I have been reading Rebecca Mead’s new book, My Life in Middlemarch, and thinking more about what drew Woolson to George Eliot, one of her favorite authors. When she began her career, Eliot was the most revered female author, so it was natural for her to be inspired by her. In fact, Woolson’s works were often compared to Eliot’s. The Century, for instance, wrote, “Sometimes one is ready to say that a fragment, and not an inferior fragment, of the mantle of George Eliot is resting on her capable shoulders.”
Their novels have much in common. They tend to be long and microscopic in their attention to individual lives. Yet Woolson focused her canvas more narrowly. She avoided the multiple subplots that often distract readers of Eliot’s novels. What unites their work, however, is the great project of sympathy—not in the sense of pity or looking down on those less fortunate, but in the sense of relating to the misfortunes of others and stopping to notice the quiet heroism and dignity of ordinary people.
Their great theme was the same, in fact, as those of many 19th-century realist novels: how individuals wrestled with the conflict between their own yearnings and the desire to do good for the sake of others. It was often dramatized as the tension between love and duty, a particularly powerful tension for women, who were trained to live for others and often had to sacrifice their own hopes and dreams to care for others.
In their lives, Eliot and Woolson had dramatically different experiences of the conflict between love and duty. After enduring years of yearning for love, Eliot found it with George Lewes, a man who was not free to marry her. She accepted his love nonetheless and lived essentially although not literally as a married couple for the rest of their lives. It was his love and encouragement, in fact, that allowed the author “George Eliot” to come into being. He is the one who urged her to write fiction and then built up her confidence by hiding negative reviews from her.
Woolson never found such a devoted love. In her twenties, she gave up a chance to marry in order to stay home and care for her aging parents. When she read the excerpts from Eliot’s journals and letters published after her death, Woolson was envious of Eliot’s life and felt she could not join in the general cry of pity that arose over the hardships she had endured.
Woolson wrote to a friend, “How can you say George Eliot was unhappy? I think that she had one of the easiest, most indulged and ‘petted’ lives that I have ever known or heard of . . . . From first to last, she did exactly as she pleased–law or not law, custom or no custom! Lewes adored her; I heard all the details in London. She was surrounded by the most devoted, personal, worshiping affection to his last hour. True, she earned the money for two, and she worked very hard. But how many, many women would be glad to do the same through all of their lives if their reward was such a devoted love as that!”
Eliot had not endured the kind of self-sacrifice she preached in her fiction, Woolson felt. In the same letter she wrote, “the one thing I have against her is that after getting and having to the full all she craved, then she began to pose as a teacher for others! She began to preach the virtues she had not for one moment practised in her own life.” Woolson felt the sting of self-sacrifice more deeply than Eliot did, and the effects are visible in their fiction.
While Eliot stressed the melancholic beauty of suppressing the self for the sake of others, Woolson focused on the pain of that process. Sublimating one’s desires into sympathy for others is central to the moral worldview of both authors. Their fiction focused on the unsung heroes and heroines of self-sacrifice, whose generosity often went unnoticed. But while Eliot tended to preach the necessity for a better world made up of such small gestures of goodness, Woolson never did. In most cases, her characters’ resignation does not serve any higher purpose. And sometimes her characters’ sacrifices benefit the least deserving. What matters is not the great good that results, as in Eliot, but the bulwark against dissolution of the self that noble acts provide.
Woolson was writing at a time when the moral certainty of Eliot’s generation was slipping away. The amoral relativism of Naturalism was dawning. Woolson tried to keep it at bay not by celebrating or blatantly promoting self-renunciation, as many popular novelists did, but by offering small acts of heroism as the only way to maintain one’s sense of a cohesive self. As the liberal humanist ideal of an autonomous self was beginning to dissipate—think of Isabel Archer’s failed attempt to realize her autonomy in The Portrait of a Lady—Woolson’s heroines maintained their individualism, paradoxically, by sacrificing their desires.
Self-sacrificing heroines like Margaret in East Angels and Anne in Anne seem almost impossibly good to our eyes today. Woolson didn’t think of them as “good” per se. (The last line of East Angels, “Well—you’re a good woman,” is ironically tragic.) Instead they were simply individuals who held firm in the face of pressures to give into a selfish love. This made them not simply paragons of virtue—for she shows how hard it was for them to stand their ground—but admirable examples of self-integrity. They could continue to look themselves in the mirror in a way that Emma Bovary never could.
Woolson found strength in resignation, not self-righteousness. For a heroine like Margaret, standing firm in the face of Winthrop’s repeated attempts to lure her away from her loveless marriage is the only bit of control she can exert in her life. So what looks like defeat is really triumph of a greater kind.
The theme of self-sacrifice has not done much to burnish either Eliot’s or Woolson’s reputations Eliot’s works have survived in spite of it. Rebecca Mead examines how Eliot’s reputation faltered in the early twentieth century, a time when world war had shattered people’s belief in social amelioration and the power of sympathy. Woolson’s fame also dissipated quickly after her death in 1894. Eliot’s reputation rebounded, however, while Woolson’s has taken more time to slowly come back to life.
Mead attributes Eliot’s fall to her earnestness, her belief in the ability to make the world a better place. Woolson had already lost that belief. But she clung to faith in a better world beyond this one that would make all of our sacrifices worthwhile. That faith certainly dates her. But her smaller faith in the sanctity of the self and its ability to endure in the face of tremendous suffering makes her an interesting literary figure at a pivotal moment in history.
Her books ask, how do we carry on when all of our hopes have been thwarted? How do we pick ourselves up and move forward when there seems to be no reason to, no reward for the sacrifices we make? These are bleak questions answered only by the power of love to sustain us, even when it remains unfulfilled, and a vague hope that it will be more fully realized in the next life.
Rebecca Mead makes a powerful case for valuing George Eliot’s message of sympathetic connection. Near the end of her book she writes, “We are called to express our generosity and sympathy in ways we might not have chosen for ourselves. Heeding that call, we might become better. Setting aside our own cares, we might find ourselves on the path that can lead us out of resignation.” It is a quietly persuasive argument.
I would argue that when we read Woolson’s writings, we are not called to a higher self. We feel ourselves pulled inside the thwarted, tortured lives of characters who have been misunderstood, and thus our understanding of those around us is widened, as in Eliot’s work. But once we are let inside another’s experience, there is no easy way to feel better afterward. We are confronted with the pain of the other and ultimately recognize that we can only stand apart and recognize it. We cannot ameliorate it. But there is some small help we can give, simply by acknowledging it. As Rodman says to Bettina at the end of “Roman the Keeper,” realizing that he cannot change anything, “Follow your path out into the world. Yet do not think, dear, that I have not seen–have not understood.”
Ultimately, Woolson was a more modern writer than Eliot. She would have agreed with William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Acceptance Speech, in which he said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” These were the great themes of her writings—compassion, sacrifice, endurance.