Sunday, 29 January 2012

A Little Silliness Goes a Long Way

Last week I posted on the last of George Eliot's works of fiction, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, but until that post became a little longer than expected, I had actually intended to review another side of Eliot's writing along side it - one which I've finally got around to talking about today :)  As you may have heard, Eliot, as well as being a novelist, was a writer of essays and assorted non-fiction, and while I was stumbling around her Wikipedia page, I came across a link to a text copy of a certain literary text she wrote...

The title - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists - will immediately tell you what it's all about, and the essay does exactly what it says on the tin.  In twenty pages or so, Eliot discusses various types of dreadful novels, and... but let me hand you over to the lady herself:
"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."
Where Impressions of Theophrastus Such was a little lacking in humour, this piece has it in spades, dripping in sarcasm while ripping bad writers to shreds.  This particular lady novelist really has it in for those of her gender who give everyone else a bad reputation.  While female writers in the Victorian era were often forced into the profession (as the only one suitable for a middle-class lady in need of an income), Eliot suspects that many of the worst offenders do not have this excuse.  She writes:
"It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen; that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers' accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains."

One particular criticism is the formulaic nature of certain novels, with their unrealistic characters and simplistic plots, where:
"The vicious baronet is sure to be killed in a duel, and the tedious husband dies in his bed requesting his wife, as a particular favour to him, to marry the man she loves best, and having already dispatched a note to the lover informing him of the comfortable arrangement."
Eliot scathingly dissects numerous bad examples of the genres she criticises, wittily expounding upon the female protagonists more competent in ancient languages than the average college professor (and more prone to using that ability in public), and four-year-old children who can express their feelings with the pathos of a romantic poet.  She is, as you've probably gathered by now, not very generous about it.

And why should she be?  As she points out, the efforts of these dilettantes do women in general (and female writers in particular) a disservice.  It's hard enough being a female writer in a man's world, without being compared to the mindless creators of the works savaged here.  Eliot claims that this has happened because the awful amateur is received kindly - at first:
"By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if she ever reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point."
Perhaps Eliot was a little sensitive here to criticism of her own work...

I'm not usually one for including several direct quotations from books, but once again I was tempted to copy huge swathes of this essay and let Eliot speak for herself.  She is quite simply a wonderful writer, and when freed from the constraints of a monstrous three-volume novel, she can also be very, very funny.  Silly Novels by Lady Novelists is freely available and fairly short, so I would recommend that you give it a go.  It is well worth the effort :)