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I Am a Woman’s Life

By (May 1, 2017) No Comment

“Engaged to Mr. Collins! my dear Charlotte,—impossible!”

What reader of Pride and Prejudice doesn’t agree wholeheartedly with Elizabeth Bennet at this moment? We know too well the kind of man Mr. Collins is—pompous, pretentious, obsequious. We know Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, too, and like her enough to want better for her. How can we not share Elizabeth’s incredulity that this young woman of brains and character “would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage”? Elizabeth, after all, has resisted just this temptation, turning down a proposal from Mr. Collins even though it would ensure not just for her but for her entire family the financial security threatened by the entail of their estate. Elizabeth’s mother was incensed at her daughter’s decision, but her father endorsed it with one of the novel’s most delightful lines:

An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.—Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.

Our laughter perfectly accessorizes our agreement: Mr. Collins is an intolerable choice for a husband and thus Elizabeth, our heroine, must reject his proposal. Indeed, her heroism is proven by that rejection, through which she redefines the standard for a good marriage by refusing to prostitute herself to a man she could never love, whatever the dynastic advantages. And yet Charlotte accepts.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch begins with a courtship featuring a suitor every bit as repugnant as Mr. Collins—and every bit as bad a match for its heroine. But when the middle-aged pedant Edward Casaubon offers marriage to ardent young Dorothea Brooke, she accepts, even though his proposal comes in the form of a letter both inadvertently comical and strangely chilling. “I have your guardian’s permission to address you on a subject than which I have none more at heart,” it begins:

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my being acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate).

How could such a stultifying letter inspire a blooming young woman to consent? “Impossible!” we might well exclaim—and that is, in fact, more or less the reaction of everyone around Dorothea, from her sister Celia, who finds “something funereal in the whole affair,” to her well-meaning but ineffectual uncle, who concedes that Mr. Casaubon “is a good match in some respects” but who is nonetheless entirely puzzled by Dorothea’s choice. “This is frightful,” says their frank neighbor Mrs. Cadwallader on hearing the news of the engagement; “Good God! It is horrible!” says Mr. Casaubon’s disappointed (and much more conventionally suitable) rival, Sir James Chettam.

What is wrong with Dorothea, that she can’t see she’s making a terrible mistake? And why does George Eliot inflict this mistake on her, when with the novelist’s privilege she could as easily have spared her (and us) the miserable result—as Austen spares Elizabeth? Charlotte, of course, is not spared, but we get mercifully few details of her marriage to Mr. Collins, while those we do see strike us less with pathos than with wry resignation: after all, Charlotte accepted him with her eyes open, fully understanding the trade-offs she was making. Elizabeth’s joyful result, too, preoccupies us at the end of Pride and Prejudice, its charm radiating back, retrospectively, over the novel’s grimmer prospects. In Middlemarch, however, we keep company with Dorothea through all the dismal consequences of her terrible choice. Eventually, though Dorothea does get a happy—or at least happier—ending, her contentment does not seem to all observers (within or without the novel) an unambiguous triumph. Despite the eloquent tribute to Dorothea’s “unheroic” life in Middlemarch’s wistfully beautiful Finale, it’s hard to shake some lingering dissatisfaction with her fate.

The contrast these novels present between delight and disappointment points to a larger difference in the use Austen and Eliot make of their marriage plots. Austen’s romantic resolutions are invariably more uplifting. But the mistakes, compromises, and failures endured by Eliot’s heroines reflect the imperfect world she knew they lived in and called on us, her readers, to change. Eliot refuses Dorothea the freer and more powerful life she herself enjoyed not, as some have concluded, due to a failure of her feminism, but because she knew herself to be anomalous; she also knew the price she had paid for her own courageous choices. She understood, too, that happy exceptions do not encourage broader reform any more than Elizabeth’s great good fortune does. Elizabeth gets to live at Pemberley, but the rest of us have to live in reality, which is only as good as we make it. If we want happy endings, her novels repeatedly imply, we’re going to have to work for them.

