- 1 Shirley Foster, Victorian Women’s Fiction: Marriage, Freedom and the Individual (1985; London & Syd (...)
Eliot’s panegyric to Mme de Sablé . . . could have come from the lips of the esteemed Mrs Ellis.1
- 2 There are a few critical works exploring gender politics in Eliot’s journalistic work. Alexis Easle (...)
- 3 Frederick R. Karl, George Eliot. Voice of a Century. A Biography (New York and London: W. W. Norton (...)
1George Eliot’s engagement with gender ideology has often been discussed in relation to her novels even though she expresses her views on the so-called “woman question” much earlier, in her journalistic work.2 Marian Evans—who later published under the pseudonym George Eliot—was a contributor to the radical Westminster Review and, from 1852–54, also its editor. The various readings of one of her essays “Woman in France: Madame de Sablé”, published anonymously in 1854, reflect the very different ways in which Eliot’s position regarding the woman question has been interpreted. For Shirley Foster who, in the above quotation, compares her to the notorious antifeminist Sarah Ellis, the essay documents her antifeminism. Other critics, who mention this rarely-analysed essay, use it to illustrate Eliot’s feminist credo or, like Frederick R. Karl, find the text “a strange piece, full of contradictory impulses” and do not draw definitive conclusions.3 The central claim of this essay is that in “Woman in France” Eliot clearly makes a feminist statement, expressed in a very subtle and innovative way. My argument will demonstrate that the variety of readings is due to the fact that the references to French women and French writers have often been overlooked. “Woman in France” is a review of three French works, Victor Cousin’s Madame de Sablé. Nouvelles études sur les femmes illustres et la société du xviie siècle (1854), Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits de Femmes (1844) and Jules Michelet’s Les Femmes de la Révolution (1854). By taking into account the references to these French works, my reading will reveal that “Woman in France” is crucial for the understanding of Eliot’s opinions, because it explains not only in what ways Eliot was a feminist, but also why she was often not considered as such.
- 4 Barbara Caine, English Feminism, 1780-1980 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3.
2To employ the term “feminist” may appear problematic given that Eliot, unlike her friends Barbara Leigh Smith (Bodichon) and Bessie Rayner Parkes, was not an active member of the feminist movement which was emerging in the 1850s and did not support all their causes. The terms “feminist” is used here neither to indicate the adherence to a movement nor to designate a specific set of beliefs and attitudes. As Barbara Caine rightly states in English Feminism, 1780–1980, “any historical definition of feminism, however flexible it might appear, has come to be seen by many historians and feminist theorists as not only difficult, but also impossible”.4 Caine outlines how the history of feminism has undergone a transformation which reveals the immense scope and complexity of feminism. In this article the term “feminist” will be used to express that Eliot was concerned with some issues of the “woman question” and demanded changes in women’s condition, notably a better education and less constraints in regard to work.
- 5 According to Delia da Sousa Correa the theory of evolution was “more commonly known as “the develop (...)
- 6 George Eliot, “Woman in France: Madame de Sablé,” Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London (...)
3In “Woman in France”, Eliot draws on ideas of the so-called “development theory” by adopting the idea that the environment influences the development of a species.5 She describes French and English people like two species of the animal world, with different physiologies.6 Humans are seen as animals of a higher organization and are repeatedly compared to other animals, for instance to insects (55, 60). The stimulating environment of the French salons, where women and men discussed a wide range of topics, lead to a “more abundant manifestation of womanly intellect” and furthered French women’s development (55). Proof for French women’s superiority is their contribution to culture since the seventeenth century.
In France alone the mind of woman has passed like an electric current through the language, making crisp and definite what is elsewhere heavy and blurred; in France alone, if the writings of women were swept away, a serious gap would be made in the national history (54).
4Although Eliot compares French women to their English counterparts of the same period, she implies in the above quotation that contemporary English women do not make major contributions to national culture and consequently are still not advanced in their development. In Eliot’s vision of a future English society, men and women are equally valued contributors to culture and society. But before this ideal can become reality, the conditions which lead to this early development in France have to be given in England in order to enable the evolution of English women.
