Was George Eliot reticent about sex? During the period in which her reputation was at its lowest, between 1890 and 1940, one element in the general argument that her novels were philosophical treatises rather than art was her supposed coyness in sexual matters.‘Pallas with prejudices and a corset,’ cried W.E. Henley in 1890, ‘George Sand plus Science and minus Sex.’ Since Leavis rehabilitated her in The Great Tradition in 1948, critics have laboured to answer the criticism. Strangely, though, the subject has brought mainly defences of her reticence, such as Barbara Hardy’s eloquent discussion of the ‘hints and implications’ of George Eliot’s handling of sexual relationships in The Appropriate Form (1964), the appropriate chapter of which is now reprinted in Particularities, or, in the George Eliot Centenary Tribute, Juliet McMaster’s vigorous attempt ‘to bring back the voluptuous George Eliot’ by arguing that ‘the physical and sexual lives of her characters are very fully expressed, albeit often by indirection.’ Leavis himself came much nearer to claiming for George Eliot a daring lack of reticence. Of Felix Holt he wrote: ‘It is remarkable – and it is characteristic of George Eliot’s mature art – that the treatment of Mrs Transome’s early lapse should have in it nothing of the Victorian moralist. In the world of this art the atmosphere of the taboo is unknown; there is none of the excited hush, the skirting round, the thrill of shocked reprobation, or any of the forms of sentimentality typical of Victorian fiction when such themes are handled.’ We may find Leavis’s circumlocution itself rather coy (‘Mrs Transome’s early lapse’), but I think it surprising that critics have not generally taken his lead and tackled the question of sexuality in the novels head-on.
A glance back to contemporary criticism of George Eliot’s novels reminds us that in her own time she was frequently taken to task for her unbecoming openness in sexual matters. The critic of the Saturday Review complained of Adam Bede that the account of Hetty’s pregnancy reads ‘like the rough notes of a man-midwife’s conversations with a bride’. And The Mill on the Floss produced a universal outcry over Maggie’s sexual temptation. According to the Westminster reviewer, ‘a little more reticence on a subject so perplexing to the largest minds would have saved the writer much waste of time, and satisfied the requirements of an art’ – the art of literature – ‘that has little to do with scientific problems or exceptional phases of life.’
Here, I think, is a clue. It is noticeable that after The Mill on the Floss there was scarcely any contemporary critical reference to an excess of sexuality in the novels. Yet all of them, even Silas Marner, contain sexual relationships in one way or another ‘irregular’. Apart from Arthur’s seduction of Hetty in Adam Bede and Maggie’s near-elopement with Stephen, there is Tito’s pretend ‘marriage’ to Tessa in Romola, Mrs Transome’s ‘early lapse’ with the lawyer Jermyn in Felix Holt, Will Ladislaw’s love for the married Dorothea and the seeds of her love for him in Middlemarch, as well as Rosamond’s flirtation with Will. And, most spectacularly, in Daniel Deronda Gwendolen and Deronda carry on an as-it-were adulterous affair under the cold eye of Gwendolen’s husband Grand-court, who has himself fathered children by Lydia Glasher. But Victorian critics seemed not to object to such irregularities after The Mill on the Floss, probably because they saw that George Eliot’s handling of relationships, including sexual relationships, was scientifically scrupulous. By this method (and here lies the clue offered by the Westminster critic of The Mill on the Floss), she made the airing of sexual problems acceptable to sensitive readers.
Of course, this is not unqualifiedly true of her handling of the seduction and pregnancy of Hetty in Adam Bede. The episode is recounted, not in the dominant ‘Dutch realism’ mode of the novel, but in an awkward flight of romance. Like Hardy’s in Tess of the D‘Urbervilles, George Eliot’s approach is mythical. The seduction takes place in a wood, ‘just the sort of wood most haunted by the nymphs’. Hetty ‘was borne along by warm zephyrs’; she ‘was no more conscious of her limbs than if her childish soul had passed into a water-lily, resting on a liquid bed and warmed by the midsummer sunbeams’ (Adam Bede, Book One, Chapter 12). Yet even here George Eliot makes us experience the erotic nature of the scene. Anticipating D.H. Lawrence, she gives us sexual passion in terms borrowed from non-human nature: ‘Such young unfurrowed souls roll to meet each other like two velvet peaches that touch softly and are at rest; they mingle as easily as two brooklets that ask for nothing but to entwine themselves and ripple with ever-interlacing curves in the leafiest hiding-places.’ Her interest in scientific observation, her sharing in G.H. Lewes’s biological and botanical researches for Sea-Side Studies (1858) and The Physiology of Common Life (1859), bears fruit even in her first novel, though such observation gives way in places to conventional novelistic melodrama.