This lesson is clearest in Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, which alludes overtly to Pride and Prejudice before taking us to dark places Austen’s famously “light, and bright, and sparkling” novel would never go. Early in Eliot’s novel the neighborhood of Diplow Hall, the country residence of Sir Hugo Mallinger, is abuzz with the news that the hall is “being prepared for a tenant”—not the venerable (and married) Sir Hugo, but the very eligible Mr. Mallinger Grandcourt, “presumptive heir to the baronetcy.” “Some readers of this history,” says the narrator dryly,

will doubtless regard it as incredible that people should construct matrimonial prospects on the mere report that a bachelor of good fortune and possibilities was coming within reach.

Yet so it is, and among the most interested is Gwendolen Harleth, who, like Elizabeth Bennet, is full of pride and wit, and also burdened with an excess of sisters (“four other girls whom Gwendolen had always felt to be superfluous”) and little fortune of her own.

Gwendolen has “always been the pet and pride of the household,” and she imagines herself destined to predominate. Though she has no more specific idea than Dorothea what precise shape her ambitions might take, “she felt well equipped for the mastery of life.” Marriage, of course, is her expected path. “This girl is really worth some expense,” remarks her benevolent uncle; “you don’t often see her equal. She ought to make a first-rate marriage, and I should not be doing my duty if I spared my trouble in helping her forward.”

Gwendolen herself has never seen marriage as fulfilling her dreams: well aware that “marriage was social promotion,” she nonetheless considers it only “a vexatious necessity”:

Her observation of matrimony had inclined her to think it rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than were desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum.

She particularly dreads losing her mastery: “I never saw a married woman who had her own way,” she tells her cousin Rex, himself trembling on the brink of a proposal. “What should you like to do?” he asks, and her reply shows the difficulty of imagining a woman’s future on different terms: “Oh, I don’t know!—go to the North Pole, or ride steeplechases, or go to be a queen in the East like Lady Hester Stanhope.” Gwendolen has always been clear that

she did not wish to lead the same sort of life as ordinary young ladies did; but what she was not clear upon was, how she should set about leading any other, and what were the particular acts which she would assert her freedom by doing.

Poor conventional Rex never has a chance with Gwendolen, but the much-anticipated Mr. Grandcourt—whom she pictures as a sort of patrician Mr. Collins, “one of those complimentary and assiduously admiring men” she finds ridiculous in everything except their homage—offers at least a gratifying opportunity to exercise her power of attraction. She is resolved, however, that “he was not to have the slightest power over her (for Gwendolen had not considered that the desire to conquer is itself a sort of subjection).”

But Grandcourt turns out to be a more complicated creature than Gwendolen expects. In his cool reticence and “distinguished manners” Grandcourt could easily be taken for another Mr. Darcy. Appearances are misleading, though: while Darcy’s reserve conceals a man of significant (if occasionally misguided) integrity, Grandcourt’s “aristocratic bearing” masks a “peremptory will,” a desire for supremacy every bit as strong as Gwendolen’s own—but backed, as hers cannot be, by law, social convention, and economic power. The dramatic irony that dominates our perspective on Dorothea’s first marriage creates more pathos than dread. Daniel Deronda, in contrast, becomes an exercise in anxiety bordering on horror as we, who soon know his true nature, watch Grandcourt court Gwendolen, who does not.

It is admittedly difficult to feel sympathy for Gwendolen, who is vain, spoiled, and intermittently cruel. In her defense, though, she has not been raised to be her best self. Her family has always treated her as a “princess in exile,” catering to her whims and offering her the deference and adulation she naturally now believes are her due. Her education has been limited, but she does not know enough to recognize her own deficiencies:

In the schoolroom her quick mind had taken readily that strong starch of unexplained rules and disconnected facts which saves ignorance from any painful sense of limpness; and what remained of all things knowable, she was conscious of being sufficiently acquainted with through novels, plays, and poems. About her French and music, the two justifying accomplishments of a young lady, she felt no ground for uneasiness; and when to all these qualifications, negative and positive, we add the spontaneous sense of capability some happy persons are born with, so that any subject they turn attention to impresses them with their own power of forming a correct judgment on it, who can wonder if Gwendolen felt ready to manage her own destiny?

