George Eliot's Enthusiastic Bachelors: Topical Fictional Accounts of Nineteenth-Century Homoerotic Christian Masculinities and the Manhood Question

Article excerpt


British bachelors have traditionally represented an oddly compelling nonconformity. Nineteenth-century English writers continued an ambivalent yet consistent interest in these "unmarried men of marriageable age" (Oxford English Dictionary) evident in Chaucer, who observed "That bacheleris have often peyne and wo" in contrast to "thilke blissful lyf/That is betwixe an housband and his wyf" (Chaucer 1978, 115). In the early modern period bachelors were criticized for their selfishness and luxury. Excusing only the single man dedicated in Christian vocation to "the glory of GOD and the Good of his soul," Mary Astell, for example, chid the bachelor "who lives single that he may indulge licentiousness and give up himself to the conduct of wild and ungovernable desires," noting that he "can never justifie his own Conduct, nor clear it from the imputation of Wickedness and Folly" (Astell 1986, 94). Samuel Johnson remarked on "the unsettled, thoughtless condition of the bachelor" (Johnson 1992, 180), and an anonymous eighteenth-century pamphleteer proposed corrective legislative and social intervention. One woman participant in this booklet's dialogue insisted that she "would have it a general compulsive Act" that "Every Bachelor, at the Age of twenty-four Years, should pay" a punitive "Tax to the Queen" (Kimmel 1988, 421), the other that "a Bachelor is a useless Thing in the State," who, "according to the laws of Nature and Reason ... is a Minor, and ought to be under the Government of the Parish in which he lives"(Kimmel 1988, 422). (1) This pamphlet attributes foppish, contemporary bachelorhood to the fact that "The Men, they, are grown full as effeminate as the women" (419). Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publishers exploited popular indignation concerning bachelors' refusal to marry by printing a series of broadsides expressing misogynist and misandrist interpretations of this refusal. People might have imagined different reasons why he remained single, but many agreed that for the bachelor to be reintegrated into normal society he needed to be disciplined and domesticated. The early modern bachelor, then, was loosely and negatively defined; he represented various masculinities; his nineteenth-century descendant's potential selfishness, luxury (topically understood as effeminacy or licentiousness), and civic uselessness evidently concerned his society and its authors because his position vis-a-vis the manhood question was unclear. The ambiguous social value and unconventional bodily potential of a bachelor manhood enabled by an enthusiastic Christian vocation caused particular societal concern, and because their irregularity was so compelling, two of George Eliot's enthusiastic Christian bachelor characters challenge the integrity of her fiction's moral realism. (4) Seth Bede and Dino de' Bardi exemplify topical bachelor masculinities that potentially undermine heteronormative manhood.

The manhood question

Since its first sex-specific use in the fourteenth century, the word manhood has defined men's identities and conduct, articulating the changeable nature of men's social value (by evaluating their duty to society and their courage) and bodily potential (by measuring their sexual potency). (5) Manhood has been the traditional measure of a man's socially prescribed and contingent identity; manhood is conditional because a failure to attain and sustain one's manhood might result in one being unmanned, a condition associated with weakness, cowardice, and effeminacy. (6) The manhood question, which takes into account this prescription and contingency, considers how a boy or a man might grow into and sustain a meaningful, productive, and commendable type of manhood. Heteronormative manhood added having a family life with children to these indicators of successful manhood. The nineteenth-century British bachelor's limited scope for attaining this heteronormative manhood was topical because of his ambiguous social value and bodily potential. …