The Fall of the Moon Out of the Sky: Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn

Chapter 41 of Bleak House shows what is certainly one of the novel’s key scenes: a riveting power struggle between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn, after he has revealed that he know Lady Dedlock’s guilty past. Why is the tension between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn so compelling? It has something to do with these two figures’ power and restraint, but also with their hidden vulnerability. Lady Dedlock is a powerful personality, who governs her small world by a distant grandeur that impresses her superiority upon those around her. Tulkinghorn is a powerful holder of secrets, who, like a spider quietly spinning a web, wields the secrets to entrap an increasing number of individuals into his control. Each shows a remarkable ability to restrain emotion—these two are unflappable, distant, reserved. Nothing can touch them; one can hardly imagine either one breaking down.

The pair’s evenly matched superiority and self-control raise the level of tension in this scene—raise it through the roof, so to speak. The interview’s rooftop location, with the balcony in view of the night sky, refers pointedly to the distant grandeur of both Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn: Lady Dedlock, the “star” of the aristocracy and, Tulkinghorn, the calculating observer (and downfall?) of such stars. But the emotionless Tulkinghorn, pacing on the balcony, may have met his match in Lady Dedlock: “As he paces the leads, with his eyes most probably as high above his thoughts as they are high above the earth, he is suddenly stopped in passing the window by two eyes that meet his own.” When he sees the lady’s eyes so suddenly, he—the immovable Tulkinghorn—has a visceral reaction:

The blood has not flushed into his face so suddenly and redly for many a long year, as when he recognises Lady Dedlock.

Lady Dedlock, by surprising him in this way, gains subtle but significant power over him; even in her hemmed-in situation, she is able to bring her force to bear upon her persecutor. Startled and intimidated by her gaze, this imperturbable man flushes uncontrollably, revealing vulnerability for the first time in the novel.

Tulkinghorn fears Lady Dedlock.

He, who knows her secret, cannot yet wield its power because he cannot read the lady herself:

There is a wild disturbance—is it fear or anger?—in her eyes. In her carriage and all else, she looks as she looked down-stairs two hours ago. Is it fear, or is it anger, now? He cannot be sure.

The two study one another, mentally circling each other like wild animals. Move and countermove. They fight with words, while each maintaining an almost perfect self-control, a cool reserve and immoveable carriage.

As the lady turns to leave, intending to have her way and leave Chesney Wold, Tulkinghorn quietly and politely deals the final blow:

‘Lady Dedlock, have the goodness to stop and hear me, or before you reach the staircase I shall ring the alarm-bell and raise the house. And then I must speak out, before every guest and servant, every man and woman, in it.’ He has conquered her. She falters trembles, and puts her hand confusedly to her head.

By threatening to tell her guilt to her husband’s household, he has exposed Lady Dedlock’s own vulnerability: her loyalty to her husband Sir Leicester.

As Tulkinghorn assures her, “the fall of the moon out of the sky, would not amaze him more than your fall from your high position as his wife.” Tulkinghorn’s power prevails: he compels Lady Dedlock to stay…for now. By causing her downfall, though, Tulkinghorn prepares his own fall. He also has met his match: this lady, when caught in his web, dissolves it entirely.

Marian Evans: What Can and Cannot Be Expressed

Based upon Rae Greiner’s insights about sympathetic realism, I noticed a revealing correspondence between Marian Evans and her fictional work. Marian Evans’s own life may reinforce the realism of Middlemarch: Evans’s authorial struggle to remain anonymous is a similar tension to that which plagues Dorothea’s life as Mrs. Casaubon.

I realize that even looking for such a correspondence smacks of superficial fandom—the kind of insatiable public thirst for biographical info that Fionnuala Dillane critiques in “After Marian Evans: The important of being ‘George Eliot.’” Just to clarify, I am not looking for direct correlations between Dorothea and her creator. I’m not claiming a new take on “the real George Eliot” (really, people…let her alone to be her genius self!). I want to know how a tension Eliot uses in her work—the tension between what can be said and what must be silent—can play out in real life.

In Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction, Rae Greiner argues that Victorian realist novels depend upon readers’ cognitive act of sympathy. Particularly in the case of George Eliot, these novels induce sympathy not by portraying characters’ exact feelings, but by glimpsing the obscurity that veils the characters’ own perceptions. What draws us in—what makes the fictional situation real—is the “not-quite-knowing,” the “partial fitting-together.” As readers, we can then imaginatively work with the character as he/she imperfectly untangles feelings or navigates ambiguous social situations (26).

Specifically, Greiner brings up a Middlemarch example (citing scholar Harry Shaw) to clarify how sympathetic realism may function: As Dorothea is watching Featherstone’s funeral procession from her window, she attempts to connect the procession with her own life, highlighting her own funereal loneliness as Mrs. Casaubon. Not only is this passage sympathetic because poignant, but also because Dorothea must deal with multiple contexts/identities at once—like we do in real life. She is watching the funeral, but she is also in a parlor surrounded by guests. She has her own thoughts as she gazes out of the window, but she must not speak them in her visitors’ hearing. At this point, Greiner notes,

A sense of reality emerges in the interplay of what can and cannot be expressed, in what one might say aloud or what one must keep to oneself. (26)

The tension that haunts Dorothea—between what’s acceptable to speak and what must be held in—is exactly what grips Marian Evan’s own life as a Victorian authoress.

Marian Evans was unusually committed to anonymity. Aware of her social context and readership—especially the fraught views about female writers—she wanted to keep her private identity out of the press. Interestingly, she seemed more concerned about her work’s impact than her own privacy. For instance, when her correspondent Charles Bray guesses that she wrote the anonymous article “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming,” she implores him to keep silence: “I write…just to say, that it is mine, but also to beg that you will not mention it as such to any one likely to transmit that information to London…. The article appears to have produced a strong impression, and that impression would be a little counteracted if the author were known to be a woman” (15 October 1855). This interchange highlights the tension between what can be written (her published works) and what must remain unsaid (her female identity)…in its varied iterations, a universal struggle.

Work Cited

Greiner, Rae. “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists.” Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Why does Lantern Yard disappear?

In the penultimate chapter of Silas Marner, Silas and adopted daughter Eppie journey to Lantern Yard, the religious community of Silas’s youth, hoping to resolve questions from his past. Was he ever cleared of the wrongful murder charge against him? Why did the “casting of lots” result in the wrong judgment in the murder case? However, when the pair reaches the turning, they find a large factory where the Lantern Yard community used to be. As Silas laments, it is “all gone – chapel and all” (179).

At this point, it would have been easy enough for Eliot to leave a thread for Silas to follow, leading to a neat ending. He could encounter someone who knew where to find the old pastor, who would answer all his questions, justify his actions, and tie up his past neatly with his present. Instead, it’s a dead end….Lantern Yard is utterly gone. The questions will never be answered. Silas’s heart cry of “Why?” meets not even an answering echo.

For one answer, we can look to the realism of the novel. The almost sickly sweet conclusion—“‘O father,’ said Eppie, ‘what a pretty home ours is! I think nobody could be happier than we are’” (183)—needs a counterbalancing force of uncertainty. This hero and this heroine do not need all plotlines to tie up neatly in order to be content with their happy ending. Despite the uncertainty of real life, they are happy. Though his questions are unanswered in this rough and changing world, Silas is at rest.

It is also significant that Lantern Yard has given way to a factory. This intrusion of industrial life, even in a novel set in a country town, destabilizes the Marners’ happy ending. We know that Silas is losing his livelihood, bit by bit, as weaving becomes defunct. We also suspect that, in coming years, innocent Eppie will encounter more changes—perhaps not all positive—as industrial innovations encroach upon Raveloe.