The narrator is severe on Gwendolen’s faults, but she also reminds us that “no one had disputed her power or her general superiority.” Surrounded by those whose first thought is invariably “what will Gwendolen think?” Gwendolen can hardly be expected to have cultivated the kind of stringent self-criticism that would chasten her egotism—or make her doubt the proffered devotion of an eligible bachelor who seems agreeably placid and biddable.

Innocent as she is, too, of life beyond her narrow experience, how could she conceive of Grandcourt’s actual nature or history? True, she has witnessed her own mother’s unhappiness in her second marriage, to Gwendolen’s “unlovable step-father,” and from that she gets her general view that marriage is an unenviable state—yet her mother still assures her that “marriage is the only happy state for a woman.” That Mr. Grandcourt might have desires or make demands beyond what she can tolerate is beyond the scope of her imagination:

Gwendolen had no sense that these men were dark enigmas to her, or that she needed any help in drawing conclusions about them—Mr. Grandcourt at least. The chief question was, how far his character and ways might answer her wishes; and unless she were satisfied about that, she had said to herself that she would not accept his offer.

For all her domestic sovereignty, Gwendolen is sheltered from possibilities that, once she accepts a proposal, will rapidly reveal themselves as her unwelcome new reality.

While better education and wider experience might have prepared Gwendolen to confront her future with more wisdom and self-awareness, there’s probably little that could have been done in advance to warn her of what we, thanks to the narrator, know too well: that Grandcourt himself is a particularly nasty specimen, one whose interest in her is quite other than what she assumes. He does admire her high spirits, for instance, but mostly because they pose a challenge worth overcoming. Likewise, his own conduct signals (if she could only interpret it accurately) not his superiority to social niceties but his complete indifference to others’ feelings. In this disquieting variation on the marriage plot, in which the man holding out the promise of financial security is neither ridiculous nor admirable—neither Collins nor Darcy, but an unforeseen third option—the game is more dangerous than Gwendolen can possibly know.

There is some relief for us, therefore, as she initially resists his understated but persistent advances: we know that, as surely as Dorothea should have said no to Casaubon, so too Gwendolen should turn down Grandcourt. Happily, Eliot hands her a compelling reason in the form of Lydia Glasher, Grandcourt’s former mistress and mother of his four illegitimate children. “Mr. Grandcourt ought not to marry any one but me,” she tells Gwendolen, with some justice:

I left my husband and child for him nine years ago. Those two children are his, and we have two others—girls—who are older. My husband is dead now, and Mr. Grandcourt ought to marry me. He ought to make that boy his heir.

Even Gwendolen’s well-insulated conscience is stung by this prior claim, while her pride is shaken by the revelation of how little she understood the man whose proposal she has daily been anticipating. More than that, she is filled with a larger sense of doom: “it was as if some ghastly vision had come to her in a dream and said, ‘I am a woman’s life.’”

Eliot DrawingGwendolen departs abruptly for Europe, leaving her family bewildered and Grandcourt thwarted. Eliot has structured the novel, however, to create a further layer of dramatic irony: Daniel Deronda begins at the end of Gwendolen’s travels, with the news that her family has lost what fortune they had, then takes us back in time to tell the story of Grandcourt’s courtship. Even as we watch Gwendolen flee Grandcourt, then, we know that she will return newly vulnerable to the financial inducements of his morally tainted offer. Now the grim realities of “a woman’s life” cease to be merely abstractions or nightmares for Gwendolen. “For the first time since her consciousness began,” the narrator observes, not without compassion, “she was having a vision of herself on the common level.” She has no useful suggestions for the family’s pecuniary problems, as her “talents had not been applied to business so much as to discernment of the admiration excited by her charms.” She has no marketable skills: the best she can hope for is a position as a teacher or governess, roles which to her mean only servitude:

As to the sweetness of labour and fulfilled claims; the interest of inward and outward activity; the impersonal delights of life as a perpetual discovery; the dues of courage, fortitude, industry, which it is mere baseness not to pay towards the common burthen; the supreme worth of the teacher’s vocation;—these, even if they had been eloquently preached to her, could have been no more than faintly apprehended doctrines: the fact which wrought upon her was her invariable observation that for a lady to become a governess—to “take a situation”—was to descend in life and to be treated at best with a compassionate patronage. And poor Gwendolen had never dissociated happiness from personal pre-eminence and éclat.

