Extraordinary Novels by Extraordinary Women:
The Ongoing Legacy of Austen and Eliot
by Melanie Shelton
England's Victorian Period, which began in the 19th century, was a time of transformation in society. The novel was one of the main forms of media. Originally, most novels were written by men, and most heroines were portrayed from a male prospective. The depiction of women in novels was strongly influenced by the French Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1762, he wrote Emile, a book discussing the ideal man and woman. The woman, Sophie, was lovely, docile, and only educated enough to suit the desires of her husband. The book was read throughout Europe and most Victorian ladies were created in Sophie's image. Although some women were brought up to be free thinking, most women were underestimated and undereducated, and their opinions had no venue outside the home. The silencing of women and the accessibility of novels made it inevitable that women would begin to publish books of their own. When novels by women emerged, many of them supported the degrading stereotype that men had projected on them. This increased the need for examples of respectable women. Writing became more than art form; for women, it was a chance to be taken seriously. Female authors including Jane Austen and George Eliot portrayed women realistically. Their books were popular in Europe and overseas, and their ideas have become engrained in Western culture. These authors made it possible for women to gain respect in Victorian society.
Education in the 19th century was intended to undermine women's intellects and mold them to men's ideals. Women were brought up to believe that men were their superiors, and taught that their main purpose was to make men happy. A sign of social status for the Victorian man was a docile wife; women could only improve their status by marriage. Most women learned only the skills that would help them attract husbands, such as music, drawing, needlework, and minimal reading, writing, and math for domestic purposes. These talents were intended for men's benefit only, and women's education stopped short of true sufficiency in the home. Men expected women to be innocent, and refused them the right to understand current events and sexuality, and to form their own opinions. The image projected on women by husbands, fathers, and mothers resigned to the status quo instilled in women a skewed sense of self-worth. Many of them embraced it, mistaking it for femininity. Women needed female role models created by their own ideals. As Jane Austen wrote, men "had every advantage in telling... their own story. Education [was] theirs in so mmuch higher a degree; the pen [was] in their hands." Men were unable to understand that women could be thinkers, or political, or artists. They refused to understand that the two halves of the human race were equal in capacity of mind though not of body. Women's need for a creative and expository outlet was created by the men who deprived them of adequate education and the women who succumbed to them.
Although the novel became the outlet for many undereducated women, their overall ignorance prevented them from writing books of literary merit. Victorian women began to write novels for several reasons. Poor women wrote to earn money; well off women wrote to fill their time. There were some artists in both categories, but the ignorant and pretentious existed in abundance. George Eliot addressed them in her essay, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." The heroines of "Silly Novels" reflect the stereotypes of Victorian society; they are wealthy, beautiful, pious, stylish, and those who begin without status secure it by the end of the book. The difference between these women and Sophie is that they are educated to the point of absurdity. In Laura Gay, the protagonist reminisces about "dear old Virgil," "the graceful Horace, the humane Cicero, and the pleasant Livy," while in Compensation, the heroine is repeatedly described as having a "remarkably original mind", and is able to read Greek, Hebrew, and Sanskrit, all the while maintaining her "beautifully small head." These characters were intended to display the intelligence of the authors, but instead betrayed their ignorance. The unrealistic depiction of knowledge shows that it was unavailable to women; they romanticized it in the way of the deprived.
Pretentious books by female authors enforced the image of Rousseau's ideal woman. Society held standards for authors and for women, but no specific standards for woman authors. Woman novelists were sometimes deplored by men, and sometimes praised for matching their idea of femininity: innocent, ignorant, and unthreatening to male authors. They had the chance to provide realistic depictions of women and their lives, but their upbringing rendered them incapable of producing anything but regurgitations of their frivolous activities. In order to be respected by society, it was necessary for intelligent women to overcome the standard of pettiness set by their undereducated peers.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen showed how intelligent women can succeed in society. Austen was a reader and writer of letters, but she had been brought up in the style dictated by Rousseau. She believed that women should make marriage their first priority , and all of her books focus on women's lives up to the point of marriage. Austen was wary of intellectual women; she believed that cleverness was a hindrance in the quest for marriage, and said, "I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress." Some of her characters share this attitude, seeking the approval of men before they are comfortable with their intelligence. The heroine of her most celebrated book, Pride and Prejudice, is a contrast to the stereotypical Victorian woman. She refuses a marriage which would benefit her socially and economically because she does not wish to marry the man in question. Mr. Collins expresses his confidence that Elizabeth is acting coy, as was the habit of fashionable women, and that if he asked her to marry him tomorrow her she would accept him. She tells him, "I have no pretension whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere." The husband whom Elizabeth does choose, Mr. Darcy, falls in love with her for her humor and cleverness, qualities that others reproach her for throughout the book. Her integrity sets an enduring example for both men and women. Pride and Prejudice showed Victorian readers that women can find happiness if they live by their principals without trying to adhere to a preconceived ideal.
