The Woman Writer and the Woman Reader

It is difficult to avoid measuring nineteenth-century women writers against the overwhelming presence of not in print version George Eliot. In this case, Craik and Eliot themselves recognized some sources of the contrast between their books — a contrast that helps illuminate the differences between Craik's work and the novels that have entered the literary canon.

George Eliot scoffed when a contemporary reviewer introduced the comparison: "Miss Mulock — a writer who is read only by novel readers, pure and simple, never by people of high culture. A very excellent woman she is, I believe — but we belong to an entirely different order of writers." Eliot did, however, appreciate Craik's influence; she wrote to a friend about Robert Buchanan, a young Scots poet, that she "was especially pleased with the venerating affection he expressed for Miss Mulockˇfor her earnest religious feeling, and her strength of character. 'She has taught me,' he said 'to see good in other women — good that I never saw before.' Wasn't that pretty?"

Craik specified her own objections to George Eliot's fiction in "To Novelists — and a Novelist," published in Macmillan's Magazine in April 1861. Craik emphasizes the immense influence of popular novelists. "The modern novel," she writes, "is one of the most important moral agents of the community. The essayist may write for his hundreds; the preacher preach to his thousands; but the novelist counts his audience by the millions. His power is threefold — over heart, reason, and fancy."

Craik was impressed by Eliot's power of creation and selection, by her diction, by her "earnestness, sincerity, and heart-nobility" [104/105] (444). As a work of art, she says, The Mill on the Floss "is as perfect as the novel can well be made" (443). Yet she is distressed by the story's implications:

But take it from another point of view. Ask, what good will it do? — whether it will lighten any burdened heart, help any perplexed spirit, comfort the sorrowful, succour the tempted, or bring back the erring into the way of peace; and what is the answer. Silence. (444)

Craik objects to the story of Maggie Tulliver because it is based on "the doctrine of overpowering circumstances" (445) and ends with "death, welcomed as the solution of all difficulties, the escape from all pain" (446). She grants that life may indeed have such tragedies as Maggie Tulliver's. But she insists that fiction must do more than paint reality; novelists, like the creator whose work they imitate, should penetrate beneath the surface to reveal the eternal, and show the world not as it is but as it could be.

Craik's argument rests on an optimism that, as critics and thinkers, we often discard or distrust. Yet, as living humans, it is difficult not to be weary of the deaths, the suicides, the waters forever closing over women who strive for self-realization. Craik says, quite simply, that Eliot should not have cut Maggie off in her "strong, unsatisfied, erring youth" (447); Eliot as creator should have forced Maggie to live — and to make something "of a life that had in it every capability for good with which a woman could be blessed" (447). Craik had enormous admiration for Eliot's talent — she called her, more than once, the greatest female novelist of the age. And because Craik believed that fiction strongly influenced readers' ideas, emotions, and self-conceptions, she wished that Eliot would use her talent to write about women who could provide examples of mastery over self and circumstances — about women who could show the way.

The two novels most in demand at the libraries in the year 1859 were George Eliot's Adam Bede and Dinah Craik's A Life for a Life. Taking Craik on her own terms, we might briefly compare these two books not as literature but as popular fiction — as stories that were read by a great many people, and that gave to those readers a picture of the world and a set of images that could influence their own perceptions of the possibilities for human action. Eliot herself was aware that fiction has that effect; Hetty, she said in the book, [105/106] "had never read a novel . . . how then could she find a shape for her expectations?"

In both Adam Bede and A Life for a Life a naive village girl gets in trouble with a man of a higher social class and has a baby. George Eliot's Hetty Sorrel wants desperately to make things be the way they were before; when at last forced into some action, she sets off looking for someone to take care of her. After her baby is born, she is so blindly frightened and so wholly self-absorbed that she leaves it to die in the woods. Critics universally praised the breathtaking truth in the characterization of Hetty.

Craik also knew that desperation and the hope of concealment led terrified girls to kill their infants. (Eliot may, in fact, have read what Craik wrote about the subject in A Woman's Thoughts about Women.) But in Craik's novel Lydia Cartwright takes her shame in hand and goes to work to do the best she can for her child. The community is set against her — the minister even wants to forbid Lydia to come to church. She is helped by women; her mother takes her in even though there is barely enough food, and Dora Johnston manages to find Lydia a job as schoolmistress to women prisoners.

Arthur Donnithorne, the father of Hetty's child, is chastened and saddened by his part in the sin but, given the double standard of the world Craik and Eliot lived in, his material circumstances remain unchanged. Francis Charteris, in Craik's book, suffers practical consequences, not so much from the act itself as from the selfish weakness of character that led him into it. He is eventually without a job, drinking too much, confined to debtor's prison, taking opium. Lydia Cartwright supports him while he gets his health back. Charteris changes because he comes to care for his child; he is warmed by the child's affection and acceptance, becomes protective, and wants to make a better future. He and Lydia ultimately marry.