A different kind of awkwardness mars the sexual drama of The Mill on the Floss. Contemporary critics regretted the immoral action of Maggie in drifting down the river with Stephen. Modern critics, equipped with a fuller knowledge of George Eliot’s life and with Freudian tools of criticism, complain rather of the climax, of George Eliot’s flight into wish-fulfilment in the tragic death of Maggie and Tom, the brother and sister who, like George Eliot and her unbending brother Isaac, were divided in life, but who must be seen to die in a loving embrace. George Eliot’s loss of control in the dénouement may also be related to her own precarious social position with Lewes. In the novel, she does not (cannot?) allow Maggie to follow through her attraction to Stephen into action. She neither marries him nor lives through the consequences of her unmarried and disgraced state. George Eliot must have written with some pain her analysis of St Ogg’s communal judgment on Maggie:
It was soon known throughout St Ogg’s that Miss Tulliver was come back: she had not, then, eloped in order to be married to Mr Stephen Guest – at all events, Mr Stephen Guest had not married her – which came to the same thing, so far as her culpability was concerned. We judge others according to results; how else? – not knowing the process by which results are arrived at. If Miss Tulliver, after a few months of well-chosen travel, had returned as Mrs Stephen Guest – with a post-marital trousseau and all the advantages possessed even by the most unwelcome wife of an only son, public opinion, which at St Ogg’s, as elsewhere, always knew what to think, would have judged in strict consistency with those results ...
But the results, as we know, were not of a kind to warrant this extenuation of the past. Maggie had returned without a trousseau, without a husband – in that degraded and outcast condition to which error is well known to lead; and the world’s wife, with that fine instinct which is given her for the preservation of society, saw at once that Miss Tuiliver’s conduct had been of the most aggravated kind.
The situation is, of course, not exactly equivalent to George Eliot’s own, but the bitterness of the woman who feels she has acted rightly and yet is not married, is felt. George Eliot does not allow Maggie to take the easy way into marriage (a choice not available to the author, though much wished-for by her as well as by her publisher, her critics and her friends), but saves her from a life of social ostracism by killing her in a cataclysmic flood, with the consolation of knowing herself reconciled with Tom.
It is in The Mill on the Floss that George Eliot struggles most with her favourite moral theme, that of Love and Duty, both of which are ‘natural laws’ binding the individual. Marriage, as she writes in Romola (following Comte and Feuerbach), is the relationship in which, at its best, love and duty coincide, particularly in the bearing and nurturing of children. But in The Mill on the Floss she shows the two laws at odds, causing that tragedy which she believes to be the result of the ‘antagonism between valid claims’ (Antigone essay, 1856). Stephen urges that mutual attraction, that ‘natural law’, ‘surmounts every other’, while Maggie feels unjustified in breaking ‘sacred ties’: ‘If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?’. There is, the narrator admits, ‘no master key’ to fit all cases in the ‘shifting relation of passion and duty’. We must take into account the ‘special circumstances that mark the individual lot’. I believe that, intellectually, George Eliot assigns the same imperativeness to the ‘natural law’ of sexual attraction (which Fedalma in The Spanish Gypsy also upholds) as to that of the ‘sacred’ duty to past ties and affections, but that – partly because of her own situation – she cannot quite give equal weight to the two claims in her art. Thus, though she follows to some extent the moral and artistic credo of Goethe, from whose novel Elective Affinities she borrows both its scientific terms and its catastrophe, she lacks his confidence. In ‘The Morality of Wilhelm Meister’ (1855) she praises Goethe’s honesty in ‘depicting irregular relations in all the charms they really have for human nature’ with ‘large tolerance’. But in her novel she merely accepts the claims of attraction, while pressing the claims of duty.
