Saturday, October 3, 2009

"The Wisdom of Dorothea"

Gertrude Himmelfarb, "The Wisdom of Dorothea," in The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling (Ivan Dee 2006).

If the term "neoconservative intellectual" is not to be considered altogether an oxymoron, the appellation may be applied to the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The wife of the late Irving Kristol and a student of Leo Strauss, Himmelfarb is a scholar of Victorian culture, the author of numerous books, and the recipient of a National Humanities Medal (2004). In 2002, she was one of three conservative scholars who decided to boycott an academic conference because Cornel West had been invited to speak. Her scholarship has been devoted to demonstrating the moral superiority of the Victorians, to demonstrating the superiority of the British to the French Enlightenment, and to demonstrating that Edmund Burke and George Eliot were Zionists.

In her essay "The Wisdom of Dorothea," Himmelfarb addresses the question: "Why did Dorothea marry Will Ladislaw?" This is a question that has troubled readers with feminist sensibilities since the novel was first published. It was a question that Florence Nightingale asked, and that Eliot herself anticipated when she wrote, at the end of Middlemarch: "Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother."

As Himmelfarb phrases the question: "Why could Eliot not have given us a Dorothea more congenial to modern feminists?" Phrased that way, we immediately see Himmelfarb's strategy: to expose such thinking as anachronistic. George Eliot was not a modern feminist. She was a Victorian woman, and very much rooted in the conventions of Victorian morality. Yes, she lived with another woman's husband, but in doing so she adopted all of the conventions of a Victorian marriage, referring to George Henry Lewes as her husband, and to herself as Mrs. Lewes. Himmelfarb writes: "Their twenty-four years together were spent in perfect domesticity and fidelity."

This ideal of traditional marriage, the forms of which she attempted to observe in her own unconventional relationship, is what Eliot adhered to in marrying Dorothea to Ladislaw. "The idea that only in marriage can Dorothea find her personal happiness as well as her moral mission seems perfectly Victorian," Himmelfarb writes. "And so it is."

Himmelfarb is, I think, perfectly correct about George Eliot. Eliot was a conservative, distrustful of radical change, more comfortable if she could align herself with traditional roles. Although her relationship with Lewes was unconventional, she observed the forms of traditional marriage. But more important to her was the substance of that relationship: the mutual commitment and affection, the shared responsibilities, the belief that marriage was a proper setting for the working out of a moral life.

In a sense, Mrs. Lewes was “passing” as a married woman. She was doing her best to align her own behavior with the expectations of the dominant culture.

It was a strain. In his review of a recent edition of Eliot’s Journals, Terry Eagleton writes: “From 1854, when she eloped with the philosopher George Henry Lewes and started these journals, to 1880, when her death brought them to a close, Eliot seems to have had a permanent headache. When she wasn't prostrate with migraine, she was bilious, palsied, depressed and despairing. She also complains about her teeth and of chronic melancholia." Eagleton suggests that Eliot’s maladies are the result of repressed guilt, to which her relationship with Lewes may have been a contributing factor. George Eliot, the strict Victorian moralist, was living happily in sin with a married man.

“What stokes Eliot's guilt most of all,” Eagleton writes, “is the fact that she is happy.”

Middlemarch is on one level the author’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. Casaubon’s faulty heart releases her from a stifling and unequal marriage that would have meant the slow death of her soul, and allows her, despite numerous obstacles set in her path, to marry the man she loves. Eliot knows that she herself stands somewhere on the margins of the moral culture she has so completely internalized. No wonder she has a permanent headache. In Middlemarch, she places Dorothea in the central moral position in Victorian culture—that of wife and mother—that she can never occupy herself.

Contemporary social conservatives like Himmelfarb tend to see same-sex marriages as an affront to “traditional marriage” and the traditions, rooted in Victorian culture, of family life. But I suspect that most same-sex couples want the right to marry for precisely the reasons that George Eliot found it so compelling: because it gives sanction to a relationship of love and mutual responsibility in which both partners have scope for their moral development.

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New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .