Betrayed by my Favorite Author: Women Who Hate Women

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Adam Bede, George Eliot, 1859

Before I started this project, I considered George Eliot my favorite Victorian author on the strength of Middlemarch alone. She dethroned herself with the rest of her body of work. Yes, she. If you’re not familiar, George Eliot is the nom-de-plume of Mary Ann Evans. When I was assigned to read Middlemarch for a college course, I loved it. I will discuss that special novel when we come to it in this endeavor. Just know that there’s one metaphor that compares women’s native passions and energies to a river whose force diminishes as it breaks upon the rocks of all the other crap people expect from us.

Having read only Middlemarch, I saw Eliot as a feminist author who fought back against the stereotype of female characters whose only concerns are hair ribbons and marrying rich. A Mill on the Floss mostly confirmed this opinion. Then I came to Adam Bede.

Let me tell you how Eliot betrayed me and all women in Adam Bede. There is a character, Bartle Massey, who exists only to spew misogynist nonsense. Every line of his dialogue cut me. Not because a male character hates women, but because my beloved George Eliot wrote and published those lines. She put those horrible thoughts into the world for others to chuckle at. I will not comb through the text to find his most egregiously hateful statements, because reading even one makes my shoulders tense up. So, here’s the first one I could find:

“I must give [my dog] her supper too, confound her! Though she’ll do nothing with it but nourish those unnecessary babbies. That’s the way with these women—they’ve got no head-pieces to nourish, and so their food all runs either to fat or to brats.”

Do you not feel betrayed? How could George Eliot write that? I mean, fuck. I like to think I’m a pretty savvy reader, and I found no evidence that his dialogue was meant to be satirical. What’s worse, he serves no purpose in the novel other than as a mouthpiece for hate. Really. His only other role is moral support for the title character, a function which could easily have been served by at least two other characters. Seriously, if I were to draw you a diagram of the plot, and I’d be happy to do so, this joker’s name would appear nowhere, because he’s inconsequential.

Her portrayal of female characters is problematic as well. First we have Hetty Sorrel, a pretty young girl who is so astoundingly vain and empty headed that she manages to ruin or nearly ruin the lives of everyone near her. Then there’s Lizbeth Bede who destroys the happiness of the men around her by constantly whinging about trifles. And there’s Mrs. Poyser who also cannot stop complaining. Lastly, we have Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher. Now, that’s pretty cool. A lady doing manstuff. Well, until she gets married and the Methodist church decides women shouldn’t preach because they’re dumb dumbs who do more harm than good. So, George Eliot provided us with stereotypes of female vanity and shrewishness elevated to the point of ruinous destruction.

Why? Why would she do this to me? I loved her so much and she stabbed me right in the feminism. I can’t help but think that Eliot was trying to throw her audience off the scent of her true identity or assert her membership in some male club by bashing women. Which sucks. That just sucks. Just don’t do that “I am a woman, but I’m not like other women. They’re the worst,” crap. Hey, George Eliot, are you a woman? Yes. Are you awesome? Yes. Therefore women are awesome. You’re not a special miracle; you’re evidence that all women have the ability to be insightful, eloquent artists, given the chance.

Listen, I am going to forgive George Eliot. What she did to me as a female reader of female authors really stings. But, every feminist takes a tumble at some point. We all screw up. Standing up to existing powers is exhausting and tricky. She redeemed herself with Middlemarch and I will apply its soothing balm to my psyche.

I don’t forgive Adam Bede, though. I have more problems with it. I find the characters flat, either wholly good or wholly sinful.

Victorians loved descriptions of quaint rustic scenes. Eliot provided them. Her tone in doing so comes off as extremely condescending to me. I slogged through her descriptions of country dinners with a grimace on my face. Then there’s this thing that happened that I just can’t stomach. Spoilers coming in the next paragraph.

Ok. Adam Bede is this strong, sexy carpenter. He’s tall, handsome, hardworking, good at everything, and wise in a quaint rustic way. Everybody in his whole town loves him. His younger brother, Seth, is a less awesome version of Adam. He’s a great guy, but no one really cares about him, because they’re too busy being impressed by Adam. Seth is in love with Dinah Morris. She looks like an angel. She’s so good and pure. She’s just so much better than other women that he could never love anyone but her. But Dinah only loves Jesus. She tells Seth that he’s just the kind of guy she would marry if she was going to marry anyone, but God wants her to blah blah blah not get married and help people yadda yadda.  (When people talk about Christianity, it sounds like the adults in Charlie Brown to me.) The plot proceeds. It’s a doozy. Hardships are endured. Christiany whomp-whomp sounds are made. Dinah falls in love with Adam. Adam finds that he loves her too.