Finally (or, rather, a final suggestion), the disappearance of Lantern Yard reinforces the novel’s humble approach to theology. In contrast to the hierarchical, controlling religion of Lantern Yard, Eliot presents theology most sympathetically in the mouth of Dolly Winthrop, Silas’s wise but uneducated Raveloe friend. Confiding in her about his disappointing Lantern Yard visit, Silas confesses:

I shall never know whether they got at the truth o’ the robbery, nor whether Mr. Paston could ha’ given me any light about the drawing o’ the lots. It’s dark to me, Mrs. Winthrop, that is: I doubt it’ll be dark to the last. (180)

In this way, Silas is like Job—Eliot previously referred to his “comforters” (79)–who, after long wrestling with his losses, humbled himself. Silas and Mrs. Winthrop suggest that asking “why” is not our place; our place is to accept the lot given us. Like Job, Silas has been given a beautifully happy family in place of the Lantern Yard family he had lost.


Work Cited

Eliot, George. Silas Marner. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

Middlemarch, Sympathy, and “being wise for other people”

The latter half of Middlemarch raises Tertius Lydgate, the innovative, visionary doctor, to the forefront—ironically, by depicting the downfall of his hopes and his reputation. With a disintegrating marriage, a besmirched name, and a load of debts, he comes to meet Dorothea about her sponsorship of his hospital project. In this interview, Lydgate—formerly proud, passionate, and rather disdainful of others’ struggles—reveals himself broken to another person for the first time. Lydgate’s transformed openness is a natural response to Dorothea’s genuine sympathy and respect.

This proud young man, who was going to expand the horizons of medical knowledge, had recently been strapped by debts and lack of sympathy from his wife Rosamond. He hadn’t listened to opinions against his marriage or warnings about overspending.  Even so, he stubbornly keeps his independence. Lydgate resists his friend Farebrother’s sympathy, his own pride recoiling from confessing debts to his friend: “He knew as distinctly as possible that this was an offer of help to himself from Mr Farebrother, and he could not bear it” (507). Failing to open himself to those who love him undoes Lydgate. Turning from Farebrother, he fatally embroils himself with Bulstrode’s downfall.

With Dorothea, however, Lydgate’s prideful, bitter exterior melts. When the whole community reviles him, she assures him, “You have never done anything vile. You would not do anything dishonourable.” To Lydgate, “it was something very new and strange in his life that these few words of trust from a woman should be so much to him” (587). He is learning the beauty of dependence, trust, and sympathy: “he gave himself up, for the first time in his life, to the exquisite sense of leaning entirely on a generous sympathy, without any check of proud reserve” (588). This generous sympathy, neither prying interference nor insistent pressure, gives Lydgate a way forward despite past failures.

The Lydgate-Dorothea dynamic may answer a central problem in the novel: the inability of deluded persons to hear wise advice when it is offered. Mrs. Cadwallader, a well-meaning Middlemarch gossip, had previously predicted the unfitness of Casaubon for Dorothea, and Lydgate for Rosamond–and as readers we tend to concur with her judgments, though we don’t want to. A gossip does not easily draw sympathy and rarely changes hearts, though her perception may be perfectly right. Mrs. Cadwallader recognizes the futility of her advice. After commenting upon Lydgate’s poor choice of wife, she exclaims, “However!—it’s no use being wise for other people” (495). It’s significant that the context of her remark is a conversation with Dorothea, in which she has already offended Dorothea by insulting Ladislaw—yet another attempt at gossipy advice, but without much sympathy. Mrs. Cadwallader’s kind of truth often drives people away, even when it is just the truth they need to hear.

Of course, as readers we wish that Lydgate and Rosamond had spoken openly before marrying. We wish that Mr. Brooke had delayed Dorothea’s marriage with Casaubon. We wish that Lydgate had accepted Farebrother’s aid. We wish…we wish… All of these “could haves” and “should haves” are predicted before the fact by various other characters, who may or may not try to interfere. However, the advice of wise friends did not stop any of these events. It seems to me that the characters involved grow wiser and more open because of sympathy, not merely advice: lonely Dorothea blossoms in the light of Ladislaw’s love and understanding; Lydgate’s pride softens and his despair lifts as he receives Dorothea’s warm-hearted trust.


Influence of Martineau on Eliot’s “Natural History of German Life”?

