Monday, December 27, 2010

The important women novelists of Victorian Age with special reference to George Eliot

Introduction:
The Victorian era is known for the galaxy of female novelists that it threw up. They include Mrs. Trollope, Mrs. Gore, Mrs. Marsh Mrs. Bray, Mrs. Henry Wood, Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Lynn Lynfon, M. E. Braddon, "Ouida," Rhoda Broughton, Edna Lyall, and still many more now justly forgotten, but the four most important women novelists, who yet are quite important, are :
(i)         Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)
(ii)        Emile Bronte (1818-1848)
(iii)       Mrs. Gaskell (1810-1865)
(iv)       George Eliot (1819-1880)
Mrs. Gaskell may need some special pleading for being included among the rank of the great women novelists of the Victorian era, but as for the rest, their place in the history of English literature appears to be secure enough. Of the four, the two first-named were sisters and their methods and achievements as novelists met at many planes. But each of the remaining two pursued her own line and made herself known in the field of English novel in her own particular way.
After these preliminary remarks, let us consider individually the work and achievement of the important women novelists of the Victorian era.
Charlotte Bronte:
The three Bronte sisters-Anne, Charlotte, and Emily-collectively known often as the "stormy sisterhood," who took the England of their time by storm, were in actual life shy and isolated girls with rather uneventful lives. All of them died young and died of tuberculosis as their two other "non-literary" sisters did. They were daughters of a strict Irish person who made them lead a life of what Compton-Rickett calls, "the sternest self-repression." But behind their outwardly rippleless lives lurked tempest-tossed souls which found an outlet in their novels which are all so patently autobiographic. They poured their inner life into the mould of the novel. This consideration leads Hugh Walker to assert: "The Brontes belong to that class of writers whom it is impossible to understand except through the medium of biography." But too much of preoccupation with biography should not be allowed to lead us to a lopsided appreciation of their novels. Thus Samuel C. Chew observes : "The three Bronte sisters have been overlaid with so much biography, criticism, and conjecture that in reading about them there is danger lest their own books be left unread." Charlotte Bronte wrote the following four novels:
(i)                 The Professor
(ii)               VUlette
(iii)              Jane Eyre
(iv)              Shirley
The first two novels were based on her personal experiences at a Brussels boarding-house where she most probably fell in love with the Belgian scholar Heger who perfectly answered her conception of a dashing hero of the Byronic type. Her soul had always yearned for such a Lochinvar, but she being the daughter of a village parson, the men who made proposals to her actually were lacklustre curates with one of whom she ultimately settled down in 1854-a year before her death. But she worshipped a dashing, splendid, masculine figure as Heger was. Her frustrated passion for him provides the groundwork of her first two novels. The heroine of her third novel is a governess, just like her sister Anne. Her tempestuous love-affair with Rochester-a combination of wonderful nobility and meanness is the staple of this novel. In Shirley, to quote Legouis, "she set a story of intimate emotion against a background of Yorkshire in the time of the industrial disturbances." Perhaps the elemental and unchastened presence of the Yorkshire moor among which the Brontes lived is to some extent responsible for the fierce passions and elemental emotions which are characteristic of their works.
Charlotte Bronte in her novels revolted against the traditions of Jane Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray. Thackeray's Vanity Fair she praised in glowing terms, but she herself never attempted anything of the kind. Her novels are novels not of manners but of passions and the naked soul. Her characters-mostly the effusions of her own soul-are elemental figures acting in the backdrop of elemental nature. The social paraphernalia is altogether dispensed with. "Gone", says David Cecil, "is the busy prosaic urban world with its complicated structure and its trivial motives, silenced the accents'of everyday chatter, vanished are newspapers, fashions, business houses, duchesses, footmen, and snobs. Instead the gale rages under the elemental sky, while indoors, their faces rugged in the fierce firelight, austere figures of no clearly defined class or period declare eternal love and hate to one another in phrases of stilted eloquence and staggering candour."
According to Compton-Rickett three characteristics "detach themselves from the writings of Charlotte Bronte." They are:
(i)                 the note of intimacy;
(ii)               the note of passion; and
(iii)             the note of revolt.
