Mother to the Nation
George Eliot identified with a community of women poets who negotiated a sphere of domestic influence in Victorian England. As a young woman, Eliot cherished “our sweet Mrs. Hemans’s language” (Letters 1:109) and found in her “a mothering voice and a sweetness of phrase and message which seemed to speak of the very nature of woman” (Leighton 16).1 In 1857, she expressed deep admiration for the “feminine subtlety of perception,” “feminine quickness of sensibility,” and “feminine tenderness” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work (“Belles Lettres” 306). By addressing domestic themes and writing in a consciously feminine mode, Eliot identified with a larger community of women poets who had the power to comfort, console, and counsel; these poets relied on, and at times referred to, one another in their poetry. Though this community was highly influential in shaping Eliot’s poetic persona and style, it was her interpersonal female community that informed the thoughts and values that her writing embodied. Throughout her life, female friends provided sympathy during times of loss and offered opportunities to exchange maternal affection in the absence of biological maternal relationships. This chapter examines how Eliot’s experiences with female community and motherhood shaped her belief in sympathy’s consoling power and edified her image as a spiritual mother to the nation. I will analyze Armgart and “Agatha” to show how she employed the themes of female community and motherhood to communicate the sacred value of sympathy in society.