George Eliot’s “The Natural History of German Life,” which appeared in the July 1856 Westminster Review, has long been considered one of her more important essays—an early statement of the novelist’s artistic creed. While introducing her subject, Riehl’s work of German sociology, Eliot elaborates on the importance—and difficulty—of a writer rightly observing human beings. As opposed to a writer “of wide views and narrow observation,” who would merely spread prejudice, Eliot calls for writers who will truly contribute to social reform:

If any man of sufficient moral and intellectual breadth, whose observations would not be vitiated by a foregone conclusion, or by a professional point of view, would devote himself to studying the natural history of our social classes, especially of the small shopkeepers, artisans, and peasantry…and if, after all this study, he would give us the result of his observations in a book well-nourished with specific facts, his work would be a valuable aid to the social and political reformer. (112)

I wonder whether Eliot is drawing—consciously or unconsciously—upon Harriet Martineau’s sociological treatise How to Observe Morals and Manners. Eliot moves beyond Martineau by more clearly acknowledging the limitations of language to express the “real”—and even glorying in these limitations. However, Martineau’s message is certainly framed in similar terms. Like Eliot’s “moral and intellectual breadth,” Martineau’s observer of other cultures must also have adequate moral and intellectual training in order to record valuable observations. Like Eliot, Martineau warns observers vehemently against hasty generalizations. To avoid generalizing, she advises travellers to withhold judgment, except for certain “safe means of generalization within the reach of all,” by which writers can “[inspire] men with that spirit of impartiality, mutual deference, and love” (9, 11).

A large portion How to Observe Martineau then devotes to detailing the various kinds of facts observers can chronicle—in order to, in Eliot’s terms, write a “well-nourished” book. Eliot, too, records subjects to particularly observe, which almost parallel those of Martineau. Martineau lauds the merits of observing as a pedestrian traveller. Eliot praises Riehl for observing the German people in just this way: “years ago he began his wanderings over the hills and plains of Germany for the sake of obtaining, in immediate intercourse with the people, that…which he was unable to find in books…. He was, first of all, a pedestrian, and only in the second place a political author” (127). Finally, they share an end goal for socially observant writers: to provoke (key word) progress. This fits in with the Westminster Review’s goal of “the Law of Progress,” as stated in the Prospectus written by Eliot and the Review’s editor.

Interestingly, both Martineau and Eliot write for the Westminster. As Fionnuala Dillane points out, during the period in which Eliot wrote “A Natural History,” Eliot wrote with varying tone for different publications, modifying her presentation for each outlet. This suggests that publication venue influences how she expresses views, and perhaps even which views she puts forth (Dillane 247). The Westminster certainly has its own “critical vocabulary emphasizing sympathy and common humanity” (247).  Is Eliot’s view colored by conformity to the Review, as Dillane’s provocative article suggests? I don’t doubt the sincerity of Eliot’s desire for books “well-nourished with specific facts” that will help social reform. But, based on the similarity between Martineau’s and Eliot’s wording—which Dillane does not address—it’s clear that the vocabulary of the Westminster is strongly influencing Eliot. According to Dillane, Eliot may not have even selected Riehl as her subject; her editor assigned the review to her. Could this famous essay, rather than the statement of artistic mission to which we elevate it, be the product of a weary author borrowing and adapting her colleague Martineau’s work to fill page space?


Dillane, Fionnuala. “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History’: Marian Evans, “the People,” and the Periodical.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 244-66.

Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A.S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Martineau, Harriet. How to Observe Morals and Manners. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2010.

Mary Barton and Murderous Melodrama

Spoiler Alert: Contains spoilers of exciting parts of the novel.

Would Mary Barton reach the ship in time to contact Will Wilson, who alone could prove the alibi that would save her lover in his murder trial?

Mary’s small boat, propelled by rough rivermen, was giving chase to Will’s large ship. They were nearly within earshot, but the large ship weighed anchor and heaved away. In desperation, “Mary stood up, steadying herself by the mast, and stretched out her arms, imploring the flying vessel to stay its course, by that mute action, while the tears streamed down her cheeks” (285). With this intensely dramatic scene, Gaskell impresses upon readers the image of a sorrowing angel, honored for the power and purity of her love even in a wild world of tossing waves and gruff sailors.