5Eliot’s assertion about the superiority of French women is bold and provocative. To integrate it into English ideology of the period which posits the English, particularly its men, as the culmination of the evolution of man, Eliot resorts to scientific theories, claiming that higher organized species are less frequently perfect than more primitive ones:
Throughout the animal world, the higher the organization the more frequent is the departure from the normal form; we do not often see imperfectly-developed or ill-made insects, but we rarely see a perfectly-developed, well-made man. And thus the physique of a woman may suffice as the substratum for a superior Gallic mind, but is too thin a soil for a superior Teutonic one (55).
6Basing her argument on the common belief that women had a weaker constitution, she asserts that in what she deems to be the inferior Gallic race, women’s organisms were nevertheless strong enough to allow intellectual and creative work. Hence Eliot manages both to challenge gender ideology and to reassert the ideology which endorses English superiority.
- 7 Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots. Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century (...)
7Eliot’s use of evolutionary theory is new and remarkable for several reasons. Although she was certainly influenced by Fourier and the Saint-Simonians, who combined social evolution with religious thought, Eliot was among the first to base her vision of society on theories of biological evolution. Moreover, “Woman in France” was published five years before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, when this scientific field was not yet widely known. Her ideas seem to have been influenced by early evolutionary theory such as that of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who postulated that characteristics which were acquired as a consequence of changing living conditions would be inherited by the next generation.7 Eliot was familiar with the different writings on the subject and may have discussed the development theory with Herbert Spencer, her close friend, and with her partner George Henry Lewes at a time when it was not yet generally known.
- 8 Lorna Duffin, “Prisoners of Progress,” The Nineteenth-Century Woman. Her Cultural and Physical Worl (...)
- 9 Nancy L. Paxton, George Eliot and Herbert Spencer. Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction o (...)
- 10 Eliot quotes Fullerton who states that women should even be able to be sea-captains, if they wished (...)
8Eliot’s argument differs from that of other writers using development theory. As Lorna Duffin argues in “Prisoners of Progress”, evolutionary theory was used in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to confirm prevalent ideologies and the place of women in society.8 Spencer, for instance, although he agreed with Eliot on several feminist goals in the early 1850s, rejected feminist causes towards the end of the 1850s.9 Eliot, in contrast, uses evolutionary ideas to argue against the exclusion of women from certain domains and challenges dominant ideologies of femininity. As in France, the main condition leading to an early evolution of women was salon culture which allowed women to become familiar with any topic, Eliot demands for England: “Let the whole field of reality be laid open to woman as well as to man” (81). In “Woman in France” she focuses mainly on intellectual activities by asserting that “Women become superior in France by being admitted to a common fund of ideas, to common objects of interest with men” (80). However, in her essay “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft”, published one year later, she postulates that any professional activity should be open to women.10 Thus, contrary to contemporary and later writers, Eliot uses concepts derived from evolutionary theory to demand the same opportunities for men and women and clearly promotes feminist ideas.
- 11 George Eliot, The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon Haight (New Haven: Yale UP, 1954-1978), vol. IV, (...)
- 12 Tim Dolin, George Eliot (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005) 147.
- 13 Her reluctance to support feminist initiatives was reinforced by her ambivalent social position. Du (...)
9Eliot’s argument about the evolution of woman can be used to explain her ambivalent attitude regarding the feminist agenda of her period. She did not actively participate in the feminist movement and declined to support women’s suffrage, which she described in a letter to Sara Hennell in 1867 as “an extremely doubtful good”.11 This reticence is understandable because for her, the improvement of the condition of woman must be the result of a development. She considered that English women had to evolve before they were able to be equally valued members of society and to take an equal share of responsibility. Consequently, Eliot disagreed with feminists who assumed equality of the sexes or even the superiority of women. The focus should be on reaching equality through the creation of an environment which influences the development of a species, in this case English women, in a positive way. Therefore Eliot supported mainly the initiatives of the period which aimed at the improvement of women’s education, for instance the foundation of Girton College, the first University for women in England.12 Thus, “Woman in France” makes Eliot’s selective feminism more plausible.13
10At the same time the argument that women have to undergo an evolution explains some of her comments which could be seen as warranting comparison with the notorious antifeminist Sarah Ellis such as: “With a few remarkable exceptions, our own feminine literature is made up of books which could have been better written by men” (53). Eliot does not consider contemporary English women to be equal and similarly able to create literature. Her vision of women’s and men’s equal contribution to literary production is based on an evolution, a development of women which can only take place if women have access to all domains of life. Only under these circumstances “that which is peculiar in her mental modification. . . will be found to be a necessary complement to the truth and beauty of life” (81). Her argument is clearly feminist insofar as she demands the opening of education, work opportunities and intellectual discussion to all women, and, at the example of French women, argues that under these conditions women can become equal and important contributors to cultural life.