When Grandcourt renews his suit, Gwendolen faces a truly unhappy alternative: she can accept a man whose capacity for cruelty she has now previewed, or resign herself to “the dismal future that threatened her.” Elizabeth Bennet’s principled position—“I am only resolved,” she boldly declares to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness”—has always been Gwendolen’s as well, but now we see more clearly than Austen allows us to what a luxury that principle really is. As Gwendolen’s uncle has sternly pointed out, her marriage “is not a trivial occasion”:

it concerns your establishment for life under circumstances which may not occur again. You have a duty here both to yourself and your family.

And Gwendolen does not understand either the truth of her prospective husband’s character or the realities of marriage:

Gwendolen had about as accurate a conception of marriage—that is to say, of the mutual influences, demands, duties of man and woman in a state of matrimony—as she had of magnetic currents and the law of storms.

She has been raised to believe that she will be rewarded for her beauty and high spirits with “the power of doing a great deal of what she liked to do.” She thinks (how naïvely, only we really know) that Grandcourt is “a man over whom she was going to have indefinite power”:

Poor Gwendolen had no awe of unmanageable forces in the state of matrimony, but regarded it as altogether a matter of management, in which she would know how to act.

This time, when Grandcourt at last makes his intentions explicit, she grasps at the opportunity for “rescue from helpless subjection to an oppressive lot.”

Gwendolen’s engagement, though by some measures a triumph, is shadowed by the conscience-pricking memory of Mrs. Glasher. She is right to be worried, not because of any new harm her marriage causes that abandoned woman, but because Grandcourt’s indifference to his mistress’s suffering foreshadows Gwendolen’s own miserable future. At the very moment of her assent, when she feels her own power most strongly, Grandcourt’s “strongest wish was to be completely master of this creature,” and from the moment she becomes his bride, Gwendolen will feel the full force of this will to conquer and control. Pride and Prejudice reduces Charlotte’s pragmatic self-sacrifice to harmless inconvenience and occasional “mortification”; Daniel Deronda, in contrast, spares neither us nor Gwendolen in its grim revelations about the supposed safe haven of marriage.

“General maxims about husbands and wives,” Gwendolen soon realizes, and particularly of “the wife’s great influence,” are “of a precarious usefulness”; “the poor thing’s belief in her power, with her other dreams before marriage, had often to be thrust aside now like the toys of a sick child, which it looks at with dull eyes, and has no heart to play with, however it may try.” It takes little time for her “belief in her own power of dominating” to collapse: “Already, in seven short weeks,”

her husband had gained a mastery which she could no more resist than she could have resisted the benumbing effect from the touch of a torpedo. Gwendolen’s will had seemed imperious in its small girlish sway; but it was the will of a creature with a large discourse of imaginative fears: a shadow would have been enough to relax its hold. And she had found a will like that of a crab or a boa-constrictor which goes on pinching or crushing without alarm at thunder.

It is a true devil’s bargain that Gwendolen has made, and Eliot makes painfully clear that its terms are not just social but sexual. Gwendolen has never welcomed men’s physical advances, but she has always been able to set her own terms, even—more or less—with Grandcourt:

One day, indeed, he had kissed not her cheek but her neck a little below her ear; and Gwendolen, taken by surprise, had started up with a marked agitation which made him rise too and say, “I beg your pardon—did I annoy you?” “Oh, it was nothing,” said Gwendolen, rather afraid of herself, “only I cannot bear—to be kissed under my ear.” She sat down again with a little playful laugh, but all the while she felt her heart beating with a vague fear: she was no longer at liberty to flout him as she had flouted poor Rex. Her agitation seemed not uncomplimentary, and he had been contented not to transgress again.