While I appreciate the symbolic beauty of Mary’s posture, I also recognize its cost—readers’ true sympathy for the heroine. In this moment (and others like it), Mary ceases to be a real, interesting human being. Instead, as a reader, I am conscious that she is merely a figure that the author manipulates for the author’s own purposes. Even as I wonder—and even thrill—at the unlikely, exciting course of events, I find myself oddly indifferent to Mary herself. Though I want to remain in the story, the contrived impressiveness of plot and presentation pushes me to the position of a skeptical outsider. Melodrama, which Gaskell apparently thought was a key to conveying her message, turns out to be the novel’s main weakness.

Melodrama does satisfy a certain desire in readers. We want excitement and suspense—some delay of satisfaction to make it more delicious when/if it comes, or more shocking when denied. In an age rife with sensational fiction, my-lover-is-accused-but-my-dad’s-a-murderer plotlines and hyper-emotional heroines were perhaps more acceptable than they are now. Therefore, it may be unfair to judge Mary Barton with my twenty-first century sensibilities. Further, I acknowledge the effectiveness of intense scenes upon the memory. Dwelling on the details leaves an impression, which, in the case of Mary Barton, could move readers to the benevolent action toward the poor that the narrator so clearly desires.

The alienating effect of overused melodrama, however, undercut these benefits in my reading of Mary Barton. It’s not just the tear-stained martyr against the mast, either. Mary realizes that she loves Jem passionately after she rejects him and he leaves her to wallow in deep despair: “Jem! Jem!” cried she, with faint and choking voice. It was too late…” (123). At Jem’s trial, Mary’s face turns pale, her eyes wild, and her voice mumbling; she loses her mind and then faints away. Jem and Mary glimpse Aunt Esther’s ghastly white face against their window as she stumbles in and then dies. And, of course, the summit of melodrama: Mr. Carson, the vengeful father, gently holding John Barton, his son’s murderer, so that he can die comfortably. John, in his turn, looks gratefully at Mr. Carson, “folds his hands as if in prayer,” and breathes his last. (I will leave the narrator’s other treatment/abuse of John Barton for another discussion.) The point is that, despite the thrill of these moments, they are kitschy, improbable, and frustrating. By desperately trying to convey a message, the melodrama kills Mary Barton’s surest power to move readers.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ed. Myron F. Brightfield. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1958.

Cranford’s Burnt Letters and Blurred Lines

Having recently read Harriet Martineau’s decided view against publishing private letters (inexcusable eavesdropping! a moral breach!), I was interested to see that in Cranford Elizabeth Gaskell enters the debate. Instead of Martineau’s rather impassioned moral outcry, Gaskell presents various emotional dilemmas related to letter writing in her playful portrait of an English country town and its spinsters.  She intends, it seems, to complicate rather than decide the issue of whether private letters should be made public.

In perhaps the most telling scene featuring letters, Miss Matilda Jenkyns and the narrator–her friend Mary Smith–read, discuss, and burn the old letters of Miss Mattie’s deceased family members (chapter five). Miss Mattie feels a strong moral aversion to exposing private letters to strangers’ view; she must burn them so as not to profane her family’s memory. She does preserve the letters written by her idolized sister Deborah, because she considers them worthy of being published, comparing them to the writings of a contemporary female author. The narrator, Mary Smith, humorously undercuts this suggestion by letting us know that Deborah Jenkyns’s letters bored her to no end. Nevertheless, the narrator sympathizes with Miss Mattie’s desire to hide her family’s stories from public view, as she and Miss Mattie shed tears over the tender epistles.

