The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast how Marry Wollstonecraft and George Elliot express their femininity and the consequences of the contradictions between what they stood for and their personal choices. Unlike her counterpart Mary Wollstonecraft, George Elliot does not exhibit characteristics of a real feminist. She is cowed by the male chauvinism that she perceived to have dominated the society during her time. This perception she hold onto despite the fact that other female authors at the time were using their real names.
George Elliot was the pen name of Marry Ann Evans. She was a journalist, novelist, a most importantly, she was considered the leading writer in the Victorian era (the period of the reign of queen Vitoria between 20th June 1837 until her demise on 22nd January, 1901). She states that she used the male pen name so as to ensure her works were taken seriously (Bloom 23). However, at this time unlike her, other female writers used their own names on their works. She however argued that by then, there was a stereotype that women only wrote lighthearted romance and by using her male pen name, she could hide her identity as a woman. She had done extensive works that were widely known, so her pen name would allow her conceal the widely known editor and critic (Paxton 25). “A Vindications of the rights of Woman” brought Mary Wollstonecraft into the limelight. Unlike her counterpart George Elliot, she used her female name that revealed her female identity (Todd 4). She argued that by nature women were not inferior to men but apparently, they appeared so due to the fact that they lacked education. To this effect, her argument is that women and men should both be treated as rational beings and she even envisioned a social order premised entirely on reason. Mary’s life which were marred by unconventional relationships received public attention than her works. A memoir from her widower which was published in 1798 revealed a lot about her seemingly unorthodox lifestyle. As a result, the reputation of this writer was adversely destroyed for close to almost a century (Todd 12). With the emergence of feminist movements, Wollstonecraft’s works became popular again and her advocacies on women’s equity and criticism of conventional feminity were adapted in the feminist movements.
Both George Elliot and Mary Wollstonecraft were fighting the same war that is fighting for the rights of women. They however were both involved in “illegal marriages.” George Elliot tried to justify her marriage to Lewes, as in the 1875 letter to her brother’s solicitor. On the same note, Mary Wollstonecraft’s unconventional relationships until her death in 1797 expose a disconnect between what the two advocated for and the decisions which they made about their lives at personal level (Paxton 13). From the public eye, they could not uphold the moral standards that were emerging from their works on the position of women and their rights.
The public censure that both George Elliot and Mary Wollstonecraft received rendered their works hypocritical. This illustrates the society’s expectations in terms of the ideals that people stand for and whether they are able to practice such ideals themselves (Bloom 36). The fact that the writings of Wollstonecraft, which were expunged from the public domain for almost a century due to a contradiction between them and her personal life, shows the tight rope that she was walking on. It’s a clear indication that at times, pursuing some courses require making personal sacrifices to realize some gains.
George Elliots use of the male pen name also betrays her considering the public’s view in what she stood for. It’s stated clearly that at the time of her works on women’s rights, various female authors used their names on their works. Unlike Elliot however, Wollstonecraft allowed her identity accompany her works (Mews 34). She was therefore an outstanding character in as afar as the fight for women’s rights are concerned. However, it’s also important to realize that Mary’s works did not get so much public attention as compared to her personal life. Though the two author existed at different times, it could be possible that George Elliot’s use of a male pen name was behind the popularity of her works. True to her argument that women were only considered to be writers of lighthearted romance, it could be possible that Wollstonecraft’s works did not capture the public attention as did her personal life because that stereotype on women writers still existed (Mews 43).
Elliot must have achieved some freedom from the Victorian rules that she thought would have denied her happiness as a woman had she bowed to them (Todd 34). This is evidenced by the fact that she was praised by some second- wave feminists for her works and that her personal life was at an individual level and should not have been used against her when having a critical looks in what she stood for. This position is however contrary to that taken by critics of Anglo-American background who find the discrepancy that existed between Elliot’s life and works unacceptable (Mews 25). New Criticism also seem to take a position similar to that of other second wave feminists as their emphasy was on a detailed and steady reading of the text in entire isolation from outside factors which include historical and political events, the life experiences of the author, and the reader’s own responses. Toril Moi approach of “Image of woman” criticism, is however of the position that reading an author’s work is communication between the reader and the author’s life experience hence the author’s life, political and historical influence are fused together and informs a reader’s take on an author. This position is similar to that of New Criticism.
The reception of Wollstonecraft’s works before and after the reception of her works critically acts as an empirical evidence that Toril Moi approach of “Image of woman” can be based on. Even though the writer’s works did not receive much attention, they were not rejected by the readers and the society, as at the time, it can be argued that her life style (as the society perceived of it before the release of a memoir by her widower), fused well with her works. However upon the release of her by her widower, the author herself plus her works, which did not portray the same ideas, were rejected (Ruston 36). Though she was dead, her writings were out of the public domain for almost a century. So in a way the position taken by Anglo-Americans and , “Image of woman” by Toril Moi seems to be premised on a practical life example as opposed to those of New criticism.
As opposed to George Elliot, Wollstonecraft was looked courageous than George Elliot. Even though they had some feeling of self-worth as women. The fact that George Elliot used her male pen name and further went to explain that she wanted to hide her identity, Wollstonecraft revealed her own identity and did not fear expressing herself as a woman (Ruston 45). Throughout her life, she did not have a feelings to even conceal her unconventional marriages. George Elliot however, explained that she used the male pen name to prevent scandals that would arise since she had a relationship with a married man George Henry Lewes.
Though very similar in their thoughts, the two authors seems to have had different social lives. Their works on feminism however, have been borrowed a lot and are still cited today by both feminists’ movements (Ruston 35). It evident that today, the lives and life choices of the authors have been delinked from their ideas, as opposed to the earlier cases. Wollstonecraft and Elliot’s lives however remain to define the modern woman today. The fact that there is always that attempt to give a different face while in the public and have yet another face while handling personal life still shows a woman who is operating under the confine of the society’s expectations.
Though feminists and even men have enabled women to rise above the previously stereotyped woman and enjoy the freedom of life (Todd 53). The modern woman still has to conform to certain societal rules that might inwardly not please her but the society is either aware of or merely ignore. So just like Elliot and Wollstonecraft, there is still a possibility that the discrepancy between a woman author’s life and her work could affect receptions of her works. However, in almost a similar trend, it such rejection from the society might only last for a certain period of time but ultimately, the literary works and the ideals expressed thereof will always remain and the characters behind the hence don’t matter anymore.
In conclusion, the society has a habit to change the fundamental issue surrounding the war that were being fought by Elliot and Wollstonecraft (Women’s rights in the society). Even today, it is still very likely that any woman who stands to champion for women’s rights will always have a diversion from scrutiny on the fundamental issue that are of concern to the personal life of the person behind the ideas than the ideas themselves (Bloom 25). This seems to be the only major obstacles that has existed and continues to persist as the fight for gender equity continues. There is therefore need for the society to handle the main obstacle first as it almost impossible to carry on with the fight for the rights of women in the society while not trying to demystify the stereotype that always tries to elevate the character of a person and demean what they actually stand for and advocate for (Mews 44).
If the pioneers of the fight for women’s right had tackled this in the beginning, there could have been more success on the fight for the rights of women than we have achieved today. Nonetheless, with this information with us of the major problem, all is not lost and in fact, it is the beginning of success in a long journey.
Paxton, Nancy L. George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, evolutionism, and the reconstruction of gender. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Mews, Hazel. Frail vessels: woman's role in women's novels from Fanny Burney to George Eliot. A&C Black, 2014.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Alice Walker. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Ruston, Sharon. Literature and science. Vol. 61. Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2008.
Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: an annotated bibliography. Vol. 39. Routledge, 2012.