Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Madwoman in the Attic, George Eliot, female novelists, feminist criticism, Virginia Woolf

The other day, in The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, I read the introduction and several chapters on Snow White, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte. Now I've just read the chapters on George Eliot, and some passages on Virginia Woolf's reading of Paradise Lost
The same feeling of irritation, with some kind of distaste. 
The authors' reading is reductive and distorting and ideologically-driven. This is submission. That is renunciation. Those are patriarchal values. This is misogyny. That is self-hatred. This is upholding of conventional values. That is anti-feminism. This is feminine evil. That is male anxiety. This is female passivity. There the authoress is punishing her heroines. Etc. Etc. I'm too lazy and busy to dissect these long chapters, point out all the assertions and remarks I have problems with and comment on each of them. Gubar's analysis of Shirley is generally OK, as Shirley is a political novel (even without the themes of industrialisation and Ludditism) and there's no other way to look at it, but that's not the case with many other works. Gubar and Gilbert go too far in their feminist reading, creating the impression that when they examine a literary work, what they look at and look for is not its literary merits but its political significance, its portrayal of women, its feminism/ anti-feminism, its attitude towards the male-dominated society and tradition, its take on the conventional images in literature of women as the angel or the monster/ the madwoman, and so on and so forth. It is inartistic, simplistic and frustrating. 
It is, I think, not accurate to attribute my reaction to this book simply to my general dislike of feminist criticism (The Madwoman in the Attic is, by the way, considered a landmark, a ground-breaking work). Being female, I definitely notice and very often feel bothered by the sexism, bias and prejudice of some writers, and don't deny that feminist criticism can be useful. It should also be noted that Virginia Woolf is a favourite literary critic of mine (though I'm aware that her essays are more like commentaries or reviews), besides, say, Nabokov, and I have tremendous admiration and love (yes, love) for her A Room of One's Own and The Common Reader. However, while discussing the differences in circumstances between male and female writers, pointing out the obstacles and challenges against women and the effects these have on their works, she reads the novels by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Jane Austen and George Eliot and other authors, as novels, as works of art, and it's from this point of view, as she prioritises art over politics, that she can see how Charlotte Bronte lets indignation distort her works and therefore gets less said despite having more genius in her than Jane Austen or how George Eliot becomes clumsy for trying to write a man's sentence or how Jane Austen's novels are not less important than those books about war and politics because what matters is that they're well-written, etc. She discusses literature and women authors but doesn't necessarily sees individual works through the lens of feminist criticism, doesn't impose ideas and ideologies on them and doesn't try to bend them to fit some theories. She definitely doesn't point at something and put some label on it like "submission" or "renunciation" or whatever as I've written above, which Gilbert and Gubar do. With her essays, Virginia Woolf has made me embrace my gender and think differently about literature and female novelists. That's where she differs from Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. 


Below are some interesting quotes on George Eliot from The Madwoman in the Attic. So far I have only read Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda and don't want to say anything. When I consider myself more familiar with George Eliot, I will come back and comment on them. 

"Eliot's punishment of her heroines, her frequent bouts of illness, her often censorious avuncular tone, and her masculine pseudonyms all suggest the depth of her need to evade identification with her own sex."
"By perpetuating [the myth of feminine evil], Eliot demonstrates her internalization of patriarchal culture's definition of the woman as the 'other'. We can see the signs of that internalization throughout her career- in her continued guilt over societal disapproval, her avowed preference for male friends, her feminine anti-feminism, her self-deprecatory assumption that all other forms of injustice are more important subjects for her art than female subjugation, her extreme dependence on Lewes for encouragement and approbation, her inability to face the world as a writer and read even the most benevolent reviews of her work."
"Although until quite recently she has been viewed almost exclusively in terms of male literary history, Eliot shows in "The Lifted Veil" that she is part of a strong female tradition: her self-conscious relatedness to other women writers, her critique of male literary conventions, her interest in clairvoyance and telepathy, her imagery of confinement, her schizophrenic sense of fragmentation, her self-hatred, and what Emily Dickinson might have called her "Covered Vision" place Eliot in a tradition that still survives today."