The old letters Mary finds most intriguing are those that illuminate real relationships: maiden and suitor, husband and wife, mother and child. The narrator’s response to these letters helps us understand why she chose to publish the contents of these burnt letters in Cranford. In these crumbling, yellowed letters, the deceased Jenkyns family seems vividly alive to Mary:

I never knew what sad work the reading of old letters was before that evening, though I could hardly tell why. The latters were as happy as letters could be – at least those early letters were. There was in them a vivid and intense sense of the present time, which seemed so strong and full, as if it could never pass away, and as if the warm, living hearts that so expressed themselves could never die, and be as nothing to the sunny earth. I should feel less melancholy, I believe, if the letters had been more so. (53)

These letters move her. They bring people to life, people whom she does not even know, and the family’s narrative begins to sweep her into their experience. Mary certainly sympathizes as a friend—she is Miss Mattie’s closest confidante. However, the letters also draw her in as an outsider. I believe that Mary would have connected intimately with these letters even without knowing any of the Jenkyns, and she clearly hopes that her readers will have a similar experience as she retells the letters in novel form. The fire did not destroy Miss Mattie’s letters. Instead, the family and their story rise out of the ashes with a new beauty, given shape by Mary’s plume. Destroyed for privacy and now published for strangers, the old letters re-emerge as a novel.

By publishing the Jenkyns’s story, is Mary Smith betraying her friend’s sacred confidence and express wish? Not only does narrator Mary Smith make the content of old letters public (despite her friend Mattie’s intense desire for privacy), but Mary also writes entire installments of Cranford using private letters received from Cranford friends as her primary source, often joking at her friends’ expense. Nowhere does she mention receiving permission to share their contents with the world.

I’m not saying that we should indict Mary as a treacherous friend, though. Perhaps, because Mary herself writes a letter to India that changes the course of the Jenkyns’s story, she considers that the story is now her own to tell. Or perhaps the narrator considers the chapters of Cranford as a “letter” to her readers. Based on Mary’s intimate tone, I certainly feel like a part of the family. And if the Jenkyns family letters blur with the novel genre, then doesn’t it make sense that the novel itself blurs into an epistolary form. Even if the novel doesn’t quote most letters directly, could the novel itself be an extended letter to us?

Saint Charlotte Bronte

When famed novelist Charlotte Bronte died of illness in “the old grey house” of her childhood, the entire town “passionately grieved” her. One young woman, whom Charlotte had succored when the poor young lady was “betrayed” into pregnancy, mourned bitterly. A blind girl, too, piteously entreated her companions to take her to the graveyard of her beloved benefactress. All wanted to be a part of her funeral train, because she had been so kind and charitable to them. Such is the picture painted by Elizabeth Gaskell in the final chapter of her biography, The Life of Charlotte Bronte. It is this final chapter that most clearly links The Life to the genre of hagiography. Throughout the biography, Gaskell frequently imbues Charlotte with a saintly aura and saintly qualities.

The saintly qualities Gaskell chooses are those of the ideal Victorian woman: a strong, self-denying sense of duty to home, along with religious sensibility. Again and again, Gaskell highlights Bronte’s choice to deny herself for her family, whether by teaching or staying at home or doing housework. Her sense of duty was extraordinarily strong. Sometimes Bronte’s devotion to duty becomes problematic, her “over-ascetic spirit betokening a loss of healthy balance in either body or mind” (110). At these periods, she became “gloomy and frightful” (111). Here the hagiographical angle fades into the background and Bronte is simply human, though we still sense Gaskell’s authorial hand smoothing the rough edges into an admirable gleam.

In large part, the reason for the emphasis on duty in The Life is to answer Bronte’s critics—those who accused her of being unladylike, especially. However, in “The Life of Charlotte Bronte as Mid-Victorian Myth of Women’s Authorship,” Peterson points out that the concept of “duty” in the The Life is perhaps Gaskell’s own—not Bronte’s. Certainly, “duty” is strongly represented in Bronte’s own letters. The concept is more complex than it appears, though. Peterson shows that “duty” is intertwined with “genius” in both Bronte’s and Gaskell’s writings. Bronte, in particular, associates “duty” not just with social and familial responsibilities, but also with responsibilities to develop one’s artistic talents.

