George Eliot and Higher Education for Women

Women Writers summer course, July 2018
Visit to Girton College (established 1869), July 2018

These are the opening paragraphs of a most interesting talk by Clare Walker Gore. 

George Eliot and Higher Education for Women
Or: George Eliot’s Ambivalent Feminism

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When I was first asked to speak on the subject of George Eliot and higher education for women, I must admit that I drew something of a blank. Eliot herself did not go to university. The first institution to offer higher education to women, Bedford College, did not open its doors until 1849, by which time she was already 30. And although the first students were admitted to Bedford College in 1849, it wasn’t possible for them formally to take degrees until 1878, when the University of London allowed women to sit its examinations for the first time. Nor was Eliot involved in higher education as a teacher or lecturer, and she did not campaign for higher education for women as a number of her friends did. How, then, can she be connected to the fight for higher education for women, in any meaningful way?

The answer, of course, is as a patroness. In 1868, the year before it opened, Eliot made a donation of £50 to Girton College, asking that the gift be listed as ‘From the Author of Romola’. The next year, when the college officially opened, she requested her publisher to send copies of all her novels to the college library.


Yet I think her close friend, Barbara Bodichon, co-founder of the college and leading light in the campaign for its establishment, might reasonably have felt that this was a modest, even a disappointing contribution. It’s true that £50 was no small sum in 1868; bearing in mind that a working man could expect to earn to earn about a pound a week and many earned much less than that – a housemaid might earn only £10 or £15 a year – and £300 would keep a middle class family in modest comfort with a servant or two. But Eliot was one of the most commercially successful novelists of this period: she was paid £7,000 by the Cornhill for the serial rights to Romola, and Blackwood gave her £5,000 for Felix Holt, Radical. Between 1872 and 1874, she made about £9,000 from Middlemarch. In these circumstances, we may feel £50 was not a huge gift – and Barbara Bodichon seems to have thought much the same thing, for she applied to Eliot five years later for another hundred pounds, needed to pay for new rooms. Eliot declined to come up with the money, explaining to Barbara in a letter that she needed all her spare funds, just now, to support her late stepson’s widow and children. Her biographer Kathryn Hughes calls this ‘a perfect illustration of George Eliot’s meliorist philosophy in action’. That’s certainly one reading; perhaps less generously, I would say that it’s a perfect illustration of George Eliot’s distinctly ambiguous relationship to the women’s movement of the time. She was, theoretically, in favour of higher education for women, but it wasn’t a cause close enough to her heart for her to give it the serious, material support that it needed.

Nor was she at all keen to associate herself with what we might call feminist causes in non-pecuniary ways. Unsurprisingly, given the circles in which she moved, she was asked to lend her support and her name to various petitions, most notably John Stuart Mill’s proposed amendment to the Second Reform Act of 1867, which sought to change the word ‘men’ to the word ‘people’ and therefore enfranchise propertied women at a stroke of the pen. The majority of the all-male House of Commons voted against the bill anyway (although at 194 to 73 it wasn’t the total wipeout we might expect). Why was George Eliot so lukewarm about it? She explained her position in a letter to a friend:

‘Your attitude in relation to Female Enfranchisement seems to be very nearly mine. If I were called on to act in the matter, I would certainly not oppose any measure which held out any reasonable promise of tending to establish as far as possible an equivalence of advantages for the two sexes, as to education and the possibility of free development. I fear you may have misunderstood something I said the other evening about nature. I never meant to urge the “intention of Nature” argument, which is to me a pitiable fallacy. I mean that as a fact of mere zoological evolution, woman seems to me to have the worse share in existence. But for that very reason I would the more contend that it in the moral evolution we have ‘an art which does mend nature’ – an art which “itself is nature”. It is the function of love in its largest sense, to mitigate the harshness of all fatalities. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublime resignation in woman and a more regenerating tenderness in man.

‘However, I repeat that I do not trust very confidently to my own impressions on this subject. The peculiarities of my own lot may have caused me to have idiosyncrasies rather than an average judgement.’

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There’s a lot to unpack there – but I think, for me, the keynote is one of ambivalent feminism. On one hand, we have her assertion that she will support any measure that tends towards giving women and men equivalence of opportunities and education; on the other, she claims for women ‘regenerating tenderness’ which she attributes to the very fact of their having ‘the worse share in existence’ – and although the implication here is that she means the worse share in natural existence – given what she’s just said about zoological evolution – I think it’s open to interpretation whether she also means social existence. Her ambivalence about the extension of the franchise to working men seems to be extended, if less emphatically, towards the franchise for women – and this apparently held true to her attitude towards women’s entry into the professions also, for, as she told Barbara Bodichon, what was needed was greater recognition and respect for what she called women’s ‘social labour’ – not for women to abandon this in favour of work currently being done by men. Tellingly, however, she ends that letter by saying, ‘such points do not come well from me, and I never like to be quoted in any way on the subject.’ Similarly, she pleads the ‘peculiarities of [her] lot’ in the letter to John Morley, admitting that she may have ‘idiosyncrasies rather than an average judgement.’


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