Eliot and Austen
by CATHERINE ENGH
This winter, on the heels of Emma and Persuasion, I read Middlemarch for the first time. Because of this sequence of things, I emerged out of Eliot’s novel with characters and themes from Austen’s still fresh in my mind. I started turning back and forth between them, wondering things like: who was more pessimistic about relations between the sexes?
I want to get into gender and women’s lives in Austen and Eliot but, before I get there, here’s some context: George Eliot and Jane Austen fictionalized provincial English life at different times in the 19th century. Austen lived through the Napoleonic wars and Eliot, the construction of railroads and the rise of the Chartist movement. Though they both created quick-witted, self-conscious heroines that readers adore, their differences as writers are as marked as their shared concerns.
Austen notoriously shies away from corruption — as characters dissipate, they become less worthy of her attention. In the last chapter of Mansfield Park, Austen’s narrator refuses to represent the fates of a handful of undeserving characters. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can” she declares from on high. Eliot is keenly interested in pathological behavior. In Middlemarch, the Green Dragon is a seedy bar for gentlemen and professionals where Eliot’s narrator hones in on the temptations to gamble, shoot pool and drink to excess. By contrast, all of Wickham’s gambling in Pride and Prejudice happens off-stage where his debts, too, are swiftly dealt with.
Austen never made it to middle age and her novels pivot on the contradictions of the courtship scramble — social duty versus individual desire, love versus money. Eliot was fifty-six when Middlemarch was published and her narratives pick up at that time in life when Austen’s typically drop off — Middlemarch begins with two marriages that soon run afoul. Neither Austen nor Eliot is cynical, but Eliot has fewer stars in her eyes. She, after all, gave the long-view of marriage.
Though Claudia Johnson has done a great job of reading Austen as a feminist writer, she remains, like Eliot, hard to pin down. It is difficult to ascribe liberal viewpoints to Austen and Eliot because they represented the world more or less as they saw it — not as it should be, but as it was. They were as interested in conserving the family and the landed estate as in critiquing the powerful. Nonetheless, they saw that these institutions had problems, many of which were rooted in gender inequity. Through their female characters, Austen and Eliot represent the psychological ramifications of domestic confinement.
We read on the first page of Emma that our heroine, an heiress, has a personality problem: “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.” Most of what happens in the story relates back to this flaw in Emma’s disposition. She meddles in the lives of people less wealthy than her, comes to see that she has been wrong and tries to make amends. She reaches a peak of blind-sighted entitlement when, out walking with a party of friends, she archly demands that everyone share their thoughts. The gaffe exposes the kind of thinking that gets her into trouble. For most of the novel, Emma believes in her own omniscience — she knows other’s feelings and is fit to determine their fates. Unsurprisingly, she’s wrong more than she’s right about what’s best for her friends — she hardly knows what’s best for herself. Emma is about the presumptions that come with class privilege. But it’s also about the damage that may be done when all of an active woman’s energies are channeled into private life. Emma plays matchmaker because she’s bored she doesn’t have to work, marry or do anything else that would give her an excuse for existing.
The beautiful Rosamond Vincy of Middlemarch is, like Emma, used to getting her way. Educated in music and the social graces at Mrs. Lemon’s charm school, she captivates Tertius Lydgate — an ambitious doctor from out of town. Eliot’s narrator doesn’t like Rosamond much: she’s materialistic, duplicitous and cold to her husband in his moments of greatest need. She wears her demure femininity as a mask, pretending to submit to Lydgate and then doing what he prohibits behind his back. The standard of feminine submission has been indoctrinated in Rosamond from an early age. Her shadowy grasps after influence are misguided reactions to that inflexible benchmark. It’s sad: all of her attempts to shape the course of her life fail because, outside of her drawing room, she has no real power. When she covertly writes to her husband’s uncle for money, he refuses, writing back reprovingly: “I never choose to write to a woman on matters of business.”
Bluntly, Eliot’s narrator sums up Rosamond’s fate: she “continued to be mild in her temper, inflexible in her judgment, exposed to admonish her husband, and able to frustrate him by stratagem.” Rosamond is a difficult and unbending wife. But she behaves badly because she doesn’t know better: the mild variety of femininity that she was taught to perform is a shiny veneer, one that looks nice from the outside but ill-equips her to face the difficult problems that come her way.
While Rosamond frustrates her husband and Emma plays matchmaker, Anne Eliot of Persuasion grieves. The story goes that Anne’s “bloom had vanished early” because, eight years prior, she was persuaded to refuse an offer of marriage from a naval captain with no fortune. When he returns to the homeland rich with the spoils of war, Anne is still in love with him — she always has been. He is resentful, so he courts her sister-in-law Louisa. This creates a number of painful and awkward situations that Anne deals with like a saint.
Eventually, the captain realizes that Louisa is not for him. Anne clears up any uncertainties about her feelings when, in earshot of the captain, she argues that women love longest “when existence or when hope is gone” because, unlike men, they have no daily distractions from grief: “we live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other…and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.” In Persuasion, Austen articulates a social basis for the emotional delicacy of women but stops short of lamenting women’s marginalized place in the world. Anne’s marriage is to be celebrated — the match a good one. The coming together of thwarted lovers is romantic; it confirms that old wounds can be sutured.
Eliot goes a step further than Austen by qualifying her narrator’s joy in the big marriage that seals off Middlemarch. Idealistically, Dorothea Brooke plans to make the world a better place. But her plans get brushed aside when she falls for Casaubon, a vicar who is writing a scholarly tome called the Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea imagines that marrying him will be like “marrying Pascal” but she soon finds that he’s a terminal bore and his Key is already outdated. When he dies and Dorothea marries again, Eliot’s narrator seems to shrug her shoulders feeling a mix of disappointment and resignation: “Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.” A pervasive lack of imagination is as much the cause of Dorothea’s obscure fate as anything else. Spiritual powerhouse that she is, Dorothea is no radical — she wants a superior being to tend and support. This is also what people expect her to want.
It is difficult to realize alternative ways of being when the big repressive institutions — the family, school, church and state—are not on your side. The marriage that seals off Middlemarch is not so much a concession to the status quo as a frank estimate of its force. It’s a solemn ending but Eliot’s last words are not hopeless. In the oft quoted final lines of the novel, she writes that “the effect of…[Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Social transformation is not always a loud or visible process. The world becomes better when, checking our will to power, we extend outwards to the needs of others. This is the anonymous purview of Dorothea Brooke. Nearly one hundred and fifty years after Middlemarch was published, we’re still quoting Eliot because the lesson she leaves us with is the kind of thing that we have to learn again and again.
Catherine Engh is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Gilmore Girls.
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