George Eliot: Writing as Only a Woman Could

Romola by George Eliot

The probing Victorian novels of George Eliot (1819 – 1880; nom de plume of Mary Ann Evans) sealed her reputation as one of the greats of English literature. The insightful essay following argues that (masculine pen name notwithstanding) George Eliot wrote as a woman, as only a woman could, without any outlook that could be construed as a man’s.

George Eliot drew her characters with great compassion. Her politically and socially driven stories were populated with characters drawn with great psychological depth whether they were free thinkers, eccentrics, intellectuals, or complex women straining against societal strictures.

Eliot never looked down on her characters, whatever social class they belonged to, and she was especially compassionate to the women in her stories. From Adam Bede (1859) her first novel, through Daniel Deronda (1876), her last, her female characters were imagined fully formed, with dreams and desires of their own.

The following essay is a portion of the entry on George Eliot in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica by Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie:

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George Sand neither felt, nor wrote, nor thought as a man

No right estimate of George Eliot, whether as a woman, an artist or a philosopher, can be formed without a steady recollection of her infinite capacity for mental suffering, and her need of human support. The statement that there is no sex in genius, is on the face of it, absurd.

George Sand, certainly the most independent and dazzling of all women authors, neither felt, nor wrote, nor thought as a man. Saint Teresa, another great writer on a totally different plane, was pre-eminently feminine in every word and idea.

George Eliot, less reckless, less romantic than the Frenchwoman, less spiritual than the Spanish saint, was more masculine in style than either; but her outlook was not, for a moment, the man’s outlook; her sincerity, with its odd reserves, was not quite the same as a man’s sincerity, nor was her humor that genial, broad, unequivocal humor which is peculiarly virile.

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George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

More about George Eliot
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Female authors who influenced George Eliot

Hers approximated, curiously enough, to the satire of Jane Austen both for its irony and its application to little everyday affairs. Men’s humor, in its classic manifestations, is on the heroic rather than on the average scale: it is for the uncommon situations, not for the daily tea-table.

Her method of attacking a subject shows the influence of Jane Austen, especially in parts of Middlemarch; one can detect also the stronger influence of Mrs. Gaskell, of Charlotte Brontë, and of Maria Edgeworth.

It was, however, but an influence, and no more than a man writer, anxious to acquire a knowledge of the feminine point of view, might have absorbed from a study of these women novelists.


George Eliot suffered with her characters

One often hears that she is not artistic; that her characterization is less distinct than Jane Austen’s; that she tells more than should be known of her heroes and heroines. But it should be remembered that Jane Austen dealt with familiar domestic types, whereas George Eliot excelled in the presentation of extraordinary souls.

One woman drew members of polite society with correct notions, while the other woman depicted social rebels with ideas and ideals. In every one of George Eliot’s books, the protagonists, tortured by dreams of perfection, are in revolt against the prudent compromises of the worldly.

All through her stories, one hears the clash of “the heroic for earth too high,” and the desperate philosophy, disguised it is true, of Omar Khayyam. In her day, Epicureanism had not reached the life of the people, nor passed into the education of the mob. Few dared to confess that the pursuit of pleasure, whether real or imagined, was the aim of mankind.

The charm of Jane Austen is the charm of the untroubled and well-to-do materialist, who sees in a rich marriage, a comfortable house, carriages and an assured income the best to strive for; and in a fickle lover of either sex or the loss of money the severest calamities which can befall the human spirit.

Jane Austen despised the greater number of her characters: George Eliot suffered with each of hers. Here, perhaps, we find the reason why she is accused of being inartistic. She could not be impersonal.

Again, George Eliot was a little scornful to those of both sexes who had neither special missions nor the consciousness of this deprivation. Men are seldom in favor of missions in any field.

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Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

George Eliot’s Fictional Women
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A pen free from cynicism, bitterness, and pride

She demanded, too strenuously from the very beginning, an aim, more or less altruistic, from every individual; and as she advanced in life this claim became the more imperative, till at last it overpowered her art, and transformed a great delineator of humanity into an eloquent observer with far too many personal prejudices.

But she was altogether free from cynicism, bitterness, or the least tendency to pride of intellect. She suffered from bodily weakness the greater part of her life, and, but for an extraordinary mental health — inherited from the fine yeoman stock from which she sprang—it is impossible that she could have retained, at all times, so sane a view of human conduct, or been the least sentimental among women writers of the first rank—the one wholly without morbidity in any disguise.

The accumulation of mere book knowledge, as opposed to the friction of a life spent among all sorts and conditions of men, drove George Eliot at last to write as a specialist for specialists: joy was lost in the consuming desire for strict accuracy: her genius became more and more speculative, less and less emotional.

The highly trained brain suppressed the impulsive heart,—the heart described with such candor and pathos as Maggie Tulliver’s in The Mill on the Floss. For this reason—chiefly because philosophy is popularly associated with inactive depression, whereas human nature is held to be eternally exhilarating—her later works have not received so much praise as her earlier productions.

But one has only to compare Romola or Daniel Deronda with the compositions of any author except herself to realize the greatness of her designs, and the astonishing gifts brought to their final accomplishment.

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