In Middlemarch, George Eliot is in fuller control of her sexual material. Freud himself acknowledged that the novel ‘illuminated important aspects’ of his relations with his wife. Much has been written about the successful analysis of Dorothea’s sterile marriage to Casaubon, but critics, Victorian and modern, have agreed that George Eliot fails to render the relationship between Dorothea and Ladislaw as ‘fell life’. Yet I think that the same scientific observation is operating in her analysis of their mutual attraction as in the rest of the novel. In the treatment of Dorothea and Will there is, certainly, some ‘cherishing’ by George Eliot (what Henry James calls an ‘elaborate solemnity’). There is too much insistence on Dorothea’s ‘ardour’ and even ‘adorableness’, and too much stress on Will’s being a ‘bright creature’. Yet in the love scenes, particularly the final one in Chapter 83, which James calls ‘ludicrously excessive’, one can see George Eliot risking a great deal in order to carry out her minute analysis. Like Goethe, she dares to offer a cliché’d, commonplace love scene, with lightning flashes and claps of thunder sending the lovers into a passionate embrace. (A Sunday newspaper recently invited readers to identify several romantic scenes in literature: some were from Mills and Boon romances, others included this very scene.) But there is control. For one thing, she dares, again like Goethe, to be humorous about her hero and heroine. The chapter opens with Dorothea, her emotions in turmoil, trying to concentrate on the geography of Asia Minor: ‘this morning she might make herself finally sure that Paphlagonia was not on the Levantine coast, and fix her total darkness about the Chalybes firmly on the shores of the Euxine.’ When Will arrives to woo he stands with his hat and gloves in his hand, ‘and might have done for the portrait of a Royalist’. Secondly, George Eliot shows how precarious human relationships are. The interview might easily have ended in a parting without mutual explanations. Here, as everywhere in Middlemarch, George Eliot is observing the minute ‘hairlets of conditions’ which operate in human relationships.
The image of the narrator as scientist, putting societies and individuals under the microscope, is continued in Daniel Deronda. No one could argue that George Eliot is either unbecoming or reticent in her handling of Gwendolen’s sexuality. She is scientific. Gwendolen is observed biologically and pathologically. Her fear of sex is noted in a biological metaphor – ‘the perception that poor Rex wanted to be tender made her curl up and harden like a sea-anemone at the touch of a finger’; in her ‘shuddering annoyance’ at the attentions of the experienced Mr Lush; and in her (mistaken) delight in Grandcourt’s ‘agreeably distant’ wooing. In the tender relationship between Gwendolen and Deronda George Eliot achieves the balance which The Mill on the Floss lacked. She describes in scrupulous detail the effect each has on the other, the sexual attraction which they do not deny (all their actions – whispering, meeting in corners, sitting in recessed windows – are the result of this attraction and are read, not unreasonably, by Grandcourt as the signs of an adulterous affair), but which they do not indulge physically. Of course, critics have rightly felt uncomfortable about Deronda’s moral superiority. In most of his snatched, illicit conversations with Gwendolen he preaches morality to her. Yet his attraction to her, established in the opening chapter of the novel, is insisted on throughout. In fact, though love and duty coincide perhaps too neatly in his threefold discovery of Mirah’s love, his Jewishness and his vocation, George Eliot establishes the fact that the rejection of Gwendolen is nevertheless a renunciation, since he has loved her too, and might view a permanent relationship with her as an alternative duty. Like Goethe in Wilhelm Meister, George Eliot shows how inclination and dutiful renunciation may coincide, so complex are the threads of connection which bind human beings to each other. It is pre-eminently in her treatment of sexual relationships that George Eliot pursues her minute analysis of the mixed moral nature of human beings in their complex social conditions. As Henry James pointed out in 1885, ‘there is much talk today about things being “open to women”; but George Eliot showed that there is nothing that is closed.’ Sexuality, too, was open to women, and George Eliot, novelist and scientist, wrote about it.