"Insisting on the primacy of male spheres of activity, Eliot aspires to the 'masculine' scientific detachment of an essayist producing and analyzing 'slices of life'. And in this respect, as in so many others, Scenes of Clerical Life forecasts the camouflages of her later fiction. Adam Bede, with its masculine title, relies on the story of fallen and female Hetty Sorrel for its suspense, just as Felix Holt the Radical maps the mental and moral development of Esther Lyon, while both The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch announce themselves as sociological studies of provincial life, though they were originally conceived and still come across as portraits of female destiny. And at the end of her literary career Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda, a book that could as easily be entitled 'Gwendolen Harleth'."

What do you think about these assertions? 


  1. It's interesting what you say, because despite being an intellectual and enlightened woman, Eliot didn't exactly campaign for women's rights, although her feminist friends (I think Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Rayner Park) wanted women to be able to vote.

    This may seem a disappointment, but when you look at the sort of person Eliot was, it makes sense. She loves to denigrate beautiful ladies who are shallow and superficial, who are more attracted by glamour than passion. She was an emotional, passionate and profound woman, and I think she did feel a little inferior to these beauties. She felt she got short shrift because she was ugly and intellectual.

    Also read Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. Eliot has quite a low opinion of many members of her sex. It is not hard to understand why, being a profound woman herself. A topic discussed in the 19th century (I don't remember if Goerge Eliot mentioned it) was about accomplished women who did nothing useful with hteir accomplishments. It was there for decoration, not for solid intellectual edification. Even Hazlitt has things to say on this matter.

    But as a woman, she would have realised that her gender faced prejudice. Unless you wrote religious novels, or silly romance novels, a female novelist found it harder to get recognised as a major force. Also she wanted to conceal her identity, due to her living with a married man - hence she adopted a man's name.

    Adopting a formal, pompous tone was one way for a female novelist to pretend to be a man. Eliot sometimes comes across as formal.

    Last but not least, apart from the general bias against female authors, you must consider that genius is universal. To be recognised as a genius on her own terms, Eliot had to act the man, not just to satisfy society but to conform to an ideal. It is said genius is adrogynous, and Eliot's masculinism may not just be an attempt but part of her natural self. Great male novelists have "feminine" perception, sympathy and social intelligence. Great female novelists have "masculine" satire, nerdiness and a willingness to rebel.

    George Eliot clearly was a woman at heart, but I think she had stereotypically masculine qualities which helped her become a great novelist.

    1. I generally don't like the suggestion that authors denigrate or punish their characters. That is similar to what people have said about Tolstoy (Anna) and Flaubert (Emma). I know what you mean, but still...
      Also, I assume you have read George Eliot's essay "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft"? Her point is that women are so restricted in terms of education, fields... that their interests and sympathies are also narrow- so by creating such female characters, she's depicting and analysing their weaknesses but at the same time critiquing the society as a whole.
      The problem with George Eliot is her moralism and didacticism.
      I read "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" a while ago. Will reread it at some point. Her view isn't very different from Willa Cather's, I'm not surprised that she doesn't have a high opinion of many female writers, who, with their sentimentality and ridiculousness, make men look down on women in general and who create challenges for her, forcing her to distance herself from them in order to be taken seriously. What bothers me is whether the passage attributed to her about Jane Austen is really hers, because if it is, I think she has a very wrong view on Jane Austen, and this comes from a narrow view on literature in general, the idea that an artist has to deal with intellectual subjects in order to be recognised and seen as important. Genius is what matters.
      I think I agree with you that masculinism is part of her natural self, not just an act.

    2. No, I haven't read Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft. Heard of them, though. The only essay by George Eliot I've read Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

      Oh yes, the didacticism does get on my nerves sometimes. But authors with a wide range of topics and who love to discuss social issues can get like that at times. Victor Hugo, for example, and Dickens (even though Dickens isn't so openly didactic.) While intellectually stimulating, sometimes it makes you wonder, are they there to tell a story, or to give a political lecture? But George Eliot portrays a believable world, which more than compensates for that, and overall, her novels don't seem to scream "Look at this book! Champion this cause!" Her causes are part of the novel, rather than staring at you throughout the whole story.