Now, that all seems believable to me. I’m sure brothers have both fallen in love with the same woman. No doubt, a man has married a woman who rejected the proposal of his brother. What I don’t believe is Seth’s attitude about it. Seth, the poor dear, tells Adam that he loves being around Dinah so much that if he can’t marry her, he’s happy to be a bachelor forever and have her near him as a sister. Nope! Zero. That has never happened. If Seth had moved on and married someone else and regarded his feelings for Dinah as misguided puppy love, I would believe that he would condone the marriage. But, I cannot believe that any person would ever be ok with their brother marrying the one person they feel they could ever love. Just no. The last person to be ok with their brother marrying their one true love would be a younger brother who has spent his whole life in his brother’s shadow.

Let’s look at a parallel fictional example. Lady Edith and Lady Mary. Edith lives in Mary’s shadow. Edith was in love with cousin Whatshisface, the one who died on the Titanic. Mary was supposed to marry him to save the family fortune. Was Edith ok with this? No. She was resentful and so desperate for this dude’s affection that she thought a burnt-faced conman was said dead cousin and kind of fell in love with that weirdo. That was a stupid plot element, but it illustrates my point. Also, Edith fell for other people, because it is unnatural to just never seek out human affection again when the first person you’re into doesn’t feel the same way about you. Unnatural.

I do not generally need faithful realism in a work of fiction. However, I just could not buy into the ending of Adam Bede. George Eliot wants me to believe that Adam marrying Dinah and Seth living as their sad bachelor brother is a happy ending. Nope. My gut churned when Dinah and Adam fell in love. Everybody in that situation needed to find someone else to love. I get that these characters don’t often get out of their small town, but…. Just don’t marry the one person your little brother has ever loved. Just don’t. Please. Don’t.

I should mention that something very controversial happens in this book. Not just Victorian controversial, every time period controversial. Well, I can’t speak to what offended cavepeople, but if anything did, probably this thing would. So, it’s not exactly boring. Also, Eliot is a great writer. Every unlikable element of Adam Bede is beautifully written.

You might like Adam Bede if:

  • you are not a feminist
  • you’re a feminist who’s pretty good at shaking off misogynist statements
  • you like George Eliot’s other novels
  • I mean, it’s a well-written book. If the stuff I mentioned wouldn’t bother you and you generally like Victorian fiction, it’s a pretty darn good book. I hope you do read it and like it. It’s not for me, but I’d be perfectly happy to hear that someone else enjoyed it.

You might not like Adam Bede if:

  • the Bartle Massey quote above made your gorge rise.

Final Thoughts: My final thought is a message for Bartle Massey:

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The First Mystery Novel: Is Spectacular. You Should Read It.

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The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins, 1859

Well, mystery novels sure got off to a whiz-bang start with this genre-starting book. I mean, dang, is The Woman in White ever a startling departure from the literature that came before it? Yes. The answer to that question is yes.

The Good

  • Multiple perspectives. The premise of The Woman in White is that an earnest young drawing teacher, Walter Hartwright (get it, his heart is, you know, in the right place), has a crime to document and expose, so he has gathered the testimony of all persons who can shed light on the mystery. The novel consists of the narratives he gathered from these persons. This narrative structure turns the reader into a lawyer reading transcripts of depositions and trying to piece together a coherent idea of the events. Fun!
  • Multiple styles! I find texts written from multiple perspectives either incredibly enjoyable or incredibly frustrating. When Mary Shelley switches from Robert Walton to Victor Frankenstein to the monster without once varying her writing style, because, you know, different people express themselves differently, I want to throw the book across the room. C’mon, Shelley, get it together. However, when the author varies their style to suit the quirks, personalities and agendas of the various narrators: fun, fun fun. Collins does this. Hooray! I loved hopping between perspectives. Every part of the novel is written in first person, so there is much more stylistic range than, say, Game of Thrones.
  • Psychological intimacy. It’s addictive. These lengthy Victorian novels allow the reader to really get to know the characters. Even though Frederick Fairly dictates only one relatively short interval in the book, I know him. I’ve got his number. I have a nuanced knowledge of the motivations, fears and desires of Marian Halcolme and Walter Hartright among others. Detailed novels provide an intimacy with the thoughts of other (fictional) human beings that goes beyond the intimacy we have with our co-workers, most of our relatives, some of our good friends. I get to go inside their (fictional) brains and think their thoughts. If “I think therefore I am” than “I read Jane Eyre, therefore I think Jane Eyre’s thoughts” and “I read therefore I am Jane Eyre.” Reading is magic.

