This semester I teach Paradise Lost and regularly feature 'the canon' on my courses, so I'm not bothered about criticism by the snobs. I happen to think that if something's popular, it's worth knowing about, and that all forms of art have standards and characteristics which can be identified and evaluated. I know, too, that now-respectable genres and media were once dismissed as frivolous – even novels. English Literature isn't even a century old as a degree subject: before that it was considered beneath the dignity of the Academy.
So I'm quite relaxed about having a sex-and-shopping or bonkbuster novel on the curriculum. The generic appellations are demeaning and unsubtly sexist (like 'chick-lit', which I find plainly offensive). Riders is a fascinating novel, though culturally and politically repulsive and reactionary. I'm also quite happy with that: classrooms are places in which we should examine popular trends and cultural shifts we personally may not like or approve of. I'm not going to go into detail about Riders because I want my students to come up with their own ideas, but I am going to present you with some extracts from George Eliot's Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.
Eliot wrote this essay in 1856, for the Westminster Review soon after adopting her male pseudonym. I don't think this is an accident. The essay is a wickedly funny, patronising and snobby attack on popular fiction in general and women's writing in particular. Like the modern-day critics who invent patronising names for sub-genres, Eliot identifies a trend for 'mind and millinery' novels:
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them — the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these — a composite order of feminine fatuity — that produces the largest class of such novels, which we shall distinguish as the mind-and-millinery species.The heroines are usually beautiful, pious and posh: Eliot's well aware that poverty doesn't sell to readers of this kind of thing. The ladies are also highly-educated, though only the most insufferable ones feel the need to prove it, at extreme length. They faint a lot but that only makes them look more beautiful. Some of them have all the advantages except rank and cash, a deficit which will be remedied by the end of the novel. It's hard not to recognise much of Riders here, though Eliot would no doubt blush at the racier aspects (Cooper is particularly obsessed with cunnilingus, while carefully ensuring that lesbians and feminists are humiliated).
Eliot's well aware that readers and authors aren't very interested in the poor, unless there's a Cinderella aspect to the story:
silly novels by lady novelists rarely introduce us into any other than very lofty and fashionable society.If poor women were writing their way out of poverty, she says, then she could tolerate bad writing as a form of charity like buying unwanted craft items from blind hawkers.
Under these impressions we shrank from criticising a lady’s novel: her English might be faulty, but we said to ourselves her motives are irreproachable; her imagination may be uninventive, but her patience is untiring. Empty writing was excused by an empty stomach, and twaddle was consecrated by tears.But no:
The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as “dependents;” they think five hundred a year a miserable pittance; Belgravia and “baronial halls” are their primary truths…they must be entirely indifferent to publishers’ accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains.The 'lady novelist', it seems, is a comfortably middle-class dilettante with little experience of poverty or riches, but she knows that the readers would rather see the latter than the former, and it doesn't matter to them very much that the author represents her own experience and those of others 'with equal unfaithfulness': the book is clearly an escapist product rather than (in Henry James's words), 'all of life'.
Eliot then spends a few pages happily eviscerating particular 'silly novels' for their terrible dialogue, infuriating heroines, unconvincing characterisation and cheerful resort to cliché:
Writers of the mind-and-millinery school are remarkably unanimous in their choice of diction. In their novels there is usually a lady or gentleman who is more or less of a upas tree; the lover has a manly breast; minds are redolent of various things; hearts are hollow; events are utilized; friends are consigned to the tomb; infancy is an engaging period; the sun is a luminary that goes to his western couch, or gathers the rain-drops into his refulgent bosom; life is a melancholy boon; Albion and Scotia are conversational epithets.It's all hugely entertaining, though deeply snobbish. Some novels are racier than others - Eliot highlights Compensation:
very wicked and fascinating women are introduced — even a French lionne; and no expense is spared to get up as exciting a story as you will find in the most immoral novels. In fact, it is a wonderfulpot pourri of Almack’s, Scotch second-sight, Mr. Rogers’s breakfasts, Italian brigands, death-bed conversions, superior authoresses, Italian mistresses, and attempts at poisoning old ladiesI can't help thinking, however, that Eliot's rejection of sexuality as a reasonable subject is itself gendered, despite the sophisticated way she dealt with it later in Middlemarch (yes, there's loads of sex in there, you obviously didn't read it closely enough). Having taken on a male pseudonym presumably to ensure she's taken seriously, Eliot seems to accept the ancient division of the genders between male-intellectual and female-biological, which you can see too in Paradise Lost.
She's not keen on the readers of these 'silly novels' either, whom she imagines obtaining great insights from the moral lessons and highfalutin' rhetoric:
There is doubtless a class of readers to whom these remarks appear peculiarly pointed and pungent; for we often find them doubly and trebly scored with the pencil, and delicate hands giving in their determined adhesion to these hardy novelties by a distinct très vrai, emphasized by many notes of exclamation.But George reserves her scorn for one particular class of lady novelists: those who think they have something to say about the world.
