The End of the Fallen Women

Many novels deal with the idea of the fallen woman and her fate. The Mill on the Floss, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Ubervilles each do just that. While the respectability of the women and their ends differ in each, there is an idea of the woman being replaceable, or at least being unnecessary to the other characters, in all three of the novels. The endings for these fallen women show how they were viewed. While writers garnered sympathy for their characters, in the end they had to be disposed of, and life had to carry on.

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie is deemed to be a fallen woman after her extended boat ride with Stephen. When she returns, she is rejected by most of society, including her brother. While Phillip, her mother, and others do take her side, most of society sees Maggie as someone to avoid, even though she did not actually do anything with Stephen. However, this is enough not only to gain the ill will of the town she grew up in, but also for her to have to die. When the flood comes, she and her brother Tom die in each other’s arms, their ship sunk by debris in the water. Maggie had to die despite not actually doing anything wrong. In the end, Maggie is dead, and Stephen has moved on to be with Lucy. Life carries on, and while Phillip is sad and alone and Stephen visits her grave, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care about the fate of this fallen woman.

Things are worse in Lady Audley’s Secret, however. When Robert discovers that Lady Audley is the wife of his friend, George Talboys, he exposes her to his uncle Michael Audley. Lady Audley’s fate for marrying two men is not death like Maggie. She instead gets sent off to a sort of mental institution where she cannot bother either of her husbands anymore. She is just shoved out of the story at the end, despite all the sympathy the narrator tries to make the readers feel for her. While she is not replaced by either George or Michael, she is shown to be unnecessary to either. George lives with his sister and Robert, and Michael has his daughter to depend on. Everyone seems to get along fine with Lady Audley out of the picture, almost as though she never existed at all, save for the melancholy of the men who had married her.

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, however, the main character is actually replaced, at her own suggestion. Tess is a fallen woman because of what Alec did to her. She keeps what happened to her a secret, however, and by doing so is able to marry Angel. Once he finds out about Alec, he wants nothing to do with Tess, leaving her to fend for herself and eventually to be drawn back to Alec’s side. When he comes back for her though, Tess longs to be with him, murdering Alec so that she can. She is caught and persecuted for this crime, and interesting change from being punished for being fallen. Lady Audley of course did try to kill people, but Tess here is punished solely for her murder of Alec. She too though is replaced, this time by the younger sister whom she told Angel to be with when she was caught eventually. Tess’s death is in line with getting rid of a fallen woman, but the sister getting with her husband, at her own suggestion, is not. Still, however, to most of society Tess was a fallen woman, so she had to die in the end.

Tess of the d’Ubervilles stands out from other novels about fallen women because Tess is killed for a different, though related, crime and because Tess is replaced by her younger sister. Tess being killed for murder shows that the real crime was that she was influenced into taking such measures after all the terrible things that had happened to make her fallen. Her being replaced by her sister shows a form of sympathy for her, trying to have Angel be with Tess, or the closest thing to her, while still getting rid of the fallen woman who has no place in society. So while all these novels deal with fallen women, giving them bad fates and showing that they are unnecessary to the people in their lives, Tess of the d’Ubervilles goes farther, showing that the fallen women are only criminals because of the extreme situations wrongly forced upon them. It demonstrates that, if the woman had not done the one thing that made her fall, she would have been able to have a good life like readers can presume Tess’s sister can have with Angel. The way this novel deals sympathetically with the fallen woman sets it apart from others and makes it a novel truly worth studying.

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.

Silas Marner: The Novel of Gentle Fetishism

The heap of gold seemed to glow and get larger beneath his agitated gaze. He leaned forward at last, and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft, warm curls.” 

Silas Marner

ignore females

“The gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetishism, lest it bruise its own roots.”

“Fetishism” was an interesting choice of words for Eliot, I thought. As I read Silas Marner I realized that what the novel really concerns itself with is not, perhaps, obsession, but fetishism, or even addiction.

Marner spends every evening poring over his gold. Dunsey spends his energy hurting others, actively thinking — as not many villains do so explicitly– how best to harm others, even without anticipated gain for self. Godfrey’s time and energy spends itself in regret, wondering how he came to be married to the poor Molly, who is attached to the novel’s most damaging addiction — opium. And lastly, even Eliot’s novel is the unwinding of a fetish, a drawing of the pastoral, the pure, and the redeemed.