George Eliot showed the deficiency of women's place in society by restricting her characters to its boundaries. She created lifelike heroines and aimed to "present mixed human beings in such a way as to call forth tolerant judgment, pity, and sympathy." The situations faced by her female characters mirror those faced by the women of the day. Eliot makes a point of showing her characters' weaknesses, often comparing them to hurt animals, birds in cages, sad "children", and helpless flowers. In her books, knowledge is equated to masculinity and the inadequacy of women's education is a central focus. In Middlemarch, Eliot describes one character's education as "all that was demanded in the accomplished female —- even to extras, such as getting in and out of a carriage." Her women are as a rule not innovative, but unlike most of Austen's characters, they understand that learning is the key to success. Many attempt to learn for themselves out of books. Whether or not they become enlightened by this process is less important than the fact that they recognize knowledge as invaluable. Dorothea Brooke is to Middlemarch as Elizabeth Bennett is to Pride and Prejudice. She cares about "philosophy, spirituality, and service" more than clothing and carriages. Dorothea marries Edward Casaubon because she thinks he will "educate her", and though she is conscious that she could have done better, she is aware that she is settling for less than she deserves. Eliot referred to marriage as being "absorbed into the life of another, and only [being] known in a certain circle as a wife and a mother." This consciousness of the flaws in conventionality is an improvement on Austen's almost unquestioning acceptance. Eliot's writing broke the boundaries of polite society by discussing abusive relationships, and suggesting the possibility of a woman "proposing" to a man. Without recognizing society's problems, it would have been impossible to change them. Eliot pointed out the failure of traditional women's roles and positive alternatives.
Austen's and Eliot's anonymity protected them from the stereotype of the "silly lady novelist," and allowed their books to be taken seriously. Lack of respect for woman authors caused Marian Evans to use the pen name, George Eliot, and Jane Austen to publish her work anonymously. By disassociating themselves from femininity, they were able to write honestly and to earn recognition that would not have been attainable otherwise. Jane Austen did not gain wealth or renown from Pride and Prejudice, nor did she desire it, but the book itself was popular and respected by Austen's literary contemporaries. Marian Evans was disliked because of her controversial relationship with George Henry Lewes, and her pen name separated her from negative connotations. She became famous as George Eliot, but retained her popularity when people learned her true identity. Men and women envied her successful career, Queen Victoria's lady in waiting curtsied to her, and it was agreed that only Charles Dickens could compete with her for literary merit. Jane Austen was not a feminist in the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft, and that George Eliot renounced the "Woman's Movement" out of desire for social approval and disgust with women's trivialities. Neither of these women allowed themselves to become icons of feminism, with all of its risky implications, but that does not change the fact that they introduced society to realistic and respectable characters. What they could not do for fear of being ostracized was accomplished by the women they presented to the world.
Books by authors such as Jane Austen and George Eliot opened people's minds to the idea of legitimate female citizens. These writers did not single handedly cause women to become respected by society, but they allowed men to see the potential of women as people rather than a commodities. Their books showed women their own potential; they spoke the truths of women who were voiceless, and the truth to women who were thoughtless. They set examples of what women of their era could achieve if they refused to view femininity as a barrier. Today, "femininity" has varied and complex connotations. In one sense, the word is positive. In another, it recalls the docility of the Victorian era. Modern societies worldwide still try to mold women to men's ideals. Western media pressures women to become sex objects for men, compromising their intelligence, their integrity, and their self respect. While most Western women are given the opportunity of education, they are the global exception. Women are still second class citizens in most parts of the world. It is the responsibility of all people to speak when others would silence them, to act when others prefer them docile, to question when they are assured that thought is unnecessary, and to do what others believe them incapable of. When they are truly not capable, the able are obligated to assist them and to share their stories. A society that does not respect its entire population, regardless of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity must depend on its free thinking citizens to raise international awareness and bring about positive change.
Bibliography of Works Consulted
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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. London: Everyman Library, 1974.
Stirling, Nora. Who Wrote the Classics? Vol. 2. New York: John Day Company, Inc.,
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Taylor, Ina. A Woman of Contradictions: the Life of George Eliot. New York: William
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Melanie E. Shelton is a gifted young writer who serves as an editor of her high school literary magazine, Banana Fish, writes poetry and essays, and participates in community service.
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