In the final chapter, Gaskell cites a friend, who writes of Bronte in terms of her commitment to duty above all, and cites this as the reason for the public to give her a sympathetic place in their memories. While I understand that Gaskell needed to answer critics’ accusations, I question this appeal to saintly duty as the final say about Bronte.

Maria Young: Observer and Novelist…and Heroine?

Maria Young is one of the noble figures of Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook—noble in her aspirations for forming her students’ characters, in her patient bearing of misfortune and pain, and in her intelligent, sympathetic role as an observer of humankind. After reading Martineau’s How to Observe Morals and Manners, I am most interested in Maria’s aptitude for observation. Martineau seems to form Maria’s character in line with the rules for sympathetic observation in How to Observe. However, Maria is not only like a wise traveller from a treatise on travel writing; she is also an image of the observant novelist, embedded in the novel itself. In Maria, then, the author unites two of her own roles: observer of real people, and observer of an unfolding plot in the novel. If Maria is the figure of the observer and the novelist, though, why does she practically disappear about halfway through the novel—and show little insight into the unfolding plot and its characters—until the last chapter?

Early in the novel, Maria is of great interest to the novelist and to her heroines. Margaret and Hester are intrigued by Maria. Margaret, especially, pursues Maria’s company and learns to admire her greatly. Even apart from these attachments, though, Maria stands on her own in the novel. Martineau allows Maria to even narrate her thoughts at length (Vol. 1, Ch. 5). At this time, Maria clarifies her role: “What is it to be alone, and to be let alone as I am? It is to be put into a post of observation on others…. Without daring to meddle, one may stand clear-sighted, ready to help” (47). Martineau thus exalts Maria’s character in the midst of her sufferings from being lame, poor, and without family. Maria remains actively involved in the plot, mainly as Margaret’s confidante and one who wisely perceives the troubles and joys of those around her.

After about the mid-point of the novel, however, Maria retreats. She is closed off in her own rooms in the town, and she ceases to have her own voice. In the final chapter of the novel, Maria returns to the forefront to reflect on her solitary life and offer gems of wisdom. The final scene is of the two lovers, Margaret and Philip, walking and talking about Maria. Hers is the last proper name in the book.

If Maria is a figure for Martineau herself, then does Maria’s retreat from the storyline reflect Martineau’s own lack of confidence in her plot? Could Martineau, a first-time novelist, be signaling an uncertainty or lack of control over the problems she has created in Deerbrook? Why does Maria return to Martineau’s interest at the end, rather inconclusively?  Couls she be the real heroine?

Miss Martineau’s Gentle Advice for Writers: Don’t botch your work!


“Revise, revise, revise.” As a writer, I was formed by this maxim. Now, as a teacher of writing, I repeat the refrain to my students. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read in her Autobiography the writing practices of accomplished Victorian author Harriet Martineau. Martineau “committed [her]self to a single copy” of each piece. After she had figured out what she wanted to say, she had always “written it down without care and anxiety” (113). She not only describes her process of single-draft composition in glowing terms; she also denounces revision as a sloppy practice! “I think I perceive,” continues Martineau daintily, “that great mischief arises from the notion that botching in the second place will compensate for carelessness in the first.” After dropping that bomb, she decides to stomp out the survivors: “I think I perceive”—oh, that phrase!—“that confusion of thought, or cloudiness or affectation of style are produced or aggravated by faulty prepossessions [i.e., revision practices]” (114). So, for Martineau, revision is “botching in the second place,” is it? Really, now! Revision is an art, I’ll have you know!

Once I let my flustered temper cool down, however, I was ready to give Martineau her proper due—and get to the more interesting questions of the matter. After all, Martineau’s method seems to have worked well for her: She does have a readable, pleasurable prose style. She was extremely prolific in multiple genres. She made a name for herself, a woman writer, under adverse circumstances. And after having meandered among her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, for a little while, I have a growing respect for this author. I’m not interested, then, in simply contradicting her writing practices.

