodied women, a necessary move to empower the woman writer. To write on economics, art, politics, and social issues without the visible evidence of femininity (though retaining the woman’s experiences) was empowering. Marian Evans in particular, as a living violation of society’s expectations, needed a disembodiment, and the placement within the authorial name and physically removed figure of George Eliot.

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