The note of intimacy is caused by the markedly autobiographic slant of her novels. The note of passion is struck by a lonely sensitive woman on behalf of another woman. Her point of view is specifically the point of view of a woman. Like Mrs. Browning she effectually represents in her life and novels the pangs of a forlorn woman whose Prince Charming is yet to come. She pictures and highlights the primeval woman A s regards the note of revolt, we must point out that she was a rebel by nature and a Puritan by training. She could not reconcile these two elements. "Charlotte", says Compton-Rickett, "had the soul of a primitive woman, leashed in by a few early Victorian conventions, and she is always straining against the leash while upbraiding at herself for doing so." Though she did not'fujly, or even appreciably, revolt against social conventions, she at least revolted against the prevailing conventions of the novel.
Emily Bronte:
Emily was a poet as well as a novelist, and her only novel withering Heights is a poem as well as a- novel "There is no other book." says Legouis, "which contains so many of the-troubled, tumultuous, and rebellious elements of romanticism," She-is fiercer than even Charlotte but her fierceness is strangely accompanied by numerous strokes of intuitive illumination. She looks like a Byron in petticoats. She is also a rebel, but her rebelliousness is tempered by a sense of spirituality. She expresses, as very few do, the
Infinite passion
And the pain of finite hearts that yearn.
Wuthering Heights is a story of primal passions enacted amongst elemental environment. Catherine Earnshaw in her wildness and beauty is like a panther. Heathcliff, with his consuming passion for Catherine and his flaming desire for revenge, looks like a character from an ancient Greek tragedy. Catherine's call to Heathcliff from her grave has about it all the mystery of the hidden forces of the universe. Indeed, Walter Allen observes: "The central fact about Emily Bronte is that she is a mystic." Her mysticism lies not only in her handling of the voice of the dead Catherine calling Heathcliff to her, but also in her use of symbols. It trickles in other forms throughout the novel in expressions like the following coming from Catherine:
"Nelly, I am Heathcliff! If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be: and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it."
"There is no evidence", says Samuel C. Chew, that "she was deeply read in the literature of mysticism, but there is equally no doubt that she was a mystic." This critic believes that at least once, early in her youth, "Emily had attained the mystical experience in its entirety." Charlotte Bronte in Shirley also refers to Shirley's (Emily's) visions and trances. In many of her poems, too, Emily tries to give expression to her mystical experience; for instance, at one place she exclaims:
Speak, God of visions, plead for me,
And tell me why I have chosen thee.
Mrs. Gaskell:
Mrs. Gaskell had nothing of this passion and frustration of the Bronte sisters. She was the wife of a quiet Unitarian clergyman in Manchester-one of the buzzing centres of English industry. She was mother of seven children, and she had, according to Walter Allen, "what may be called the serenity of the fulfilled" and accepted everything with the air of, what David Cecil calls, "serene satisfaction." Her sense of humour and deep human sympathy are obvious manifestations of her serenity.
What distinguishes the novels of Mrs. Gaskell is her deep social consciousness combined with a compassionate observation of the life around her. Her novels divide themselves into two well-defined categories.
(1)                 First, we have novels like Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855) which deal with the social and industrial problems arising out of the masters-workmen struggles which were a feature of the industrial age which had then just got under way. Being herself a resident of Manchester, Mrs. Gaskell was a witness to the "blessing" ' of the Industrial Revolution. She pressed into service her personal observation of the situation prevailing in "the hungry forties." In Mary Barton the heroine who gives her name to the title is daughter of a workman who led by the fervour of trade unionism, murders Henry Carson, a fiery master, after his wife and son are dead from starvation. The novel gives a realistic picture of the poverty of the working classes and their animus against their masters whose cruelty is, however, considerably exaggerated by Mrs. Gaskell. North and South is a realistic, thoughtful, and thought-provoking presentation of the conflict
then raging between the industrial North and the feudal, agricultural South.
