George Eliot in her essay titled “Silly Novel by Lady Novelists” presents a scathing and sarcastic critique of her fellow women writers of the 19th century. She describes their writing as a “genus” containing four species of novels. She lists them respectively as – “Mind and Millinery Species,” “Oracular species”, “white neck-cloth species,” and “modern-antique species.” She further points out the exact stray features of each type of novel and describes the kind of moral diligence that is required to make them better.
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists | Summary & Analysis
“Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” was written by George Elliot in the year 1856. It was published in the “Westminster Review” as her last essay where she moved on to write novels from then on. The essay begins with a sharp contempt for novels written by women during that time. She lists four types of novels with characteristics that make them worthless. She describes them by for adjectives respectively – “the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic”.
The first of these novels she categorizes is the “Mind and Millinery Species.” This type of novel features a heroine who is from a high-class society, probably an heiress. She is the epitome of grace and ceremony with a multitude of lovers behind her back. Most of these are men of noble ranks and they fall in love with the heroine just by staring at her. Moreover, if the lady is not an heiress by birth, at the end of the story she rises to the upper-class ranks. One of the most common plots in such novels is the intrigue where the character is married to a “vicious baron”. Here the heroine endures hardship but the baron is pre-destined to die in a duel. In an attempt to provide happiness to his wife, he gives her permission to marry her lover. Even so, before she truly achieves happiness the heroine must go through terrible ordeals yet she still manages to return to her state of happiness and health.
Elliot goes on to express that society along with her thinks of letting such women write stories like these because of the assumption that they must be struggling financially. So these novels are the only way to earn their daily bread. However, Eliot refuses to believe such theories. She goes on to reveal that these novels are written in such a manner that they have no idea of the working of the lower-class society. For example in the book “Compensation,” she comments on the ability of a four-year-old child to speaking a well-versed manner. Further, she mocks the heroines who seem to have complete knowledge of many different languages, like Sanskrit being “no more than a b c to her”. The heroine seems to possess the ability to master foreign languages like “the same aërial facility that the butterfly sips nectar”. She gives another example from the novel “Laura Gray” where the heroine “Laura Gray” uses Latin references intensely. Her character is shallow in her writing as she presents the simplest of observations in long-winded passages.
In “Compensation,” Eliot criticizes that though it contains more “doctrine” it is filled with “snobbish worldliness” and irrelevant subplots. She also savagely criticizes “Rank and Beauty” for its romantic plot where a lowly heroine falls in love with the prime minister just by reading about him in the newspaper. She goes on to become a lady and eventually marries him who is described as a dashing young man.
These types of novels lack what Eliot considers an important part of novels. Accordingly, they all are missing the element of realism. By writing the novels in such a manner with so much artificiality, it becomes impossible for the reader to connect to the characters. And the way these women use lofty diction for their novels only adds to the hollowness of the story; the theme of it clashes with the plot.
The next type of novel she describes is the “Oracular Species” – “novels intended to expound the writer’s religious, philosophical, or moral theories.” Here Eliot chastises the lady novelists who wish to write about philosophical doctrines that they have no idea about. They also write about Christian ideologies which they do not understand themselves. She exemplifies this type of novel by “ The Enigma“ where she scorns the writer’s way of describing the simple act of lights flickering at windows in the most confusing metaphysical manner. These novels also have the element of melodrama where the heroines are melodramatic. The ordinary events are expressed in the abundance of pathos and drama. To Eliot, such a story is like a child’s drawing drawn out of his imagination where the child adds things that do not belong there as well.
Eliot furthermore goes on to say that by reading such novels some men would say it is better for women to be not educated at all. She does not approve of these men but blames the women who “mistakes vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality”. Instead of improving women’s position such writings only continue to downgrade them further. It’s because for Eliot a “cultured women” presents a view simple manner without exaggeration. She does not force Latin and Greek quotes into her work. Rather she writes conversations that the reader can understand. She tends to not explore philosophy in her works instead she writes books “that delight them.”
Moving on Eliot introduces “The White Neck-Cloth Species” novels which are strife with Christian themes of the Evangelical party. These novels depict the religious life of women married out of love. These stories, however, lack proper form and are written in a “more vulgar” manner. Most of the time the hero is a young curate of a fashionable background, loved by the ladies. There are quotations from the scriptures instead of literature. The young heroine is described as having a mixture of feelings for the hero, just like the anxieties within her soul. The character of these novels is inaccurately presented from wealthy backgrounds which show the behaviorism of the “aristocratic people” even though the novel should be about low-class Christian people. It makes one wonder whether these people were devoid of their individual stories. Here classicism takes the forefront where the main characters all have important connections to noble families. She also explores the theme of Christianity which is propagated in a make-believe manner in such novels. Eliot is condescending of such religious propaganda and believes that people should follow their own morale. One such example she gives is “The Old Grey Church” which is written in a moderate manner. It has the same shallowness of the novels written by Evangelical lady novelists where tete-a-tete is gospel and heroines dress up in sober colors.
After this Eliot mentions one last novel called “The Modern-Antique Species” where the novelists try to “reanimate the past” which is only “an infusion of the modern spirit into the ancient form,” without any success. According to her if someone has adept knowledge of ancient history and uses it to reconstruct it within the proper context then it becomes a masterpiece. Albeit this form of knowledge is hard
and rare to find. Nonetheless, Eliot is exasperated to find the novel full of “feeble sentimentality” spouted by Roman Vestals or Egyptian Princesses. She cites the example of “Adonijah a Tale of the Jewish Dispersion.” It tries to tell the history of “dispersed of Israel and Judea ‘and yet promptly fails to do so. These novels also make use of obsolete words that only confuse the readers instead of increasing their knowledge of history. It uses phrases like “ah, by Vesta!” and “I tell thee, Roman.”
In the conclusion of her essay Eliot uses the proverb “Be not a baker if your head be made of butter,” which refers, according to her, to any woman that is writing and publishing works of literature should be prepared for its consequences, otherwise, they should not write at all. She admits that her remark for these writers is very different from the praises and adulation of their readers. Still, Eliot wants these lady novelists to, for a moment, focus on the people who have talent and yet are not lauded for it. She claims that when a woman has no talent she is severely criticized, when she becomes mediocre the criticism seems to lessen, and when she is at the peak of her excellence the criticism altogether stops.
Eliot mentions three names who she believes have reached greater heights in literature. Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell, and Mrs. Gaskell: all of whom were women. Eliot believes that what these women lack is not “intellectual power” but “moral qualities” that will help them achieve “literary excellence.” These things are featured as “patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in the publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer’s art.” she also complains about the absence of self-criticism in their writing. This is due to the impression that ‘to write at all” is a sign of an empowered woman. This is believed by the lady novelist, while they fail to regard the “moral or intellectual” degradation of the community. In this way, this becomes a dishonest way of representing intellectual women in society, where women are undermined by such muck. Eliot goes on to describe the impact of society on these women while someone from an ordinary circumstance becomes a writer, society is quick to belittle her, and so is its excessive praise. Where one woman is working for her daily bread, three others beside her write for vanity alone.
In the end, Eliot claims that in literature we do not have to prove that women are equal to men. Rather women have such a way of writing that is different “from masculine aptitudes and experience.” Literature is free for all the members of the society and it has never been freer from conditions. The only element required for it are “genuine observation, humor, and passion.” Every art form has a certain technique that keeps out amateurs from mastering it. Yet this is not the case in novels where anyone can do the writing regardless of its lack of depth. In this way, Eliot wishes for the “silly lady novelists” to stop and reflect on their work. She hopes this advice will be yielded by any future lady novelists as well perchance their numbers increase.