      Silly Novels by Lady Novelists is hilarious. You could say very similar things about today's fiction, except put in Strong Female Characters. And Bella Swannish Mary Sues. And unbelievable dystopian YA novels.

      What does she say exactly of Jane Austen? You're right, genius makes or breaks a novel. Intellect flavours it. The best sort of novel I feel has some intellectual content, but it is put in discreetly, so everyone can enjoy the novel on an entertaining level, but the more intellectual can appreciate the intellectual sides on another layer. The best novels are multilayered. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy tend to scream out their intellectual ideas, which makes them tougher reading. Whereas it is easy to enjoy Dickens without having to analyse the social issues. But if you analyse the social issues you have a greater appreciation of his novels.

      It's interesting you say George Eliot said that a great artist has to mention intellectual subjects. Charlotte Bronte didn't put in many intellectual things - or if she did, it was done more discreetly - more intuitive than intellectual. And George Eliot revered Charlotte Bronte. But perhaps she made her an exception. Charlotte's genius impresses you instantly, even with its flaws and lack of reasoning, defiance of norms and disregard of current issues.

      I think it takes a greater genius to make an un-intellectual work (on the surface) interesting and great, than to write an obviously intellectual work. The latter can be acquired; the former needs something within. Often I can sense that Eliot is over-exerting, that she strains every nerve to analyse everything she writes, rather than letting the story flow on its own. You see less of this strain in Jane Austen (except in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility). To put almost everything in a book (like Eliot) and be great is not a very hard strategy; it almost seems guaranteed to make a masterpiece. Whereas to put very little in a book (like Austen) and be great is much harder, because you have the word of the intellectuals against you, and you have to make the little you have interest the reader. That requires a great deal of emotional intelligence, wit and game theory.Especially game theory. George Eliot had a great deal of emotional intelligence, but she was not so good at game theory. Eliot compels the characters to do this, say that; Austen rarely does. Her characters talk naturally, without the idea that the author is trying to raise an issue. So in a way, you can say that Austen's world makes more sense. It is more logical and exists on its own, without the author's exertion.

    3. No, I'm fine with discussions of social issues and such digressions. Many of my favourite authors do that. What I'm thinking of is the fact that George Eliot wants to teach the readers about morality, virtues, sympathy... and bends the story to fit her intentions and themes. If you think of Jane Austen, she's serious, and in a way, also didactic- all of her ideas about balance, virtues, the unity of virtues, self-understanding, etc. Each of her novels follows the same general plot that the heroes and heroines, after many incidents and conversations, realise their own mistakes and gain self-awareness and improve themselves. But her novels, especially the last 3, don't feel contrived or artificial, and Jane Austen keeps a detached tone, so her philosophy and purposes don't interfere with her art. Tolstoy is more strongly didactic, just like George Eliot, but then again, the artist in him always triumphs and takes over the preacher's role. I don't know about other novels by George Eliot, but Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda very often, especially towards the end, give the impression that she's really saying "Look at this book! Champion this cause!". Her moralism is most clear in her heroines- the good ones, the saintly, perfect, idealistic ones, such as Dinah and Mirah. In Adam Bede , chapter 15 is the worst, where she obviously tries to make the readers feel in a specific way- think highly of Dinah, see Hetty as shallow, superficial. Some late chapters after Dinah has been arrested are horrible. In Daniel Deronda, the narrator takes sides.
      Maybe Middlemarch isn't like that. I will read it and come back to this topic. But generally, you probably know my aesthetics already, I don't like moralistic novels, novels of ideas, novels where characters are the author's mouthpieces, novels where the narrator wants to shape the reader's reactions, etc.