In other words, Eliot's book shows us a child-woman who is helpless in the face of circumstances she cannot control, and these circumstances include her own character and personality. The truth of Hetty as Hetty is undeniable. But — leaving aside the literary skill that went into the creation of the two characters — women with stories like Lydia Cartwright's also exist in the real world. Thinking of the two stories simply as scripts that might give readers expectations about the way people can behave, most of us would choose to hope that living women could see themselves in Lydia Cartwright rather than in Hetty Sorrel. [106/107]

The Woman Question

As we have seen, Craik's writing was colored by the strong tension between her own experience of life and the cultural ideas, which she shared to a large extent, that defined women. She could not help noticing that she was strong and successful, while her father and her surviving brother were frustrated, drifting, plagued by mental instability, and dependent on her for financial support. And yet she thought, wrote, and identified herself as a woman; like many women, she feared that advocates of women's rights wanted to become imitation men. She was also affected by the individualism of her not in print version evangelical heritage, which taught her that all human souls were responsible for their own destiny and were absolutely equal in God's eyes. All of these influences led her to oppose the cultural stereotype of female passivity and dependence. When she spoke directly on the political issues that occupied mid-nineteenth-century feminists, she was guided always by her knowledge that women could — and should — become self-sufficient.

In practical terms, she thought that all girls should be adequately trained in ordinary business matters so that they would not have to depend on trustees or guardians. She strongly supported the Married Women's Property Act; she believed that, married or single, "every woman who has any money at all, either earned or inherited, ought to keep it in her own hands, and learn to manage it herself." Furthermore, she thought that every married woman ought to know exactly what her husband's income was and make sure that he lived within it.

Craik had little to say about women's education. Like many of the period's medical men, she was afraid that the male curriculum and the strenuous atmosphere of public schools and universities would damage women's physical and emotional health. On the other hand, some of her young friends were students; in An Unknown Country she described "Violet" as "a hard worker in her college, and devoted to the Higher Education of Women."

Craik's most adamant stand was her belief that every woman should be able to support herself. In "Decayed Gentlewomen" she called it "the only 'woman's right' which it is advisable to impress upon our girls — the right of independence; that every unmarried woman who does not inherit an income ought to owe it to neither father, brother, nor any other male relation, but to earn it." She [107/108] continually tried to counteract the social prejudice against women who worked for a living; in one delightful touch she bent public icons to her purpose by including not in print version Queen Victoria among their number: "Working women in all ranks, from our Queen downwards, are, and ought to be, objects of respect to the entire community."

In the matter of specific employments suitable for women Craik was at the conservative edge of radical thought in her time. In 1857, when women's options were still drastically limited, she urged them not to become governesses unless they had a real vocation for it, but she did not have much to offer as alternative. Most of her employed heroines do teaching or needlework. The most successful is an artist — but Olive works specifically in women's art because she lacks the strength and the self-absorbed ego to scale the heights reserved for males. (Typically, Craik pays only lip service to the greater worth of masculine art; Michael Vanbrugh is a Casaubon-like creature of grand and impossible visions, who drains the women around him.)

By 1887, Craik suggested that women be trained and employed as "clerks, bookkeepers, secretaries, poor law guardians, superintendents of hospitals and similar institutions." Although she thought that women were not physically strong enough to work as surgeons or general practitioners, she strongly recommended that "Obstetric practice . . . ought to belong exclusively to capable, carefully trained, and experienced medical women." And, regardless of her personal tastes, she believed that it was wrong to set absolute barriers against any person on the basis of sex: "such exceptional women as have masculine aspirations and masculine capacities," she wrote, "may safely be allowed to use the one and gratify the other. . . . after all, it does not much matter which does the work of life, so that it is done."

Craik's ideas on marriage, divorce, and child custody were also in line with the more conservative edge of radical thought in her time, though certainly in advance of the legal system. She thought that the marriage vow ought to be "absolutely binding while it lasts, and intended to last in permanence, yet with the possibility of dissolution did circumstances require it." The circumstances she enumerates in "For Better for Worse" as "confirmed drunkenness, evil courses of any kind, ingrained lack of principle, cruel tyranny, and that violent temper that is akin to madness and equally [108/109] dangerous — whatever compels a woman to teach her children that to serve God they must not imitate their father."

She argued, however, for permanent and binding legal separation, rather than divorce. Since she did not recognize sexual needs, she thought that women would be repelled by the thought of marrying again while the father of their children was still alive. (She also suspected that no woman who had lived with one bad man would want to risk the legal disabilities of the marriage contract with another.) Furthermore, she felt that a woman who left her husband should take full responsibility for supporting her children so that she would be in no way dependent on his money or his influence.

