All entries for August 2010
August 16, 2010
Following on from my previous post on George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, next up is Eliot's Adam Bede (1859). Written the year before Mill, Adam Bede provides a nice complement, with many resonances of theme, tone, and style between the two.
In many ways, Adam Bede is situated as very much a precursor to Mill, especially in the characterisation of the central female figure which becomes, I think, much better developed in Mill. The title Adam Bede is somewhat misleading, because although Adam's narrative provides the overriding arch of the novel, much of the narrative focuses on Hetty Sorrel; Eliot seems drawn towards centralising Hetty, but doesn't quite give Hetty's character the full interior development that we get with Maggie in Mill. Reading the novel this time around, I was struck by how very silent Hetty is: although the third-person focalization of the narrative gives us a sense of "Hetty's world" (as chapter IX is titled), it's striking how little she says to those around her, her dialogue mostly limited to a yes or no here and there.
Yet whilst in this sense I think Mill achieves something that isn't quite realised in AB, in one of the central themes, the love affair between Hetty and Arthur Donnithorne, AB resonates with Mill in ways that situate the former as something like Mill's grown-up sister. Like Maggie, Hetty too is restricted from walking freely and her aunt doesn't like her to go out walking much, scolding her for being late home. But her walks to visit the lady's maid up at the Donnithorne residence bring Hetty into the path of Arthur, the heir to the estate. As with Maggie and Philip, what follows is a series of the illicit meeting between lovers on woodland walks, and it is implied that Hetty and Arthur meet frequently in this way for a couple of months; but where the relationship in Mill remained sexually innocent, here things are carried further with the resulting "dreadful consequence" of Hetty's pregnancy. The novel quite explicitly realises the social presumptions of the sexual dangers of women "out walking", that women’s wandering is dangerous and risks compromising women’s sexual purity.
In a bitter mirroring of these circumstances, Hetty gives birth to the resultant baby whilst wandering alone and on foot, on her journey in search of Arthur who has long gone away with his regiment to Windsor; and then, when she finds that they have left for Ireland, Hetty must make her way back again. It's this journey that I spend most time on in the thesis, so I don't want to say too much about it here. One thing I haven't been able to explore (yet? at all? with time rapidly running away from me, I imagine it's going to be the latter) in amongst the social meanings of women walking - associations with madness and wildness, being subject to condemning remarks and so on- is the fact of Hetty's being heavily pregnant on this journey. In a period in which the visible presence of a woman in the streets leaves her open to comment, criticism, and in which birth entails "confinement", how much does Hetty's pregnant body further transgress social codes of respectability? What did it mean to be, specifically, a pregnant woman out walking?
In contrast with Hetty's (mostly) limited mobility, Dinah Morris stands as a challenge to social conventions. As a Methodist preacher, she is afforded a mobility rarely seen amongst other female characters, moving between the Stoniton and Hayslope locales in the Midlands, as well as further afield up to Leeds. This goes hand in hand with her position outside of the typical notion of femininity: dedicating herself to religious work, she is in a position to refuse taking a husband and she lives an independent life. This isn't exactly condoned by those around her: her aunt Poyser bemoans her wandering ways and her refusal to marry, which would make her settle down, root her in one place; but, she can live this life without accusations of impropriety and unrespectability. Still, though, it seems Eliot is uneasy with Dinah's position and at the end of the novel draws her into a conventional conclusion, although at least reaches something of a compromise whereby Dinah marries Adam but he allows her to keep up the preaching, mobile lifestyle - that is, until the wider forces of patriarchy step in and ban women preachers altogether, and so Dinah ultimately ends up with the same fate as all other women, being a wife and mother safely confined within her home-place.
Also in contrast to Hetty's journeying is that of Adam, whose walking provides a nice gender contrast. This is especially noticeable in the journey that follows Hetty's: after a few chapters of her weary toiling on foot, Adam sets out in search of her, briskly walking 10 miles with ease and enjoyment. Her struggle and endurance are utterly at odds with his ability to so easily walk a long distance. Whilst women are constrained from much walking, and condemned when they do, walking in men is a celebrated feature: right at the start of the novel, we see Casson singing Adam's praises to the stranger on horseback, and amongst his list of positive attributes is Adam's ability to walk forty miles a day. This episode of Adam following after Hetty, trying to trace her movement, reminded me of a frequent trope in later mid-Century novels (Braddon and also Collins, I think) whereby a woman runs away and is followed by a man, detective or otherwise: only this becomes so much easier with the advent of railways, where one can go from station to station, following pre-laid route after pre-laid route, and rely on the inevitability of someone having spotted a woman alone on the train as something of an oddity. For poor Adam, there is no regularised, standard route to follow, and he can only guess at where she might have taken a carriage or cart from (not knowing, of course, that she set off after her first coach ride on foot). If you're going to get lost in the nineteenth-century novel, do so before Industrialised transport comes along.
Hetty is, however, ultimately the greatest traveller of all in Adam Bede: for her punishment for the abandonment (and thus, murder) of her child is transportation to Australia. The narrative doesn't follow, and we're left only to imagine how great "the terror of wandering out into the world" would be for Hetty making this final journey.
