Dear George Eliot,
To start with, I’m sorry if you prefer Mary Ann in personal correspondence, but something tells me that you’re quite happy with that pseudonym which recalls George Sand and, like all those novel titles, hides female genius behind a masculine cover. Because Scenes of Clerical Life isn’t so much about vicars, is it, as their wives? And Adam Bede? Well, he’s nowhere to be seen at the emotional climax of his own novel, which really concerns Hetty and her woman’s fate, and Dinah in her female brilliance. Middlemarch widened its scope, sure, out from that early story of Miss Brooke, but its masterful tapestry of lives is woven with that heroine at its centre. So, firstly, a hesitant thank you for distinguishing yourself from those ‘silly lady novelists’ whose work you felt undermined the reception of your own, for showing the patriarchy that a woman’s work could be taken on the same level if she wasn’t hampered by an indicator of supposed inferiority on the title page. I’d have preferred a show of female solidarity and a more nuanced take on why not all women could have your genius, why some of them had to write sensationally to earn their living—but that probably wouldn’t have got you published.
Thank you for stepping out of your story to talk to us, to hold our hand and tell us how to feel about your characters, for taking a minute mid-narrative to philosophise on our use of metaphor or the nature of childhood memory or other universal truths of human life which you bring to bear on us emotionally and individually and passionately in the tale at hand. Thank you for showing us the ceaseless convergence and intertwining of human lots and lives, the necessity of human sympathy, the futility of emotional self-sufficiency. Thank you for those pages without a paragraph break, for those steadily observed and exhaustive portraits of a hero or heroine’s budding love, growing desperation, or change of outlook. But thanks, too, for humour (when we’re paying attention), and for natural dialogue in pubs and taverns as well as parlours and drawing rooms. Thank you for grandeur and for ground level, for intellectual heights and for everyday emotional realities.
Thanks for the drama. Let’s talk about that for a moment—because it seems that every time I start a new novel of yours I’ve let the haters get to me, and come to believe that you’re a dull old nineteenth-century novelist who writes about sleepy villages with an occasional splash of gossip or political turbulence. Thanks for proving them embarrassingly wrong. Thanks for letting me sit comfortably until that holy moly moment of tragedy consummated or averted, that chapter-ending revelation or death or eleventh-hour salvation. And I don’t mean the kind of gentle, shocking-but-always-half anticipated plot twists which Austen would have condoned; I’m talking about the ‘bloody hell!’ content which anticipated Hardy.
It’s not that I’m not grateful for the gradual tragedy, too, don’t get me wrong. Because what’s so beautiful and difficult about your dramatic moments is that they go beyond the plot sensationalism of the Victorian best-seller in being matched by the inner lives of your wonderfully wrought characters. That is, I believe them so intensely—though I know you must have had half an eye on book sales—because you render the emotional force of your characters’, especially your heroines’, turbulent internal worlds so vividly that their manifestation in external acts comes to feel like such a natural part of the journey, an inevitable climax of and turning point for the lives and stories you’ve been calmly, authentically, building. You knew, as we do, that wives rarely seriously contemplate killing their husbands, or mothers their babies, but you knew, too, the tangled and desperate emotions of women’s plight in your time, the social and psychological strain of being female, which made ordinary lives only a step away from tragedy, from unbearable drama, from the stuff of novels.
Thank you for writing imperfect women alongside unrealistically saintly ones. Thank you for every vapid Celia to the religiously yearning Dorothea, every conceited Rosamond Vincy to the intelligent Mary Garth, every boisterous brunette Maggie Tulliver to the serene blonde Lucy Deane, every troubled and silly Hetty to the spiritual and exalted Dinah, every ignorant and vulnerable Tessa to the learned but equally vulnerable Romola, every faulty Gwendolyn to the perfect Mirah. Thank you for the chattering gossips and the bitter older women, for the vacuous and selfish young girls, for voluble Mrs Holt, for vain Monna Brigida, for silly Mrs Tulliver, for cold Princess Halm Eberstein. I don’t know how effectively you got it through to the Victorian sexists, but those women who don’t live up to the Angel in the House standard are (almost) living and breathing examples of its impossibility, walking talking feeling (fictional) proof that perfectly admirable, faultless, and brilliant women are unlikely to emerge out of the conditions of patriarchy.
Thank you, more than anything, for giving us something to criticise. Because sometimes those stereotypes of annoying female behaviour which you draw on to offset the Dinah Morrises and the Mary Garths who transcend them are little more than flat copies of misogynist ammunition, which we could do with deconstructing. Sometimes your models of submissive, suffering virtue—your Romola taking on the yoke of faith just after she’d freed herself from the one of marriage, your Esther Lyon moulding herself and altering her dreams at the slightest chastisement of Felix Holt, your Maggie Tulliver struggling to suppress the fire within her—don’t work as role models in the project to liberate ourselves. Thank you for giving us their miseries to pity and their oppression to rage at. We can admire their strength and praise their survival (when they do survive), but it isn’t the solution to a societal problem.
Thank you for making it abundantly clear that men are trash. Okay—that they can be easily tempted to be trash when they’re the benefactors of oppression. Thank you for Casaubon, for Tito, for Grandcourt, for Arthur, for Dempster, for Transome—for making them all real enough to show that patriarchy is a problem. But thank you for the good guys too, from Mr Gilfil to Daniel Deronda. And, oh boy, Daniel Deronda. I’d better stop there.
Very best and please write me another novel for lockdown,
Jess x x x