Eliot’s own fetish is highlighted most when she typifies her pastoral women. Nancy, Dolly, and Eppie are all of the same strain; pure and blushing without false coquetry, lively and intelligent, though uneducated, loyal, maternal, and child-like. The men are similar as well, though they differ greatly in age; men are seen less in appearance than they are in shared concerns of the outside world and economy. Men share the burden of provision for self and others, of mistaken trust and betrayal, of a carnal knowledge of the world that robs men of a natural gaiety and purity that must be restored by the feminine.

In this way Eliot’s novelistic youthfulness emerges, though the prose and characters are unique and enjoyable enough to justify its success. Silas Marner is not the novel to delve deeply into the flaws of its hero; Marner’s love of gold is the pitiable result of a disappointed life. The opium addict, a woman who nearly murders her child through her own neglect and obsession, is given an entire chapter of Eliot’s kindness. Eliot, in Silas Marner, resembles Dickens’ later work in many ways. It features a brief, fairly thorough sketch of a character whose core being, whether good or evil, is sustained throughout the novel, with foibles rather than the deep flaws one finds in the people Eliot later writes.

The phrase I wrote earlier — and then reconsidered — was “gentle fetishism.” And, perhaps, that’s the only fetishism of which we can accuse dear Eliot, her lively and uneducated women, and her sad, worried men.

Silas Marner and the Limitations of Experiential Knowledge

The peaceful ending of Silas Marner, and the weaver’s ardent declaration that “I think I shall trusten till I die” seem tidy, neat, redemptive. However, I can’t help but feel/think that something is missing. I feel unsatisfied, and I think that George Eliot has intentionally left some loose ends. We are not meant to feel comfortable with Silas’s ultimate “redemption” because his closing affirmation highlights a textual problem: the uncertainty of experiential knowledge and the limits of experience.

The “Christianity” in this novel (as a few of my colleagues have pointed out) is inherently unsatisfying. If (as Megan says) Eliot’s “Christianity” is an excuse for easy endings and problematic moral platitudes, or (as Mackenzie says) Silas is redeemed not by Christianity at all, but by community– we still run up against the same problem. The knowledge and trust of Marner and the other characters in Eliot’s novel is based entirely on feeling and experience, with no basis in reason or understanding of the faith they blindly affirm.

For Christians and non-Christians alike, Silas’s last affirmation of faith should be troubling because it is faith without basis. At the beginning of the novel, Silas’s past faith has been shattered by his experience (being cast out), so that “Nobody in this world but himself knew that he was the same Silas Marner who had once loved his fellow with tender love, and trusted in an unseen goodness. Even to himself that past experience had become dim” (86). The community that he shared in his former chapel no longer shapes his beliefs; thus, experience of people’s irrational, unjust, and contradictory actions is enough to destroy his moral core.

When Silas becomes a part of the Raveloe church, it is almost as if he has converted to an entirely different religion: “He was quite unable, by means of anything he heard or saw, to identify the Raveloe religion with his old faith; if he could at any time in his previous life… it must have been by the aid of a strong feeling… rather than by a comparison of phrases and ideas” (125). The religion of Raveloe looks so different to Silas because his perception of religion is based on his differing experiences of the people in Raveloe. He has not looked into the religion itself; he instead places his trust in the good faith of the people around him, creating a dangerous, blind “groupthink” effect. Nobody is actually able to say what the community of Raveloe believes, beyond a general morality and the trappings of religion (christening, going to church regularly, etc).

The theft of Silas’s gold perhaps mirrors the first theft of Silas’s faith. He does not lock his doors against Dunstan Cass because “the sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction” (41). Silas is secure in his first community because it is habit. Likewise, as soon as he is “secure” in the habit of community again in Raveloe, he does not concern himself about what– or who– exactly he is trusting. Rather, he has a “feeling”: “There’s good i’ this world– I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel as there’s a good more nor he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness” (145). His trust is not based on revealed knowledge of God, God’s actions, or God’s character– things just “seem to work out” and so (of course) he feels like there must be a god of some sort who wants what’s best in the long run. This affirmation reminds one (uncomfortably so) of Candide’s “best of all possible worlds” philosophy. And this belief is closer to Moral Therapeutic Deism than Christianity.

Who’s to say that Silas’s experience, his “redemption,” will be permanent? Silas’s final affirmation (“Now she says she’ll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die”) has a dangerous condition: it depends on the continuation of his present experience, just like his blind trust did in his previous community. What happens if Eppie dies young of a brutal illness? What happens if the fickle townspeople decide to cast Silas out of community again? Silas even admits, “if I lost you, Eppie[,] I might come to think I was forsaken again, and lose the feeling that God was good to me” (166). The novel ends before this happens, of course, but is Silas’s “redemption” a “happy ending” after all? Can any ending be happy when faith rests on such shaky ground?