The most pitiable of all silly novels by lady novelists are what we may call the oracular species — novels intended to expound the writer’s religious, philosophical, or moral theories.
their recipe for solving all such difficulties is something like this: Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.
Which seems rather ungracious from one of the world's most intellectual and intelligent authors of either sex. Perhaps many of these novels were thin stuff, but at least they were trying and their readers were getting something out of the experience. Riders for instance is a vile piece of Tory propaganda, produced in what Cooper saw as the darkest days of the 1970s: characters constantly harp on about 'the Socialists' ruining everything, or the hunt protesters or the feminists. It's a precursor of the 80s, in which the rich and beautiful were finally restored to power and prominence. Women had their place too: as long as they shaved their genitalia and didn't worry about male infidelity, they were allowed to enjoy sex too (at last!).
Riders lacks philosophy and theology: it's a consumerist paradise in which belief in anything other than Nation and Self are unutterably boring and pointless. Characters with principles are objects of scorn and derision, or else hypocrites. It is, therefore, a deeply ideological book which does its best to avoid appearing so, and is therefore more dangerous – a lesson has been learned since the days of Eliot. There are no pious disquisitions on matters of politics, faith or philosophy. Instead, character and plot do all the work. We are meant to identify with the sexy, bold, arrogant men and the women who love them. What they believe is automatically right – and their beliefs happen to be male supremacy, individualism, libertarianism and free-market economics with huge doses of racism and anti-democracy.
And yet Eliot manages to find a kernel of feminism within her unsisterly attack. Preachy, ill-informed novels do nothing for the woman's cause, she says:
the most mischievous form of feminine silliness is the literary form, because it tends to confirm the popular prejudice against the more solid education of women.
But after a few hours’ conversation with an oracular literary woman, or a few hours’ reading of her books, they are likely enough to say, “After all, when a woman gets some knowledge, see what use she makes of it! …She mistakes vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality; she struts on one page, rolls her eyes on another, grimaces in a third, and is hysterical in a fourth… No — the average nature of women is too shallow and feeble a soil to bear much tillage; it is only fit for the very lightest crops.”These are not, of course, accusations one could ever make of Eliot's own work, but I do worry that it cedes the ground to a critical practice which is founded in unexamined notions both of masculinity and of femininity. The ambiguities of male and female writers and readers are ignored in favour of a hierarchy which she expects women to accept. 'Lady' novelists are the enemy here (there's no essay on 'Silly Novels by Gentleman Writers' though I could easily put together a long list) because they fulfil male expectations of women's inherent stupidity. Eliot's career demonstrates that she can produce the kind of work respected by men so long as she's allowed to publish. She knows there's a problem there, but decides to let it go:
It is true that the men who come to such a decision on such very superficial and imperfect observation may not be among the wisest in the world; but we have not now to contest their opinion — we are only pointing out how it is unconsciously encouraged by many women who have volunteered themselves as representatives of the feminine intellect.Eliot's sorrow is that women feel the need to write 'silly' novels. People like her abound, and can be recognised by their quiet style on paper and in person:
A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and the less obtrusive for her knowledge…She does not write books to confound philosophers, perhaps because she is able to write books that delight them. In conversation she is the least formidable of women, because she understands you, without wanting to make you aware that you can’t understand her.This rather bothers me. Jilly Cooper's novel, for all its faults, is unabashed, loud and frivolous. It doesn't have a male judge demanding modesty implied in its pages, whereas Eliot's 'you' seems to be a male gatekeeper. It's not as if Eliot lacks spirit: she decides that almost the very worst of the 'silly' novels aren't the ones populated with fainting virgins aiming for a Duke, but the 'Evangelical' ones (only historical romances are worse), packed with earnest Curates and posh people engaging in theological debate for the enlightenment of the poor girls whose mothers think are in need of Improving Literature. Certainly Jilly Cooper can't be accused of this: Riders goes out of its way to deny that social ills even exist, let alone that people should read about them.
It's not just the women's fault, however. Eliot acidly observes that 'silly' novels attract male praise for what I would see as demonstrating gendered abilities ('brilliance', 'sentiment'), whereas women who approach the male domain are beaten back:
if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point. Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell, and Mrs. Gaskell have been treated as cavalierly as if they had been men.The problem, she reckons, is that women rush into print because they think it makes them look clever, without any sense of the sacred, moral duty assumed by serious male novelists, and therefore make all women writers look stupid.
And so we have again and again the old story of La Fontaine’s ass, who pats his nose to the flute, and, finding that he elicits some sound, exclaims, “Moi, aussie, je joue de la flute”— a fable which we commend, at parting, to the consideration of any feminine reader who is in danger of adding to the number of “silly novels by lady novelists.”They should, she feels, shut up and go away, lest they ruin things for the genuinely talented. Who could she be thinking of?