    4. I've read your post on "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" as fitting perfectly Twilight and 50 Shades. That's a good one. Hilarious.
      This is the passage on Jane Austen that has been attributed to George Eliot:
      "The high reputation which Miss Austen's novels gained, and still retain, is a proof of the ready appreciation which is always felt when an author dares to be natural. Without brilliancy of any kind—without imagination, depth of thought, or wide experience, Miss Austen, by simply describing what she knew and had seen, and making accurate portraits of very tiresome and uninteresting people, is recognized as a true artist, and will continue to be admired, when many authors more ambitious, and believing themselves filled with a much higher inspiration, will be neglected and forgotten.... But Miss Austen's accurate scenes from dull life, and Miss Burney's long histories of amiable and persecuted heroines, though belonging to the modern and reformed school of novels, must be classed in the lower division.... They show us too much of the littlenesses and trivialities of life, and limit themselves so scrupulously to the sayings and doings of dull, ignorant, and disagreeable people, that their very truthfulness makes us yawn. They fall short of fulfilling the objects, and satisfying the necessities of Fiction in its highest aspect—as the art whose office it is 'to interest, to please, and sportively to elevate—to take man from the low passions and miserable troubles of life into a higher region, to beguile weary and selfish pain, to excite a generous sorrow at vicissitudes not his own, to raise the passions into sympathy with heroic troubles, and to admit the soul into that serener atmosphere from which it rarely returns to ordinary existence without some memory or association which ought to enlarge the domain of thought, and exalt the motives of action'."
      I like your last point. Agree. It's also why John Fowles calls Jane Austen "our greatest novelist" but "1 of our worst influences". Imitating/ following her could be disastrous.

    5. Oh my, I'd forgotten about Adam Bede! Yes, it is very didactic, and I don't find Dinah very convincing or appealing. Middlemarch is much better. There is some didacticism, but it doesn't overwhelm the story much. I don't know whether Felix Holt is didactic or not. The character is, but I don't know whether Eliot was being didactic or making a didactic character. Mill on the Floss feels the most novelistic, in a sense. It might have been inspired by Jane Eyre, which would explain it. Philip and Stephen don't make sense to me, though.

      The best thing about Jane Austen is the convincing characters and the logical consistency of her world. Her plot is nothing much. Put a writer with inferior talents writing the same sort of thing and you get something shallow. The thing about Austen's method is that you need to have a firm grasp of characterisation and game theory in order to write her way, so the world is real and vivid. And very few have that gift, even gifted classic novelists. Which is where intellect and social issues come in to compensate (though I admit that intellect adds spice to a novel, and Austen can be boring at times).

      On the whole I think Middlemarch is the greatest Victorian novel. Complex characters, a plot, intellectual issues, strong emotions, and a variety of characters. I find it more elevating than Austen, to be honest. In Austen, you learn what is, and how people really are, whereas in Eliot, you find out the good potential in everyone. This is where her didacticism comes in handy. She assures us that even the unsympathetic characters are worth sympathising, that they are (somewhat) justified in their badness.

      The lack of overt didacticism in Austen (compared to Eliot) in say, Mansfield Park, can lead to readers judging Fanny and Edmund more than they deserve. That's where an Eliot might come in handy. But then a in my opinion, a creator must learn to let go of their fictional world, and Austen's refusal to analyse everything the characters does make the world more realistic. For the world is neutral. It is only our judgements that colour it, and often we are mistaken. Everyone's love of Mary and Henry and hatred for Fanny and Edmund more accurately reflects real life: Austen doesn't overtly judge them (well, not too much), leaving it to our decision. We are often wrong, but then we are acting the way Austen would expect us to. Now if Eliot had written Mansfield Park, she would have made told us how good Fanny was, how bad Mary was, and made Mary and Henry less fascinating and more shallow. She would not have shown their good and fascinating sides, or if she did, she would find a way to warn us that they are bad. She would still have tried to sympathise with them, but on the whole more people would love Fanny and Edmund, and think Mary and Henry are shallow.

      Personally I like the Crawfords, Fanny and Edmund. The only people I dislike in that book are Aunt Norris and Maria.