- 14 For more details on social Utopists, see Claire Goldberg Moses, French Feminism in the 19th Century(...)
- 15 This short outline necessarily simplifies the different social theories. As Susan Grogan outlines, (...)
11Eliot’s vision of a future English society is, in some ways, as radical as the social utopias of Charles Fourier, the Saint-Simonians and Flora Tristan, although she neither questions marriage nor advocates sexual liberation. They all based their ideas on the wide-spread belief of the period that the two sexes are distinctly different from each other, that men and women have different characteristics and, hence, must assume different roles.14 While rejecting egalitarianism, the social Utopists contended that gender difference, which was commonly used to exclude women from certain activities, made their involvement and influence necessary and valuable.15 Further, they considered the improvement of the condition of women as a key to a betterment of society as a whole. Eliot similarly had the vision of a world where women’s specifically feminine characteristics were valued as much as those of men and she contended that this would be for the benefit of society more generally. However, Eliot’s rejection of separate spheres and roles for women goes further than that of the social Utopists. According to her, women do not have special virtues and a particular aptitude for love and pacifism, nor are they morally superior. Consequently, she does not attribute a particular role to women, for instance, she does not see women as moral guides as did Flora Tristan. For Eliot women’s specific experiences, sensations and emotions serve as an argument for women’s participation in the same activities as men, even in the traditionally male domain of intellectual work. Her position has less similarity to a romanticizing idealization of women than that of the Saint-Simonian feminists.
12Eliot believed that “in art and literature. . . woman has something specific to contribute” (53). Therefore, their participation would lead to a valuable complementary cultural production as it did in France, where women produced literature that was different from that of men. This stage is not attained yet in England where books written by women are generally “an absurd exaggeration of the masculine style” (53). Through women’s implication in cultural production, heavy and ostentatious erudition or “pedantry and technicality” would disappear in favour of a clear and understandable presentation of ideas (55/58). Eliot criticises displays of erudition which aim at acquiring social status and excluding others in her later article, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”. At the same time she gives a positive connotation to light female writing. One of Sablé’s letters is described as “light and pretty, and made out of almost nothing, like soap bubbles” and quoted in French, without translation (72–3). Eliot presents light writing as an additional quality and not as a sign of a lack of intellectual capacities as it was commonly seen in the period.
13Eliot presents women’s influence in cultural production as a crucial element to prevent regression to a more primitive stage. She deplores the fact that erudition is increasingly restricted to print culture which gains territory at the expense of conversation. Newspaper journalism and men’s tendency to bury their heads in newspapers make her fear a development towards “a society of mutes, or to a sort of insects, communicating by ingenious antennae of our own invention” (60). Regression is presented as a consequence of the domination of men in the cultural realm, while feminine influence is necessary for further cultural development.
- 16 George Eliot, “Belles Lettres,” Westminster Review 67 (1857): 306.
14In the context of the increasing professionalisation and the concomitant exclusion of women from many domains and particularly from parts of intellectual and cultural life, Eliot calls not only for a stronger influence of women on intellectual and cultural life, but also for a professionalisation of female literature. She later shows, with the example of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, that a work should not be “too exclusively feminine”, nor restricted to what are deemed feminine experiences of life and limited in scope by a lack of knowledge and culture.16 This concern is crucial for Eliot and appears in other essays, for instance in her later article “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” which appeals to women to work seriously and not just to dabble. What is essential is that women should aspire to be accepted as serious, professional contributors to cultural life and not be satisfied with a secondary role. Then, true professionalisation does not have to mean exclusion but, on the contrary, can gain from the contribution of women.