Instead, I am intrigued by what her single-draft publications might reveal about how her mind and opinions develop—especially when she contradicts herself. Others bloggers and I have noticed differences between Martineau’s theory and practice of travel-writing (in her Society in America). Victorian scholar Dallas Liddle, in The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain, argues that Martineau attempts to present herself in the Autobiography as a humble, unambitious writer who unintentionally broke in on the publishing scene…but that Martineau contradicts herself in the details of the scenes, which suggest that she felt the triumph of satisfied ambition. Further, Liddle claims that the historical facts of Martineau’s first publication also suggest the latter (57).

Could Martineau’s single-draft writing be a reason these inconsistencies came into print? She writes in a state that is both purposeful and stream-of-consciousness. Thus, her writing most closely approximates her thoughts at a given period; she does not revisit it. The rest of us—those who revise—bring our many “selves” to the composition; we change between each draft, and we meld our thoughts from these different “selves” to most closely approach that which we intend. This certainly does not exempt from error those writers who revise (there are faults and risks), nor do I condemn the single draft—Liddle makes the excellent point that Martineau is aligning herself with journalistic writing style. However, “I think I perceive” that many of Martineau’s works frame inconsistencies—overt or hidden, as the case may be. The works are more interesting this way, fresh from Martineau’s mind, and I want to see what can be gleaned from her distinct, unblended writing “selves.”

A Utopian Vision for Travel Writing

I question whether Martineau reaches her own lofty goal of objective observation in her travelogue, Society in America. In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau aims to make would-be travel writers aware of the intellectual and moral training they need to record valuable observations about the people of other nations. To avoid hasty generalizations, her solution is for each traveller to withhold judgments, except for certain “safe means of generalization within the reach of all,” by which writers can “[inspire] men with that spirit of impartiality, mutual deference, and love” (9, 11).

Martineau’s descriptions of how to accomplish this are not always “safe” from prejudice and hasty generalization. Take just one instance, when she describes a who views the whole earth in contemplation. If one takes Martineau’s description at face value, the philosopher actually sees a grouping of grossly generalized stereotypes of the world’s peoples (How to Observe 17). The contradiction between her instruction and her attitude, already present in the treatise, becomes apparent in her own travelogue. In How to Observe, she states that travellers must interact with all levels of American society. From the parts of Society in America that I read, she references interacting with factory managers and with upper class individuals, but what about factory workers and slaves themselves?

It’s helpful here to compare Martineau’s theory of observing human “manners and morals” to her theory of social progress. Both theories are utopian visions—and therefore unachievable. A society’s view of “progress” is one of the main criteria that Martineau aims to judge as a travel writer. In her view, progress consists of equality among men and widespread, state-instituted charity. She envisions a world in which “the whole race could live as brethren” (How to Observe 124). She fiercely demands objectivity in the sphere of observation and a universal “fraternal spirit” in the sphere of social progress.

I’m especially interested in her focus on the “dignity of labor” as the central prerequisite for progress—a view that’s either socialist or democratic, depending on how you spin it, but a prejudice nonetheless toward a certain kind of society. And a utopian one, at that—Listen to this:

There is no drowning the epithalamium with which these two classes celebrate the union of thought and handicraft. Multitudes press in…to the marriage feast, and a new era of society has begun. The temporary glory of ease and disgrace of labour pass away like mountain mists, and the clear sublimity of toil grows upon men’s sight. (Society 2.2.5)

Because of this slant, her moral observation about America is rather simplistic: the North has a good view of labor and is therefore happily progressing, while the South has a bad view of labor and is therefore miserable. I’m not saying that she is entirely wrong—it’s a helpful angle and has truth to it, especially considering slavery—but it is based on hasty generalizations about people’s happiness.

My point is that, just as Martineau’s utopian fancies about society are unattainable, neither can human observation help usher in a future of worldwide fraternity and charity. The most one can hope for is improvement; Martineau’s mistake is to expect eventual perfection. As a result, her work—both treatise and travelogue—exposes a large gap between theory and practice.

That’s not to say that her observations are of no account: Martineau is one of those partially competent observers described in the introduction to How to Observe. But it is only in combination with other perspectives on America that Society in America moves us toward an accurate view.