Perhaps this question is what Eliot wants us to wrestle with.

Darling, You Disappoint Me

“No other woman exists by the side of her. I would rather touch her hand if it were dead, than I would touch any other woman’s living.” (Eliot, 537)

Excerpt from one of many charming speeches made by Ladislaw in Eliot’s Middlemarch

Victorian meme

After reading Middlemarch, my head swam with all the the stories, the novelistic achievement (for Eliot, not myself (though I may have patted myself on the back and eaten an ice cream after finishing)), and the OVERWHELMING ideas on gender and religion that Eliot seems to throw casually into her novel. Oh, you want Mary to wed Fairbrother? WELL TOO BAD. Oh, you think Ladislaw is an undeserving, over-emotional douchebag? TOO BAD, HE MARRIES THE HEROINE ANYWAY. Oh, you hope that Lydgate and Rosamond reconcile, or even part, and end up happy? TOO BAD, DEAD HUSBANDS MAKE HAPPY WIVES. Oh, you hope somebody –anybody! — achieves their goals in life? TOO BAD ITS CALLED REALISM FOR A REASON, BITCH!

In all seriousness, I suppose Middlemarch is a novel of disappointment. And I guess this is what makes it the only truly riveting, non-Bronte, Victorian-era novel I have read. We’re denied our heroines, we’re denied our heroes, and it all ends up alright if you’re ok eating five donuts from depression after reading Eliot’s Finale and realizing Fairbrother’s dead and Fred can rest easy, Mary’s post-pregnancy body is full and matronly, Lydgate died, and Dorothea becomes a non-entity, a saint never to fulfill her potential because she married “young Ladislaw,” the flirtatious, temperamental playboy-turned-activist.

What is fascinating is this idea that this novel leaves the reader with a deep sense of disappointment, and even resign, that the author cleverly plants in her readers. The women are both great and petty souls at turn, and yet they all remain secondary in their lives to their husbands, all of whom view themselves as deserving of love, as more concerned with their own well-being than that of their lovers. We cannot help but wish Dorothea had found an outlet for her greatness, that Mary occupied a role greater than that of Fred Vincy’s wife, that Rosamond had proved herself less vain, less coquettish, less shallow, unsupportive, and even cruel than she did. But we are disappointed, and this is because Eliot created characters who then acted like people. And we are disappointed in people.

#people #thestruggleisreal

And the question I came to at the end is how does this disappointment serve the novel? How does it work on the reader, and make Middlemarch such an engrossing read, even when Dorothea is annoyingly saintly and emotional, when Rosamond is a selfish twat, and when Mary chooses the sub-par playboy over the wonderful vicar, a man who appears like a guardian angel and saves all the young men from sure destruction? I think it connects to the idea that disappointment is the realm of provincial life, and — in Eliot’s view – of marriage (a very un-feminine take on marriage at the time, methinks).

And so we are left, weeping into our ice cream as we half-heartedly flip through a bridal magazine, pondering how a seminar paper might be written on the theme of disappointment.


Georgie Pordgie Pudding and Pie, Criticized the Women and Made Them Cry

“The most pitiable of all silly novels by lady novelists are what we may call the oracular species — novels intended to expound the writer’s religious, philosophical, or moral theories.” Eliot, 148

“The strength of Mrs. Stowe’s own religious feeling is a great artistic advantage to her here; she never makes you feel that she is coldly calculating an effect, but you see that she is all a-glow for the moment with wild enthusiasm, the unreasoning faith, and the steady martyr-spirit of Dred, of Tiff, or of Father Dickson.” Eliot, 380

37898458 Oh…

What is one to do with the paradox that is George Eliot? While reading her essays and reviews, I became increasingly befuddled. In my experience, Eliot is the reason nerdy feminists can justify the Victorian period. period. Glimmers of hope for the fallen ladies and a push for the education of the gentler sex just don’t cut it for most academic women, but…repeatedly…George Eliot does.

It must be my limited exposure, but what I have read of Eliot — these few assigned essays and Adam Bede — don’t thematically justify the ardor with which feminists pursue Eliot. Though I was “lol”-ing at Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, I was also dismayed. In an era where women sought expression, sought to assert their right to participate in written society, Eliot only scoffs, and urges the romance-peddlers to give up their trashy writing and leave it to the women geniuses.

But if it were not for all these women publishing…if it were not for the increasing commonality of a lady novelist…if there were nothing but men’s writing for comparison…could Gaskell, Martineau, C. Bronte, and Eliot have succeeded? Would women be writing as prolifically today were it not for the infuriatingly chaste, marriage-chasing, mooney-eyed virgins and reformed dukes of the penny romances?

