chapter  3
40 Pages

Sexual Politics in Poetry

George Eliot’s relationship with Lewes signaled a rejection of a traditional domestic lifestyle. Yet she appeared traditional in many of her beliefs about women in society. She rejected requests to sign petitions promoting women’s rights and refused to write for the cause. When activist Clementia Taylor pressured her to take a public stand on women’s rights, Eliot wrote that she had “grave reasons for not speaking on certain public topics” and that “no request from the best friend in the world-even from my own husband-ought to induce me to speak when I judge my duty to be silent (Letters 7:44). Eliot explained to Mrs. Taylor that she was an artist not an activist: “My function is that of the aesthetic, not the doctrinal teacher-the rousing of the nobler emotions, which make mankind desire the social right, not the prescribing of special measures, concerning which the artistic mind, however strongly moved by social sympathy, is often not the best judge” (7:44). Activist Elizabeth Malleson explained that although Eliot “always led the talk … [to] the position of women, education,” she took a conservative public stance for fear of drawing attention to her position: “The impression given me was of her conservatism on many points that we [activists] held could only be treated with courageous reform. She seemed to me timid where we were bold. I always attributed this to her isolated hidden position” (Collins, Interviews 68-9). Eliot’s stance on the Woman Question frustrated contemporary women’s rights activists as well as future feminist critics. Feminist critics today generally complain about her anti-feminist attitude and the weak women’s roles in her novels, or they reconcile her position and claim her for feminism because of her liberated lifestyle. Neither of these views is clear-cut, and defining her sexual politics is challenging because her opinions are not distinctly one-sided. For example, she supported women’s education and women’s right to own property but not their right to vote. Similarly, she supported women’s writing but sharply criticized much of it.