The Bad

  • That length is problematic. Or is it? I don’t know anymore. Bring on the long, Victorian novels! 700 pages seems daunting when I turn the first thirty pages. However, somewhere around page 300 I become so immersed in the world of the book that I never want to leave. Around page 500, I start to feel anxious, because I know I will reach the end and the period of my life when I am well-acquainted with and deeply concerned about the affairs of Blackthorne Park will end and I will be unceremoniously booted from the lives of the characters I have grown to know so well. Can you tell that I’m feeling a bit emotional about finishing this book? You know what, I should take length out of the bad category, because it’s goddamn patronizing of me  to assume that you won’t read a long book. The Woman in White is underrated and you’re a fool if you don’t read it. I’m not going to tell you that it’s too long to be worth reading, because that’s a idiotic thing for me to say. You’re a grown adult.You’re more than capable of sticking with a long novel.

The Ugly.

  • I really thought that I was going to hate this book based on the first few lines. There’s some problematic stuff when it comes to gender relations. But, I’m going to give Wilkie Collins a  break. I have a relatively uncommon concept of gender relations, because I went to Oberlin and Obies don’t believe in gender. I can hardly expect a mid-19th century novelist to have the concept of gender roles that I have. (They don’t exist. They’re a harmful societal construct. It doesn’t matter what genitalia you have, you can do, be, think, like and act any type of thing and any type of way. You’re not a boy or a girl, you’re a human being with a nebulous identity that no one can classify with a silly little word like boy/girl/man/woman/male/female. You’re not a dude/lady, you’re a rainbow.) So, yeah. Wilkie Collins probably didn’t feel that way about stuff. It grinds my gears to hear one of the only strong women in pre-1900s literature hate on herself for being female and think that her femininity and her strength can’t go together. (wait, just to be clear, femininity isn’t a thing.) Redo: think that her body and her moral fortitude can’t go together. Marian Halcolme is a badass and she dislikes herself for being female and constantly talks trash  about her gender and generally feels like she was born in the wrong body. She wasn’t born in the wrong body. Just because every female in literature before her fainted at the first sign of danger (ok, not Lady Macbeth), doesn’t mean that her resolute perseverance, her cool-headed tenacity and her indomitable courage are in some way not female/feminine. If a woman is brave she is not acting like a man. She’s a woman who is brave, because women can be anything and men can be anything. Please just let your children be themselves and discipline your children when they don’t let other children be themselves.

You might like The Woman in White if:

  • you dig mysteries.
  • you enjoy books with multiple narrators.

You might not like The Woman in White if:

  • you don’t have the attention span for long novels. But you do. Don’t wuss out on a book because of length. You’re better than that.

Final thoughts: This is an incredibly fun novel. Adventurous readers will enjoy it. I found it gripping and I can’t wait to read it again.

North and South, or Love and Capitalism, or Obedience and Hell No, Not Gonna

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North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1855

If you read my recent review of Ruth, you already know that Elizabeth Gaskell has no time for correct, moral Victorian thinking. True to form, in North and South, Gaskell depicts characters who refuse to conform. Rascally rebels with hearts of gold. They do the right thing by their own moral standards. Yay! Fun! No, not fun. Social scorn, loss of status, risk to self and family. But, fun for the reader!

Can we talk for a minute about Elizabeth Gaskell’s treatment within the canon? Do you read the introductions to classic novels? I’ll be honest, I usually read the first couple of paragraphs and skim the rest. Some fool named Alan Sutton wrote these sentences for his introduction to the Pocket Classics edition of Lois the Witch and Other Stories “Mrs. Gaskell (1810-1865) was first and foremost a woman of her time, a lady of Victorian expansiveness. She was not a brilliant, nor a passionate novelist like George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte, but an intelligent, compassionate and enthusiastic woman, whose life centered around her family.” Barf. Barf. Barf. Just barfed in my mouth a little. Excuse me Alan Sutton, but did you really create a dichotomy between women with families and brilliant authors? Really? Bronte and Eliot are passionate, but Gaskell is only enthusiastic? Probably because she was spending all her emotions on her children and husband. Ugh. Pardon me, I need to pause to roll my eyes several times.

