Bad reviews are usually more fun to read than good ones, especially if the reviewer doesn’t mince words and comprehensively tears apart the subject matter, demonstrating every single failing of the subject matter. A classic example is Mark Twain’s ‘Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,’ where the author of ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is soundly eviscerated for gross failings in logic. But today’s target for demolition is larger: Eliot has set her sights on entire genres of nineteenth century fiction.
I know little of these genres beyond what Eliot mentions; whether her complaints are accurate or not is out of my purview. But much of what she talks about is in evidence today. The first six hundred words are devoted to listing all the characteristics of a typical saintly, perfect-at-everything protagonist common in “mind-and-millinery” fiction. Fascinatingly, this list is almost identical to the properties of characters dubbed ‘Mary Sues’ in fiction today.
Such characters are devastatingly attractive, philosophical and learned, and live in an upper-class world that bears little resemblance to reality. As Eliot says: “The colloquial style of these novels is often marked by much ingenious inversion, and a careful avoidance of such cheap phraseology as can be heard every day. Angry young gentlemen exclaim, “’Tis ever thus, methinks;” and in the half hour before dinner a young lady informs her next neighbor that the first day she read Shakespeare she “stole away into the park, and beneath the shadow of the greenwood tree, devoured with rapture the inspired page of the great magician.””
And yet these characters stay in standard romance plots. They are there to be wooed, and despite their intellectual superiority will often marry the wrong person. But as the end of the book approaches the wrong husband will succumb to a handy incurable illness and leave her free to marry her True Love. These women do not use their intelligence for anything beyond bon mots at parties.
And this not only irritates the modern reader, it disturbed Eliot as well:
“…After a few hours’ conversation with an oracular literary woman, or a few hours’ reading of her books, they [men] are likely enough to say, “After all, when a woman gets some knowledge, see what use she makes of it! Her knowledge remains acquisition instead of passing into culture; instead of being subdued into modesty and simplicity by a larger acquaintance with thought and fact, she has a feverish consciousness of her attainments; she keeps a sort of mental pocket-mirror, and is continually looking in it at her own ‘intellectuality;’ she spoils the taste of one’s muffin by questions of metaphysics; ‘puts down’ men at a dinner-table with her superior information; and seizes the opportunity of a soirée to catechise us on the vital question of the relation between mind and matter.”
There are other genres discussed too. There are stories as vehicles for a personal philosophy of the author’s, and books saying little more than how wonderful life has become now that the protagonist has converted to Roman Catholicism. But I’ll stop here so I don’t feel tempted to quote the rest of the essay in full. Fascinating content, hilariously written.
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot
Availability: free online
Word count: 10,100
First published: Westminster Review, Oct 1856
Where to find it: It’s in the public domain, so it can be found in the collection ‘The Essays of George Eliot’ at Gutenberg here. The essay can also be found by itself in many places, such as here.
“Biting” would be a bit mild of a descriptor for this essay.