    6. Do you think Dinah is worse or better than Mirah?
      So far I've read only 2 of George Eliot's novels. But I plan to read Middlemarch soon. Lots of people have called it the greatest novel in the English language. I'll read it and compare it to Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Hahaha.
      I agree with your points about Jane Austen. Also, she has wit, a crisp, detached style and likes to cover her meaning with layers of irony. Those are her great strengths that are hard to mimic. So following her path is very risky. She has the ability to turn the mundane into art- how many people can do that? (Btw, have you read Flaubert?) But she can be boring, and can be rather limited.
      Several bloggers I know have said that they find Jane Austen too cold, detached, even unkind or cruel sometimes. What do you think?
      What you say about a Mansfield Park written by George Eliot, I absolutely agree. That is proof that Jane Austen is superior as an artist. You may find this interesting:
      And this:
      (Damn, I refer to Nabokov all the time).
      I do like Mary Crawford. Not a lot- she is thoughtless. But I do. She's better than Gwendolen Harleth in some ways. But Henry, no. I have strong feelings about that kind of men, and guess what, my copy of Mansfield Park is a gift from a guy very similar to Henry in terms of morality and attitude towards women. Worse than Henry, he reads nothing, absolutely nothing, and didn't know what he was giving me. Ha. Ha.

  2. Dinah was intolerable. Mirah may be priggish and I think rather insular, but she is often sweet. I love the way the Meyrick sisters take her under their wing. I would have liked to have seen more of them. I didn't read Daniel Deronda fully though, I skipped to the Mirah sections.

    Never read Flaubert. I'm planning to read French literature though, starting with Victor Hugo. How do you think Madame Bovary compares with Anna Karenina?

    In my more idealistic teens, I disliked Austen. Also I didn't get Regency language well, and I hated society manners, being very much a nerd who cared more for feelings than manners and social norms. I read Austen to understand human nature and game theory, but never for ideals. Mansfield Park seems to reach tentatively for Romanticism, but it is something Fanny likes that Austen doesn't expound on much. That being said, I like the fact that Fanny Price is lower-middle class and superior to her upper-class cousins.

    Yes, Austen is often cruel, especially in the early novels. Her snobbery can be grating. Mrs Elton is vulgar and annoying but I thought the way they condemned her was too harsh. Anne de Bourgh and Mary Bennet get short shrift for being unpleasant-looking and pretentious, but I believe Austen mellowed with age in Mansfield Park onwards. Fanny Price is the sort of girl she would have derided in the P&P days, with less understanding of her inner gifts and capacity for sympathy. Fanny Price is judgemental of those the world loves, but then she is unusually sympathetic towards those the world does not care for. That, to me, is the true mark of a martyr heroine. I did write something on that but it's still in drafts. Must finish my blog posts.

    Mary Crawford is the sort of person I would like at once, but my liking for her would cool with time. It would be a detached liking, but not an affectionate friendship. Henry Crawford is the sort of guy I would have fallen for had I been 16 years old. Of course I would not have known he was a cheater; his charm, intelligence and superficial niceness to everyone would have deceived me. He is a deeper thinker than his sister, and to be fair to him, appreciates Fanny better. Of course knowing he is a cheater at the end of the novel would repulse me, but life is not like books, and I wouldn't know about his cheating tendencies. Nowadays charming men do not attract me (except in a superficial platonic way).

    What kind of man is your Henry Crawford? Is he charming? I am surprised he gave you Mansfield Park. Most guys only know about P&P. Oooh, your Henry Crawford intrigues me. Do write a sketch about him, if you can. Hahaha. Don't we love ridiculing the people we know? :P

  3. Oooh, I recognise your Nabokov from Brainpickings (that's where you got it, right?) I like Nabokov's use of the word enchanter. It makes me think of wizards conjuring up worlds. But that's what good writing does. It creates a world for us to live in while we read. What determines the greatness of a novel is whether the world it depicts is convincing to us. Tolkien wrote about it too. See "On Fairy-Stories." But world-building isn't limited to fantasy, it extends to every genre. And world-building isn't just logical, external surroundings, there is emotional world-building as well, which can manifest as the egotistical sublime. If a well-written protagonist is obsessed with their own mind, that is the world of the book, even if externals are not portrayed clearly. And what makes novelists superior to philosophers, economists, scientists, etc etc is that they are visionaries. The intellectuals try to define the world according to their own field; the novelist creates a world, nothing so specialised, to be sure, but what they write is life as we experience it, what they write is an existence that is experienced rather than deduced. Creating a world is a different order of genius from defining a world.