(2)                 Secondly, we have novels like Cranford, Ruth, Wives and Daughters, and Sylvia's Lovers which eschew all industrial problems and are concerned with rural life and manners which Mrs. Gaskell knew so well, thanks to her long stay at Knutsford with her aunt, before she settled at Manchester with her husband. Of all the novels of thiscategory the best and the best known is Cranford which is a disguised name for her own Knutsford. Cranford is a classic of its own kind. It portrays a world inhabited by women alone. These women belong to middle-class families, and their main occupation is gossip, tea-making, and tea-drinking. W. J. Long observes: "The ympathy, the keen observation, and the gentle humour with which the small affairs of a country village are described make Cranford one of the most delightful stories in the English language." In Ruth Mrs. Gaskell foreshadows the psychological novel of George Eliot. Wives and Daughters is a social comedy, and contains the character of Cynthia Kirkpatrick— "one of the most striking young women in English fiction." Sylvia's Lovers is a rather didactic story in a domestic setting.
George Eliot:
With George Eliot we come to the most philosophical of all the major Victorian novelists, both female and male. Philosophy is both her strength and weakness as a novelist. It keeps her from falling into pathos or triviality, but at the same time gives her art an ultra serious and reflective quality which makes it "heavy reading." Even her humour-the faculty in which she doubtlessly is quite rich-has about it the quality of ponderous reflectiveness. But often there are some aphoristic strokes which do tell-as the following:
"Animals are such agreeable friends, they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms."
"What a man wants in a wife mostly is to make sure of one fool as'll tell him he's wise."
"I'm not denyin' the women are foolish-God Almighty made'em to match the men."
"I'm not one of those who see the cat in the dairy and wonder what she's come after."
George Eliot's important novels are the following:
(i)         The Mill on the Floss
(ii)        AdamBede
(iii)       Romola
(iv)       Felix Holt
(v)        Daniel Deronda
(vi)       Middlemarch.
All of them are marked by extreme seriousness of purpose and execution. As Samuel C. Chew observes, "in George Eliot's hands the novel was not primarily for entertainment but for the serious discussion of moral issues" She is, indeed, too didactic and makes every incident a text for moralistic expatiation. "She", says the critic just quoted, "inculcates the importance of being earnest: but the virtues so earnestly striven after-industry, self-restraint   nscientiousness-are very drab; 'school-teacher's virtues' they have been unkindly called." In her novels we invariably meet with the clash of circumstances with the human will. She, indeed, believed that circumstances influenced character, but she did not show circumstances entirely determining character. A man called upon to choose between two women or a woman to choose between two men is the common leitmotif of her novels. She emphasizes the need for a moral choice uninfluenced by any selfish motives. She herself did not believe in any conventional moral creed and lived with Lewes as his wife without marriage, in spite of the defamatory rebukes of her priggish contemporaries. But inspite of her frank agnosticism and contempt for strait-jacketing traditionalism, she valued ethics both in her life and her work as a novelist.
Another important feature of her novels is their very deep concern with human psychology. Her novels are all novels of character. "She", says Compton-Rickett, "was the first novelist to lay the stress wholly upon character rather than incident; to make her stones spiritual rather than physical dramas." In her characterisation she displays both subtlety and variety. Her studies of the inner man, but more particularly the inner woman, are marvellous. She puts all the emphasis on the inside, very little on the outside. David Cecil observes in this connexion: "We do not remember her serious characters by their appearance or the way they talk, indeed we do not remember these things clearly at all. Her portraits are primarily portraits of the inner man."
George Eliot excels at portraying the tragedy of unfulfilled female longings. She identifies herself with her chief female characters and unfolds their inner feelings with masterly strokes. Compton-Rickett points out: "Maggie's cry was for fuller life, Ramola's for ampler knowledge, Darothea's for larger opportunity, for doing good.’ These themes are dealt with by George Eliot with a striking psychological profundity which makes her a very worthy forerunner of the psychological novelists like Henry James. Let us conclude with David Cecil's words: "She stands at the gateway between the old novel and the new, a massive caryatid, heavy of countenance and uneasy of attitude, but noble, monumental, profoundly impressive."

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1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis...but the introduction is not satisfactory & an appropriate conclusion is missing here...

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