August 02, 2010
As part of my work re-writing my thesis this summer (in preparation for submission next term) I'm re-reading all of the novels that have provided the basis for my discussions; most of my work focuses on shorter passages from the texts -always trying to keep the wider context in mind, but it's easy to get absorbed in the details of fragments and the themes of the thesis, and lose sight of what else is going on. It's useful to take a step back from the detail, read the novels in their entirety again, as well as taking a fresh look at how the themes of travel, space, movement work in the wider scope of the novels. As I progress through the novels (about 20 in total), I'll blog a short piece on each novel, summarising the notes I've made on the central themes. First up, for no reason other than I was looking forward to reading it again and it's relevant for the earlier chapters of the thesis, is George Eliot's 1860 The Mill on the Floss.
From the opening passage of the novel, the river Floss is established as central to the text: it passes alongside the Tullivers' home at Dorlcote Mill and connects several of the main places, including the town of St Oggs and the Deane's house. The river has an important function in terms of the everyday space of this local setting: the novel rarely moves beyond the close proximity of a few key settings, but the river operates as a reminder of the wider circuits with which the locality of place is connected, suggesting the possibility of a wider spatiality beyond, within which the events are situated. The river is significant in the development of key narrative moments too: most notably for the gender/travel theme, Stephen's attempt to seduce Maggie into eloping with him, carrying her off miles downstream; there is also repeated mention of the river having flooded in the past, and at the end of the novel this possibility is realised, with the great flood in which Maggie and Tom are drowned.
Walking is an equally, if not more, important form of movement, particularly significant in how it functions in the development of Maggie's character. As a young girl, Maggie is fond of playing out doors and somewhat prone to wandering off, "wanderin' up an' down by the water like a wild thing" as her mother says; the epitome of this is when she runs off to join the gypsies. Maggie is of a passionate nature, walking just one element of her "wildness", her non-conformity to the social expectations of femininity as defined by her mother and aunts: her habit of wandering is part of this straying, uncontainable character and so, from an early point in the novel, this sets up the theme of women's walking as having negative associations as an act which goes against conventional feminine propriety.
The novel skips to a few years later, and Maggie at 17 years old is equally fond of walking in the "Red Deeps"; notably the first time we encounter Maggie having developed into "the mould of early womanhood" is out walking here. But now Maggie's walking is no longer expressive of her wild, passionate nature but has a slightly different resonance; for Maggie is no longer the girl she once was, now passive and accepting of her fate, preventing herself from engaging with anything that would "make her long to see and know many things", and walking seems here to be a way of coping with the narrow proximity that characterises her life. It is, as she says, her "one indulgence" that makes the rest of her life bearable; no longer a wild running, then, but a quiet form of release or escape from the narrow boundaries of her life.
But these walks swiftly take a different turn. The negativity surrounding Maggie's walking (she is again scolded at this older age for walking) is connected to wider discourses about women walking, which has highly sexualised associations: women walking alone in the street risk being regarded as sexually promiscuous, and to walk alone with a man that is not one's husband is entirely unrespectable. Maggie's walks in the Red Deeps turn into meetings with Philip Wakem, who she is otherwise banned from meeting; their love for one another develops through these encounters in the woods, and the entire of their secret relationship is conducted through such meetings: following the first meeting, it is implied that they have continued to meet out walking in the woods regularly for a year (p. 344-50). Unlike Eliot's previous Adam Bede, the relationship between Maggie and Philip remains sexually innocent, but nonetheless the impropriety of their meetings is made quite clear in Tom’s accusations of Maggie's behaviour, which specifically focuses on the throwing away of her respectability to her "walking out" in the woods with Philip (p. 356).
However, Maggie is, it seems, somewhat prone to such illicit meetings, and when Stephen Guest goes to meet Maggie at her aunt Moss’ they too walk out in the lane: and again, Tom’s later criticisms of this behaviour is that she “walked alone with him in the lanes”, something that “no modest girl would have done”- at the time, too, Maggie is worried about how this behaviour will be construed by her aunt. But the pivotal point for Stephen and Maggie is the boat trip down the river. Here the typical gendered discourses of travel space are played out: Maggie is moved by Stephen who rows her miles downstream, and she expresses that she does not consent to this, yet still it is she that faces the censure and accusations of impropriety for this, her movement which takes her out of the bounds of local place and transgresses the lines of social respectability, regardless of whether it is she moving herself or being moved by another. Notably, too, Maggie must return home if she is to have any hope of restoring her propriety; here she must face the censure of the society around her, with no possibility of freedom to escape from this (her options are limited and not entirely within her own control). Meanwhile, Stephen travels to Holland, free to move as he wishes and escape from any blame or implications of his actions, even though he is the one who has facilitated and enforced her movement.
It's all for nothing, though, when the flood comes and sweeps away Tom and Maggie, re-uniting them in a final embrace as they are drowned together. The novel's close asserts both the inevitability of the continual changes to place, with the town repaired and renewed after the flood, life carrying on and spaces evolving accordingly, whilst memorialising Tom and Maggie in the tomb that stands to hold onto the continuity of the past.