    I've actually been having thoughts on world-building for some time. I should write a blog post about it.

  4. I guess you find Mirah sweet because you skipped the Mirah sections. Hahahhaa.
    I've written a lot about Madame Bovary. But you know I don't write reviews, and in my posts often reveal pretty much all of the important details of books, so I won't send you the links. Compared to Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary is shorter, more perfect in style, language and metaphors, more tightly structured, but the author/ narrator is colder, less loving, more irritable, more critical... Once I found this passage on a blog:
    "The spectrum of novelistic empathy: at one end, Tolstoy, who envelops his characters with an unconditional love, suffering himself as they go wrong and act foolishly; at the other end, Flaubert, whose razor-sharp wit ceaselessly probes the pretensions and false hopes of his creations, mercilessly exposing the shabbiness of their fantasies and the pettiness of their ambitions. Flaubert writes as a vivisectionist and coroner, for whom all souls are dead matter to be cut open and put on display, Tolstoy as a loving parent, who experiences acutely the anguish of a creator who extends without hesitation to his offspring the freedom to live outside his blessings. For Flaubert there is no hope — bourgeois society is irredeemably corrupt and noxiously superficial, while for Tolstoy, hope always abounds, and only our lapses in attention prevent us from grasping it and rising up into true fellowship with our fellow human beings."
    That pretty much sums it up. Tolstoy has a larger heart. On my part I admire them both, love them both, but prefer Tolstoy. Though perhaps in temperament, or whatever, I'm closer to Flaubert. He's a pessimist, or as a blogger has put it, a disappointed Romantic.
    Maybe it's not a good idea to start with Victor Hugo. Or at least I gave up on Les Misérables after 50 or 100 pages or so.
    I know a Mrs Elton in real life. Believe me, such a person isn't pleasant to be with. It's just that after a while I find her, in spite of everything, good-natured, and generous, so I start seeing her in a Tolstoy way. But being more than 3 days with her still feels like torture.
    Publish those posts! And write about world-building!
    My Henry Crawford gave me the book apparently because I talked about it. We were in Shakespeare& Company. Then I went upstairs to look at the rooms and the old books. When I came back, he had already bought it. I had lots of trouble with that guy, and his crazy gf. Well I intended to write about him a long time ago, but that would require too much effort. But the whole thing sure is amusing. Very. You've perhaps never heard of anything more ridiculous.
    But there are too many people I want to write about. Too many ridiculous people. I wish I had half of Jane Austen's talent. Or maybe 1/4. And then there's a guy. But writing about him would be sad.
    That Nabokov passage is from his essay "Good Readers and Good Writers", in Lectures on Literature. Now that's a great book- huge influence on me. And Lectures on Russian Literature, of course.
    Have you read Philip Sidney's essay "The Defense of Poesy"? It's a good one. In it, poets are like writers in general, not just poets as we understand the word. He elaborates on why they're superior to historians, philosophers, etc. Check that out if you haven't read it. Quite long though.

  5. Im guessing this shakespeare n co. is the english bookshop in paris? Lold at henry and sophia (or henri and sophie, since this is france right?) Mocking people is an art. Even i havent mastered it in writing. Though when i mock ppl in person my friends howl witb laughter.

    1. Yeah, the English bookshop in Paris.
      France, but they aren't French. Aren't English either- I just gave them those names because they're similar to some fictional characters.

  6. C, you know what, I have here a book called "A Companion to Victorian Literature& Culture", and have just discovered that IT DOESN'T MENTION ANNE BRONTE AT ALL. Not even once. At least her name is not in the index. Oh gosh.