Mother Nature: George Eliot was a woman

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By Leslie Lindsay

Product Details (image retrieved May 19, 2012 from Amazon)

I am still plowing through this large book, Mother Nature:  A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy as an effort to learn a bit more about the female psyche, how it was viewed in the past, and how we as women can continue to be progressive.  I know we have come a long way, but isn’t there always room for growth?

I would like to introduce you to two “characters” from the Victorian time period:

1) The English novelist, George Eliot who was really a woman.  Yes, indeed, Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot, back in the mid-late 1800’s when only respectable writers could be a man.  Gasp!

2) Social philosopher, Herbert Spencer (a contemporary of Charles Darwin, and widely read).  To Spencer, the surivival of the fittest meant “survival of the best and most deserving.”   His simple message was: the advantages you enjoy are deserved.  For Spencer, evolution meant “progress.”   Yet, the problem with Spencer’s reasoning was that the environment never changes; the world never evolves.

Here are some philosophies Spencer had regarding woman of that time: 

  • The “surpreme function” of women was childbearing.  Of course, these women had to be beautiful so as to keep the species physically up to snuff.
  • Spencer believed deeply in the division of labor by sex; men were to produce, women to reproduce.
  • The fact that women reproduce took a toll on them, or so Spencer believed, thus the costs of childbearing were a contrained mental development in women.  Therefore, there was very little variability between the intellect of women.

And what is it that George Eliot (a.k.a Mary Ann Evans) and Herbert Spencer have in common?  Ironically, Spencer was aware that some woman might occassionally possess a capacity for abstract reasoning.  The only female he personally knew was Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), whom he regarded as “the most admirable woman, mentally, I have ever met.”  But Spencer regarded her gifts a “freak of nature, attrubutable to the that trace of masculinity that characterized her powerful intellect.” 

Well, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) began dreaming of a life with Mr. Spencer.  They met in London in 1851 and soon thereafter, she confessed her love for him.  She sent him a proposal, but Spencer turned her down.

His reasons?  Completely eugenic in nature.  That is, she “lacked the physical beauty he considered essential for mothers…a cultivated intelligence based on bad [ugly] physique is of little value…the descendants will die out in a generation or two.”  Apparently, Mary Ann Evans was not “eugenic-enough,” with her long nose, pronounced jaw, and was just too masculine-looking to be considered pretty; although she was in great health, and very intelligent.  (So a woman is no good for reproducing the human race if she smart but ugly? Hummm).

Writing as George Eliot, her next novel, Middlemarch was penned to critique Spencerian notions of eugenic mate choice.  (When Dr. Teritus Lydgate selects his bride, Rosamond Vincy in accordance of a a “very scientific view of woman,” she is blonde, lovely, childlike, as if she were five years old.  Yet, Rosamond proceeds to ruin Dr. Lyngate’s life).

All I have to say to this is, YOU GO GIRL!  Publication as a means to revenge. 

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