15So far it has been demonstrated that Eliot’s framing argument is clearly feminist as it calls for an integration of women into the world of cultural production. But the main thrust of her essay, which is a review of Victor Cousin’s just published, Madame de Sablé. Nouvelles études sur les femmes illustres et la société du xviie siècle and—at least nominally—of Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits de Femmes and Jules Michelet’s Les Femmes de la Révolution has not been investigated. I will argue that the reference to the three French works is not an endorsement of antifeminist views, but on the contrary, helps Eliot to contradict common stereotypes about intellectually active women and backs her claim about the crucial role of French women and their appreciation in society.
16Eliot was well aware that female writers were seen as unfeminine “bas bleus or dreamy moralizers, ignorant of the world and of human nature” and points out herself that the “femme auteur . . . was Rousseau’s horror in Madame d’Epinay” (58, 61). Therefore she follows closely Cousin’s description of Madame de Sablé and, conforming to the usage of the time in review journalism, integrates many extracts from Cousin’s work. He describes Madame de Sablé as a very charming, kind and intelligent woman who was an excellent hostess and cook, and supported her male contemporaries without having personal literary ambitions. Faith E. Beasley rightly argues that Cousin remodelled seventeenth-century women to provide an image which corresponded to nineteenth-century ideals of femininity. Sainte-Beuve and Michelet described women in a similar way, praising them and their influence and relegating them to the role of supporting men. By reproducing Cousin’s portrayal of Madame de Sablé as an ordinary woman and referring to Sainte-Beuve and Michelet, Eliot demonstrates that seventeenth-century salonnières were “normal”women in spite of their participation in cultural life and, in addition, provides an image which appeals to many English men. Thus, Eliot presents Sablé as a feminine woman and refutes widespread ideas that this characteristic is incompatible with the public role of a writer.
17The reference to the three French works also buttresses Eliot’s claim that French women had a crucial role in society. It must have been fascinating for Eliot to see eminent historians and literary critics dedicate entire works to women. She may have been in accord with Madame Mohl, who states explicitly in Madame Récamier: with a Sketch of the History of Society in France:
- 17 (Madame M) Mohl, Madame Récamier: with a Sketch of the History of Society in France (London: Chapma (...)
That a man of M. Cousin’s calibre and reputation should have published successively seven volumes, and been occupied ten years in researches into the lives of the ladies of a particular epoch, is a fact as significant as was the creation in the eleventh century of a vocabulary appropriated to their [women’s] service.17
18Of course Madame de Sablé was only the third of the seven works and Eliot could not know that he was to write four more. But she seems to have agreed with Mohl that women were considered important in France. The three writers she reviews assert this importance of women, Cousin in seventeenth-century cultural life, Sainte-Beuve in cultural life from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and Michelet during the Revolution.
- 18 Diana Holmes, French Women’s Writing 1848-1994 (London: The Athlone Press, 1996) X.
- 19 Faith E. Beasley, Salons, History, and the Creation of 17th-Century France. Mastering Memory (Alder (...)
- 20 Victor Cousin, Jacqueline Pascal: premières études sur les femmes illustres et la société du XVIIe (...)
- 21 Horatio Mansfield, “Madame de Longueville,” The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science an (...)
19Further, Eliot uses the three French writers to support her idea that, in France, the evolution of woman resulted in a valuation of their specific characteristics. The three French writers were very much part of French culture which, according to Diana Holmes, showed a certain reverence for women and their specific characteristics.18 Beasley similarly points out, in regard to Cousin and Sainte-Beuve that they use “a process founded upon idealisation and praise”.19 In Cousin’s work, seventeenth-century women are lauded indeed, for instance, in his portrayal of Jacqueline Pascal: “Les femmes ne nous paraissent pas moins admirables que les hommes”, [women seem to us not less admirable than men].20 The celebration of women, which was unusual to English ears, is also particularly evident in republican discourse, for instance, in Michelet’s works. The English critic Horatio Mansfield expresses the difference between English and French textual conventions in his review of Cousin’s work on Madame de Longueville in the Saturday Review: “Of all the ladies whose biography he [Cousin] has attempted, he speaks with an enthusiastic affection which is almost surprising in an accomplished professor and venerable Platonist”.21 Eliot uses the three authors’ laudatory discourses to support her argument that women in France were both considered important, and their specifically feminine qualities valued.
