Thursday, April 9, 2009

Literary Cat Fights

[Here’s this week’s installment in Eberle’s Women’s Art is Women’s Work series. It’s a rollicking take on novelist George Eliot—& there’s a marmalade recipe to top it off! Who could ask for anything more? If you’ve missed any installments, there are links to all of them under the photo titled * Eberle’s Corner * in the left hand frame.]

To say that a sisterhood of women writers and readers existed is not to imply a consistently harmonious community. Sisters do not invariably get along. As with their male counterparts, the fur could, on occasion, fly. Jane Austen’s references in Northanger Abbey to Mrs. Radclyffe, the popular writer of gothic tales, have a distinct bite to them. And Maria Edgeworth, whom Jane admired, was critical of Jane’s novel Emma, complaining that there was no story in it. Madame de Staël gave her opinion of Jane’s work in one word: “vulgaire.” Charlotte Brontë found in Jane’s Pride and Prejudice “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. ... These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.” No shrinking violets, our literary ancestresses, or blind followers of fashion; they read and they wrote and they formed definite opinions of their own.

George Eliot (1819-1880) has been noted for her somewhat unsisterly ideas about her sister writers. There is certainly nothing petty about a statement she made in an 1854 essay, which sweeps English women authors out of history altogether. Only French women authors, she said, “have had a vital influence on the development of literature. For in France alone the mind of woman has passed, like an electric current, through the language, making crisp and definite what is elsewhere heavy and blurred; in France alone, if the writings of women were swept away, a serious gap would be made in the national history."

The French author George Sand (1804-1876) had George Eliot’s complete respect and Sand also found admirers in Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Elizabeth’s admiration was ambivalent, containing some serious doubts about George’s adopted masculinity—not only her trousers and cigars but also her approach to writing. Elizabeth’s poem To George Sand: A Recognition ends with a hope that at some point vexed questions of gender will cease to matter: “Beat purer, heart, higher, / Till God unsex thee on the heavenly shore/ Where unincarnate spirits purely aspire!”

Elizabeth was not alone in her reservations about George Sand. A newspaper debate raged about George’s controversial work and li
fe, and women were warned against the moral contagion that would come from reading her works, which in themselves constituted “a second fall of Eve from tasting a new fruit of knowledge.” One journalistic admirer used male pronouns when writing about her, and “What a brave man she was,” Ivan Turgenev once said of her. George herself, however, saw her works and her life in relation to other women: “The world will know and understand me someday,” she wrote to her critics. “But if that day does not arrive, it does not greatly matter. I shall have opened the way for other women.”

George Eliot’s praise of her is unstinting: "I cannot read six pages of hers witho
ut feeling that it is given to her to delineate human passion and its results... with such truthfulness and such nicety of descrimination such tragic power and withall such loving gentle humor that one might live a century with nothing but one's own dull faculties and not know so much as those six pages will suggest."

In the Prelude
to Middlemarch (1871) George Eliot expressed the idea that the general run of women exhibits a certain sameness, like the sameness of their coiffures and love stories, that they are as a rule “oary-footed ducks,” and only an occasional swan is produced among them. But it may well be that all women writers are to a certain extent swans among ducks, creating themselves out of so many fragmented images of what femininity ought to be that each one is in fact her own separate species. George Eliot herself struggled life-long with these issues of identity and recreated her self several times at different points in her life.

The woman now known as George Eliot actually used five different names in h
er lifetime—evocative of the difficulty that women still often experience in reconciling their professional, creative, and sexual identities with social norms. Although she flouted authority in many ways, she had great respect for it in others; she kept house for her father for thirteen years, in spite of family friction, after her mother’s death until his own in 1849. George was born Mary Ann Evans, and took on the name Marian Evans when she first decided to move to London and become a writer. Marian wrote non-fiction, and edited the left-wing journal The Westminster Review. Her professional role as editor-in-chief was unusual for a woman of her time, although women writers were numerous; she also ignored rules of propriety for unmarried women in mixing with male society.