These “little coquetries” had, she thought, shown Grandcourt “in the light of a creature such as she could understand and manage: but marriage had nullified all such interchange”:

Grandcourt had become a blank uncertainty to her in everything but this, that he would do just what he willed, and that she had neither devices at her command to determine his will, nor any rational means of escaping it.

Gwendolen was right when she first met Grandcourt to judge him as “not ridiculous”: like Mr. Darcy, he is “not to be laughed at.” His gravity is the camouflage of a predator, not the demeanor of a gentleman, however, and his beautiful home and, even more, his luxurious yacht conceal evils unthinkable amid the elegance of Pemberley—evils from which, due to her own pride, her family’s needs, and the rules that govern her world, Gwendolen is unable to escape.

In all three of these novels it is a truth that is, if not universally acknowledged, at least widely accepted that a young woman without means of her own must be in want of a husband to support her. Even the well-to-do Dorothea cannot see how to realize her own aspirations except through marriage. Daniel Deronda removes any lingering sheen of fairy tale from this scenario: far from being a certainty, a happy ending depends to an unnerving degree on the whim of a man who can all too easily remain an enigma until it is too late and who, in even the best case, has the full force of law and society on his side. Both Dorothea’s and Gwendolen’s unhappy marriages do serve as means to their individual moral betterment: suffering teaches them to consider others’ experiences in new and more compassionate ways. “Two years ago,” says Dorothea,

I had no notion of … the unexpected way in which trouble comes, and ties our hands, and makes us silent when we long to speak. I used to despise women a little for not shaping their lives more, and doing better things. I was very fond of doing as I liked, but I have almost given it up.

Gwendolen looks differently on “her mother’s dullness, which used to irritate her”: now it seems to her “the ordinary result of women’s experience.” It’s a remarkable transformation for the willful girl who once “rejoiced to feel herself exceptional.” This is not an outcome to be sought through deliberate martyrdom, however, but the best that can be salvaged from otherwise unmitigated disasters.

It ought to—and typically does—leave readers dissatisfied to see women of such high spirits broken in this way, cheated of their “epic life.” That dissatisfaction is precisely the point. It provokes us to chafe against the entire series of interconnected assumptions, conventions, and systems—legal, educational, economic, and social—that gives them so little choice, and so few tools, for shaping their own, better, futures. We celebrate with Elizabeth when she wins the marriage lottery, but Eliot underlines how unlikely such a victory really is. Gwendolen’s defeat is thus more instructive than Elizabeth’s success. If we want a world in which Dorotheas and Gwendolens can channel their energy and passion into heroic exploits—in which their characters and ambitions are nurtured rather than deformed by their circumstances—it’s not enough to wish them better husbands: we have to change not our plots but our realities.

The ending of Pride and Prejudice always fills me with joy (“Such a charming man,” effuses Mrs. Bennet, “so handsome! so tall!”). The implicit radicalism of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage of true minds, in the face of robust—if also perversely pleasurable —opposition (“are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”) should not be underestimated, either. Eliot’s novels emphasize, however, that until conditions change, compromises like Charlotte’s are anything but impossible, and frequently constitute a worse kind of self-sacrifice than embarrassment at Lady Catherine’s dinner table.

Eliot does not offer easy solutions: indeed, complexity is the hallmark of her fiction, as well as of her social analysis, which links past to present, cause to effect, and individual to society in an intricate web. Instead, her unsatisfactory endings leave us with questions nearly obscured by Austen’s pleasures—questions about systemic problems that aren’t resolved by individual victories, however delightful. Why do smart, strong-minded, ambitious women say yes when they should have said no? What would have to change for that to be truly impossible? And what can we do to bring that about? Without the answers, and the reform they generate, the marriage plot itself risks being the unhappiest alternative of all.

Rohan Maitzen is an English professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and the proprietor of Middlemarch for Book Clubs. She blogs at Novel Readings.