It was disappointing to read Eliot on Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, though I understand the urge she felt to raise women up, to shame them and inspire them through her own genius.

These are tempered sentiments. After reading Eliot’s review of Dred, I could begin to see why all my feminist mentors and professors in the past six years, all the glasses-wearing, scarf-wrapped, cat-petting women academics geek out over Eliot (don’t worry, I’m getting there too). Its because she’s a genius, and she recognizes the genius of other women, and promotes it. She is cruel to those she finds below her own level of intelligence and perception — the novel-writing masses — and instead tries to pull and promote that in which she finds true life and great art. She compares Stowe to Scott, and becomes quite the fan-girl over both, finding the grandeur of Scott’s settings in the close quarters of Stowe’s, finding “the Negro” characters as compelling as any of Scott’s.

Comparing this review to her essay on lady novelists, a reader might begin to think that Eliot was mistaken in her own perceptions, or misleading the public. Perhaps it is not a question of genius, or who-should-and-shouldn’t be writing novels. Perhaps it is a matter of sincerity. Of ardour. Of simplicity. Eliot is not a downright sadistic critic, judging from her ruling on Stowe. Rather, she cannot support the insincerity of romance, the moralizing without strong moral feeling, piety without realistic representations of both martyrdom and hypocrisy.

In such ways, Eliot is the genuine realist. Adam Bede is not…Silly Novels by Lady Novelists is not…but her review of Stowe, a glowing, critical recognition of a fellow genius and — more importantly — a genuine, passionate writer, renders Eliot more likeable, though perhaps not much nicer.



Un-idealized Generalizations: George Eliot’s Implicit Criticism of Riehl in “The Natural History of German Life”


Idealized painting of Russian peasant life, 1889. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History,'” Fionnuala Dillane challenges those who would seek to forge a unified theory of writing for Eliot from her comments about realism in “The Natural History of German Life.” She quotes Michael Wolff, stating that Eliot “does not have a ‘theology of aesthetics'” (261); rather, Eliot’s “discomfort with the role of authoritative cultural commentator” and questioning spirit shrunk from spouting certainties in an uncertain world (241). While I believe that Dillane rightly urges critics to avoid proof-texting Eliot, I believe that Eliot’s thesis statement affirms her implicit criticism of Riehl’s generalization and her desire to see a more realistic portrayal of the poor.
Dillane argues that Eliot’s editors at the Westminster assigned her the review of Riehl, and that Eliot passively complied– because, like most journalists today, she probably wanted to keep her job. However, I don’t believe that her editors’ constraints stopped her from passively critiquing Riehl. The oft-quoted passages on writing and realism, I believe, stretch beyond what Dillane calls “an attempt to win over an English audience often hostile to relatively unknown German writers” (248-249). In these passages, she sets up her criteria for a successful representation:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals found on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such a s a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves. (110)
Eliot goes on to list several artistic (not sociological) works, and writes that these stories of individuals do more “towards linking the higher classes with the lower… than hundreds of sermons and philosophical dissertations” (110). If falsification is, as she goes on to claim, the cardinal sin of representation, then the author who generalizes unfairly is duly condemned.
A couple points here are noteworthy: First, why acclaim the novelist and the artist in a review of a sociological treatise? Second, why condemn generalization so strongly, and then proceed to glowingly summarize an author who does just that? While Eliot praises the author who can engage her readers’ sympathies with individuals through art, she characterizes Riehl’s work as doing just the opposite. She summarizes and highlights his generalizations at length (e.g. “The peasant, in Germany as elsewhere, is a born grumbler” (123) or the Communist peasant living near the city who “has here been corrupted into beastiality by the disturbance of his instincts, while he is as yet incapable of principles,” (125) etc.) Far be it from us to sympathize with such lower, animalistic human beings, who are somehow incapable of morality or justified grievances! Rather than the sympathetic but realistic (and individualized) picture of the poor that Eliot envisions in the realist novel, Riehl’s poor are too far removed from the reader, and too far generalized in a corrupt direction.
If she was indeed bound by her editors’ constraints to write a positive review, Eliot subversively leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions, to tease out the latent dissonance between words and actions. Thus, while “The Natural History of German Life” should not perhaps be the sole proof-text for Eliot’s theories of representation, it should not be completely discarded, either.
Works Cited
Dillane, Fionnuala. “Re-reading George Eliot’s ‘Natural History’: Marian Evans, ‘the People,’ and the Periodical.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 244-266.
Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” In Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1990.