She changed her name to Marian Evans Lewes when she took George Lew
es as a partner, though they did not marry. It was not at all unheard of for men and women of her time to have relations out of wedlock, but Marian’s openness about her status was unusual; in her own actions, she consistently challenged ideas about what was acceptable behavior for women. Deciding to write novels prompted her to change her name again—this time to George Eliot. She kept this name until she was sixty and became legally married, as Mary Anne Cross, to John Cross.

George’s socioeconomic identity was also complex. Unlike many of the well-known women authors of the nineteenth century, George had a father who labored with his hands. A carpenter by trade, he rose to the position of estate manager for a wealthy family in Warwickshire. George was granted access to the family’s library on the estate. Visits to the library not only enhanced the education provided to her by her own family, but gave her the opportunity of witnessing the lives of the workers as well as the wealthy on the estate lands. Her position gave her a uniquely broad perspective on the spectrum of social class—a perspective that would continue throughout her writing career as she described and interpreted the social turmoil of her times.

All women writers of the era, however, in spite of different opinions, backgrounds, and what we would now call lifestyles, had one thing in common: their association with the domestic sphere. Women, even if not performing h
ousehold tasks themselves, had a supervising role in making sure that all household tasks were performed in a timely, seemly, and thorough manner. Carpets must be beaten, but not while guests are visiting; a supply of coals must be constantly on hand, stoves and chimneys kept in order, floors treated with beeswax, gardens bloom punctually with the expected colors and arrangements of borders.

George Eliot is more
famous for her way with a pen than with a whisk, but in fact one of her culinary creations had a short reign as the most popular cake in England. George created the Marmalade Brompton Cake after returning to her home in 1836 to keep house for the family after the death of her mother. The Marmalade Brompton Cake achieved its whirlwind success while in commercial production by a local baker.

What could seem more English than a pot of marmalade? In the sixteenth century marmalade was made from quinces, but the term has come to refer to any sweet jelly in which pieces of fruit and rind are suspended. The secret of marmalade lies in the rind, which creates a slight bitterness to harmonize with the sweetness of the jelly. Many marmalades have a citrus base: orange (preferably Seville orange), lime, lemon, grapefruit, or kumquat.

Orange Marmalade Recipe

Cut 3 large oranges and 2 large lemons into quarters and remove the seeds. Soak the fruit for 24 hours in 11 cups water. Drain the fruit, reserving the water. Cut the fruit into small shreds, return it to the water and boil for one hour. Add 8 cups of sugar. Boil the mixture until it is thick enough to fall from a spoon in a single sheet rather than in drops (220-222º). Skim if necessary and let the marmalade cool until a skin begins to form before pouring into warm, dry jars. Letting the marmalade cool first will help keep the peel from rising in the jar. Store in the refrigerator.

Marmalade can be used as filling between layers of a simple butter cake, added to the ingredients of a bundt cake, or heated with orange juice and poured over cake as a sauce.

Pix from the top:
George Eliot at age 30 by François D'Albert Durade
Elizabeth Barrett Browning - an 1871 engraving of an 1859 photograph
George Sand by Auguste Charpentier, 1835
Title page to Middlemarch
George Eliot portrait from 1865 by Sir Frederick William Burton (Eliot age 46)


  1. I cannot tell a lie - I skipped the recipe! The rest was fascinating, though I have obviously missed too many, so thanks for the links. I shall have to chase them up.

  2. Now I'm craving orange marmalade. I bet this recipe is delicious.

    Sad that women had to hide behind a man's name to have their writings published. Clever though. A girl's gotta do, what a girl's gotta do.

  3. I suppose that the sisterhood of women writers is like any sisterhood - a loving relationship with undercurrents of hostility- or a hostile relationship with undercurrents of love, depending. I love that George Sand quote - “The world will know and understand me someday... But if that day does not arrive, it does not greatly matter. I shall have opened the way for other women.”

  4. Hi Dave, Willow & Sandra:

    Thanks so much!

    Dave: You may not know what you're missing!

    Willow: We haven't tried it, but I imagine it is. That's a good point about the fact that they found a way to publish their work.

    Sandra: Yes, that's a great line by Sand indeed.


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