- 22 Hector Talvart and Joseph Place, Bibliographie des auteurs modernes de langue française (Paris: Edi (...)
- 23 Arlette Michel et al., (eds.), Littérature française du XIXe siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires (...)
- 24 Michel, 192.
- 25 Cousin’s writings were well known in England where they had often appeared both in the original Fre (...)
20The combined voices of Cousin, Sainte-Beuve and Michelet had much weight as they were renowned intellectuals of the time. Victor Cousin was professor of philosophy and a member of the Academy, as well as minister and peer of France before he left public life in 1849.22 Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve was a well known literary critic and historian who wrote a weekly “feuilleton” from 1849 to his death, first for the Constitutionnel and later for the Moniteur and the Temps.23 Jules Michelet had a chair of history and morality at the Collège de France from 1838 to 1852 and was noted for his voluminous Histoire de France (1833–1867).24 The three writers were well known, not only in France, but also in England.25 Eliot, by alluding to the works of the three French historians, demonstrates that in France, women’s cultural and historical roles were considered noteworthy but that they were very feminine nonetheless.
- 26 Beasley, 218.
- 27 Victor Cousin, Madame de Sablé, Nouvelles études sur les femmes illustres et la société du XVIIe si (...)
21George Eliot’s use of salon culture for the promotion of a feminist vision was certainly unique. French authors during the nineteenth century generally emphasized the salonnières’ feminine qualities as hostesses and not their literary merits. Eliot both challenges these representations of salons and draws on them. It is possible that she was inspired to this double approach by Cousin’s text which is contradictory in itself. While Cousin plays down Sablé’s literary role in the main body of the work, the “Appendix”, which is about one third of the book, provides a very different picture. It contains documents written by Sablé and her contemporaries which portray Sablé “as a respected critic and important author in her own right”, as Beasley puts it.26 Sablé’s important role as a writer and literary critic clearly emerges from the different documents in spite of Cousin’s comments which betray his more prosaic ideas on women, for instance when he expresses his astonishment at the fact that the French theologian and philosopher Antoine Arnauld chose Sablé as a critic not only for his texts on general topics, but also for the second part of La logique, ou l’art de penser which is a highly theoretical treatise on logic, language and method.27 In fact, Cousin, insisting on the feminine qualities of Madame de Sablé and adding the documents which prove her to be an excellent writer and literary critic, provides ideal material for Eliot’s argument on the advanced state of seventeenth-century French women.
22Eliot ensures that both aspects of Sablé are known by drawing the readers’ attention to the “Appendix”. When introducing Cousin’s work, she first mentions the documents to which he had recourse as well as the collections of manuscripts he consulted and adds: “From these stores M. Cousin has selected many documents previously unedited” (61-2). By pointing out that the work contained new unpublished material and assuring readers that she found the work interesting enough to read it from cover to cover she invites them to do the same and to discover Sablé’s important role in cultural production.
23Eliot’s presentation of French salonnières both as active contributors to culture and as women who corresponded to contemporary ideologies of femininity explains the variety of modern critical responses which has been mentioned at the outset of this article. While some critics such as Foster base their claim that Eliot is an antifeminist on the description of Madame de Sablé, others focus rather on her feminist vision. My essay seeks to demonstrate that Eliot’s description of Madame de Sablé is used to support her argument that intellectual women can nonetheless be feminine and attractive.
24In conclusion, in “Woman in France” George Eliot uses evolutionary theory to present a far-ranging vision on gender relations at a time when modern feminism was just emerging and before evolutionist theory was widely known. Eliot manages to express her idiosyncratic feminist credo drawing on discourses which were generally used to buttress traditional images of women: the scientific discourse of evolutionary theory and French idolization of women. She challenges contemporary negative assumptions about feminine characteristics and capacities by presenting a vision of men and women as equally valued contributors to cultural and literary life, a vision which reaches beyond the political agenda of her contemporaries. “Woman in France” reveals Eliot to be an early feminist and helps explain her reticence towards feminist activism of the period.