Elizabeth Gaskell published under the name Mrs. Gaskell. Bronte and Eliot published under male pseudonyms. Bronte and Eliot did not have conventional families. Does it not seem like this is why Mr. Sutton chooses to relegate Gaskell to some lower tier of writer? Dickens had about 27 children, but judging by his grand position in the canon, had plenty of brilliance and passion left over for his novels. I could write pages about the utter worthlessness of those two sentences. Instead I will say this: I have now read all of Gaskell’s major works and all but one by her contemporary, George Eliot. Middlemarch by Eliot is perhaps my favorite Victorian novel, but I generally prefer Gaskell to Eliot. Yeah, I said it. In Ruth and North and South Gaskell bravely and PASSIONATELY skewers conventional Victorian morality. Meanwhile, Eliot wastes pages upon page of Adam Bede and Silas Marner in affectionate, but incredibly patronizing depictions of charming, rural, simple, superstitious country folk. Her condescending tone rubs my fur the wrong way and is frankly tiresome. I really never thought I would find a Victorian author I preferred to Eliot, but I did and it’s Elizabeth Gaskell.

That being said, Sally Shuttleworth wrote an introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of North and South that gives Gaskell her due. Shuttleworth examines the complexity of the gender, class, and community tensions depicted in the book. It’s a great introduction written by a person capable of seeing past the “Mrs” in Mrs. Gaskell. Shuttleworth is worth a million Suttons. Honestly, if you are interested in the 1,000 merits of Elizabeth Gaskell or North and South, you should pick up a copy and read Shuttleworth’s intro. It’s better than anything that I am about to write.

Let’s get back to business. The heroine of North and South is Margaret Hale. The daughter of a clergyman, Margaret is used to being about the highest ranking person in her tiny town in the south of England. Her father, the novel’s first rebel, resigns from his job, because he objects to some point of doctrine that the Church of England insists he must preach. His little family cannot understand why Mr. Hale must take this stand against the Church, but he feels he must. So, the Hales relocate from the green and sunny South to the smoky, industrial northern town of Milton. Margaret hates it. In fact, she’s a bit haughty and repulsed by the squalid environment and filthy, unmannered masses. Accustomed to deferential treatment, Margaret is frightened by the loud, boisterous crowds in Milton. She actually gets catcalled, “You may well smile, my lass; many a one would smile to have such a bonny face.” Yep, telling scared women to smile is at least as old as the 1850s.

Despite her initial revulsion, Margaret’s heart warms to the workers. She makes friends with a particular family and sees that their wages do not meet their basic needs. Margaret starts feeling very socialist and pro-union when she sees sick and starving Milton families. This feeling creates complications for M, because she must interact socially with the mill owner, Mr. Thornton. Sparks fly. Thornton is a self-made capitalist fatcat. Margaret is an uppity wannabe aristocrat who scorns trade. They really dislike each other, in a classic romcom way where they can’t stop thinking about each other and despite their better judgment feel certain tingles in certain unspeakable regions.

I really love Margaret, partially because she speaks angrily to capitalists at dinner parties just like me. The romance with Thornton is imperfect to me. He’s extra manly, somewhat scary, and uncompassionate. But, the heart wants what it wants. The romance is extra complicated, because Margaret sides with the workers who go on strike, wanting better wages from Thornton. As you can imagine, this drives Thornton crazy, in a sexy way.

You might like North and South if:

  • you loath capitalism.
  • you ruin social events by loudly loathing capitalism.
  • you secretly want to stop loathing capitalism and marry a petrochemical engineer. (Is that a type of engineer?)

You might not like North and South if:

  • you love Ayn Rand.

Final Thoughts: I loved it. The more I think about it, the more I love it. All hail Margaret Hale! Speak truth to power, Victorian heroines, speak truth to power.

A Victorian Defense of Unwed Mothers

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Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1953

 Today’s blog post comes with a real life embarrassing story!

I am with my mother and her friend enjoying the wild wonder of our cabin in West Virginia. Watching birds, looking at trees, tubing down the beautiful Cacapon River. Short of taking a trip to Wales, this is the perfect spot to get a picture for Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Poor Ruth, an unwed mother abandoned by her lover, tries to kill herself by jumping into a Welsh river. To get the shot, I need to position myself on the opposite bank from the photographer, so he can get both me and the river in the frame. So, I put my Victorian dress and shawl in my backpack and, against Mom’s protests that the current is too strong, start the arduous process of wading across the shallow part of our rocky little river.

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Arriving safely on the other side, I scramble around the banks until I get as close to both the rapids and the photographer as possible. I put the dress and shawl on over my summer clothes and start trying to look forlorn and suicidal. A few minutes later, I am pretty confident I have something usable. Time to take some risk, try something different. “What else should I do?” I shout across the river to my Mom and her friend.

“Bend your knees!  Look at the water!” Mom shouts back, her voice just barely reaching me over the rushing river.

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Ever ready to oblige, I bend down as if poised to jump. As I stare intently into the churning current, I feel my left foot start to slip on the wet, algae-coated rock. “No! Don’t slip. You can get your balance back,” I tell myself, but my foot slides down the back of the rock into the water and my body inevitably follows. In my desperate attempt to stay grounded, I have fallen in a pike position, butt nestled in a me-sized cradle of rock, hands and feet poking out of the water.

