George Eliot and the "Silly Novels"

By Wagner, Tamara S. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

George Eliot and the "Silly Novels"


Wagner, Tamara S., Nineteenth-Century Prose


Mary Ann Evans had been a renowned critic before she began writing fiction under the pseudonym George Eliot. Her articles for the Westminster Review included extensive reviews of popular novels of the time, which she used as a springboard to delve into aesthetic principles and cultural responses to literature. "Silly Novels by Lady-Novelists" (1856) was to become one of the most-often cited contemporary analyses of nineteenth-century women's writing. While Evans was to define her own works of fiction against the trends she identified and condemned, her article not only provided a good overview of current literary developments, but also contributed significantly to the critical discussion of popular culture at a time when the social role and the aesthetic functions of both literature and of literary criticism were under debate. This essay critically reassesses the literary as well as larger cultural significance of Evans' "Silly Novels," situating it firmly amidst her oeuvre as a critic and revaluating its changing interpretation and influence.

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Mary Ann (Marian) Evans had been a renowned critic and translator before she began writing fiction, using the pseudonym George Eliot because she did not want to ruin her reputation (Beer 20-22; Karl 237-38). From 1851 to 1854 Evans was the assistant editor of the Westminster Review, but it was after she resigned and instead became a regular contributor that she wrote her most influential, memorable, and controversial articles. Her critical reviews did more than attack specific fads or discuss the works of individual authors; they tended to use the works under discussion to elaborate both on aesthetic principles and on social and cultural responses to literature. Between 1855 and 1857, Evans published numerous essays and reviews, which appeared anonymously in the Westminster Review as well as in the weekly Leader. Most prominent among them was a provocatively titled, acerbic, yet probing piece of literary criticism, "Silly Novels by Lady-Novelists" (1856). The piece was to become one of the most often cited contemporary analyses of popular women's fiction of the time. While Evans was to define her own works of fiction against the trends she identified and condemned, this article not only provided a good overview of current literary developments, but also contributed significantly to the critical discussion of popular culture at a time when the social role as well as the aesthetic functions of literature were under debate.

"Silly Novels by Lady-Novelists" was published anonymously in the Westminster Review in October 1856. It is generally read together, or in conjunction, with Evans' preceding critical articles or as a point of contrast to or departure for her fiction. Thus, her emphasis on how we should read and respond to women's writing, assessing it as critically as we do works by men--a central point in "Silly Novels"--is already anticipated in her 1854 article, "Woman in France: Madame de Sable" (Shattock 71), while both her review of Ruskin's Modern Painters (Westminster Review, April 1856) and "The Natural History of German Life" (Westminster Review, July 1856) have been considered companion pieces to "Silly Novels" in articulating what was to become George Eliot's own literary aesthetic (Harris 180). In these series of articles, Evans was developing her concept of realism as well as her aesthetic of sympathy, which she then articulated through her fiction (Hadjiafxendi). Ostensibly producing a review of Wilhelm H. Von Riehl's The Natural History of German Life (1856), for example, Evans really engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of the social responsibility of artistic representation in order to make a case for realism in art and literature. Such a branching off into several related issues, often conflating real-life issues and the problems of their literary representation, was as much part and parcel of contemporary reviews as were extensive quotations from the texts under discussion, and Evans' influential article on "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" stood within this tradition. …

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