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Hauling myself out, I truly feel the discomfort of sopping wet Victorian garb, including many feet of knitted shawl.

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Seeing my genuinely forlorn expression, my mom tells her friend to keep taking pictures.

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And that is the story of how I fell in the river in Victorian clothing.

Ruth, the eponymous anti-heroine, also survived her aquatic misadventure. Her benefactor, Thurston, finds her and takes her away from the river before she can fulfill her plan. He and his sister continue to care for Ruth. They help her to see her baby as her chance for redemption and grace. They even convince her to join them in their provincial home, disguised as a widow.

Gaskell chose to write Thurston as a dissenting minister with a physical disability. She characterizes him a man of strong religious and moral conviction, an outsider whose perspective enables him to recognize the folly of conventional thinking. He convinces his sister that while lying is sinful, shutting an erring human out from all human sympathy and (Christian?) kindness is the greater evil.

Writing at a time when women lost “respectability” by even mentioning the name of a “fallen woman,” when unwed mothers were turned out of their family homes to languish and die in poorhouses, Gaskell skewers prejudiced behavior towards unwed mothers. She shows poor Ruth as an orphaned young woman working in harsh conditions as a seamstress, with no one to guide her into adulthood. No one to explain what female behavior was acceptable and what lead to ruin. As Gaskell states “she was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice concerning the subject of a woman’s life.”

Lonely, she accepts the friendship of a handsome young gentleman, Mr. Bellingham. Desperate for a glimpse of the familiar spot where she was once so happy, she agrees to accompany him to her old family home. Ruth’s employer happens to see her and Mr. Bellingham together and casts Ruth out with absolutely no one to turn to but…Mr. Bellingham.

(Sometimes I have a glass of wine while I write posts. This post is long, so right about here I had two.)

Innocent little Ruth ends up living with Bellingham as a fallen woman, because what the hell else was she supposed to do at that point? They go on vacation in Wales, where they won’t be recognized. Eventually, B’s mother shows up and does what any good mother would do: convinces her son to abandon his now pregnant lover. Now, Bellingham has a life of luxury and hedonism ahead of him and is free to marry any damn Miss Darcy he happens to run across (but he stays in love with Ruth forever, because she’s perfect). Meanwhile, Ruth is doomed to live as an impoverished pariah with no hope of providing a life worth living to her unborn child. Because, misogyny. This is when she starts to think that the bottom of the river might be the best place for her.

Fortunately for Ruth, kindhearted, farsighted, wonderful Thurston prevents her suicide and slowly persuades her that God will forgive her and she can still lead a meaningful life full of whatever kind of approval it is that Christians seek.

Ruth lives for her child, and loves him with the same love as married women. Cuz love doesn’t know what documents are down at the courthouse, y’all.

Later in the novel, a friend of Ruth’s finds out Ruth’s secret. She is tempted to tell, because she is jealous of the attention her suitor pays to beautiful Ruth. But, she realizes that she had advantages in life that Ruth didn’t have and the same thing could have easily happened to her if their positions were reversed. That’s right, a Victorian character checked her privilege. Compassion triumphed over jealousy, because Elizabeth Gaskell is a queen.

Ruth becomes celebrated in her tiny town for bravely tending to very sick patients, with no concern for her own safety from infection. Wait, I was just going to tell you the ending, but no! You should read it! The ending is fucked up, though. You will cry.

You might like Ruth if:

  • a human heart beats inside your chest.
  • you love a tale of redemption.
  • you like Tyrion Lannister, but wish he didn’t have to exist in a miserable, sadistic world. Seriously, Thurston reminds me of Tyrion, if Tyrion wasn’t subjected to a world of shit.
  • you love social criticism.

You might not like Ruth if:

  • you hate unwed mothers.

Final thoughts:

Ultimately, this book is a vindication of individual morality and forgiveness over hive-mind prejudice and hate. Yes! The kind of book that makes my heart contract with sympathy, empathy and envy. Sympathy for women, because it takes two to make an unwed mother, but only one pays the price. Sympathy because the price was so disproportionately harsh. Empathy with the author who saw a deep, searing flaw in society cause unnecessary suffering and sought to express the iniquity in the form of a novel. Envy because she did it so well and I will never write such a book as Ruth. This book makes me want to SWF Elizabeth Gaskell. I want to go back in time and become her. This book. Sometimes I just rub the pages on my cheek; that’s how much affection I have for this book. Totally worth falling in a river for. I love you, Ruth.