In child custody, throughout Craik's lifetime, British law gave the father absolute rights unless the courts determined that positive harm might result to a child left in his care. Under certain circumstances — if, for example, her husband had been convicted of aggravated assault on her — a woman might obtain a separation order that allowed children to live with her until they reached a specific age. The children, however, remained technically wards of the court; the mother did not have full parental rights. Craik, however, believed firmly in the matriarchal imperative; she recommended, in her novels, that women break the law to steal their children, and she argued in essays that they should have the right to them legally.

Craik's allusions to suffrage are offhand and ambiguous. In one late work, An Unknown Country, she explained that she was

. . . absolutely non-political. Ladies' Land Leagues, Primrose Habitations, and Female Suffrage Societies, are to me equally obnoxious. . . . If it should please Providence and the enlightened British nation to grant my sex a vote, I am afraid 1 shall give mine, irrespective of party, to the best man, the most capable and well-educated man, and the truest gentleman, whether he be Radical or Conservative, the son of a duke or of a blacksmith. [3]

By the time Craik died, activist women were already complaining that "she was curiously out of touch with the great majority of her present audience" because she believed that woman's natural position was in the home and did not think that women should speak in public to advocate their rights. Craik, however, spoke to ordinary women rather than activists. Her perception of the wrongs and tensions imposed by the social and legal system led her to confirm, [109/110] recognize, reinforce, and make capital of the strengths traditionally assigned to women.

The Feminine Tradition

We generally value serious literature — high culture — for its creative uniqueness. Craik's fiction, like most best sellers, was a literature of common meanings. She reflected the ideals of her society and used those ideals — which made her work appeal to ordinary readers — to explore women's hidden feelings and to educate their self-images.

It is not difficult to identify the elements that made Craik popular. She wrote about values that people wanted to believe in. Her fiction was plausible to the extent that she drew on common experience. She saw people as they would like to see themselves — better, truer, more generous and thoughtful, yet not impossibly perfect or unassailed by doubts. Her books are easy to read. The language is adequate, and the narrator supplies enough guidance so that readers know how to judge the events and the characters. Craik was able to create people that the reader cares about, to place them in situations with which the reader can identify, and to resolve the tensions satisfactorily at the end of the book.

The quality that makes Craik's work richer than much popular fiction is what she called the power over heart and fancy. The woman reader finds it easy to identify with Craik's characters not merely on a superficial level but on a level that touches something beyond the reach of reason and simple self-image; she feels more than is on the page. Craik touches the heart because her scripts express emotional perceptions of the world. She took the fantasies of ordinary women — the wishes, hopes, fears, dreams, terrors, needs, self-image — and controlled these materials, which might be too frightening to express directly, through the transforming power of situation and image.

Taking Craik's novels as a whole, the first notable characteristic in her geography of woman's inner territory is that heroines have no support or guidance from any adequate authority figure. In contrast to the images put forward by the society she lived in, Craik's world is strikingly nonpatriarchal. Only one heroine has a competent father who remains alive throughout the book, and that father (Dora Johnston's in A Life for a Life) is cold, stern, and [110/111] rejecting except once, briefly, when he is ill. Dora continually feels the pain of not being liked — and she ultimately defies her father to marry without his consent.

Almost all of the other fathers are dead; a great many of them were weak, alcoholic, eccentric, dishonest, or debtors. This structure shows the hurt and pain of the missing father — the father whose rejection or incapability forces the heroine to face a world that says women should be protected. But by killing and dishonoring the fathers, Craik also rejects the world they represent — the world of rigorous systems, irresponsibility, selfishness, and repressed emotion. Thus she destroys the need for daughters to become fixed in childish dependency because they worship adult male strength, intelligence, and power.

If the heroines reject the world of their fathers, they are even more cut off from the feminine tradition that might have been represented by their mothers. The value of this tradition, however, in the form imposed by society, is dubious. In Olive and Young Mrs. Jardine the heroine takes care of a weak, dependent mother — a mother unfit to live on her own in the world. In every other adult novel the mother is dead before the story begins. Their tradition, of womanly dependence, is inadequate. The heroine feels different, outcast, alone: she experiences the emotional sense of isolation (or individuality) that allows her to achieve maturity.

In Craik's fiction women's feelings of loneliness and pain are largely codified as the lack of response and validation from a male, although none of the books after The Ogilvies is a simple romance in which the object is to achieve a particular mate. The heroines struggle for security, and they often achieve it on their own. They do not need love simply so that they can be married and thereby have a means of support and an aim in life. Once a woman has achieved self-esteem, the love and recognition of a man show that society accepts her.

Happy marriage also gives the heroines an outlet for their tender emotions. The sour and burning anger of spinsters like Selina Leaf in Mistress and Maid and Miss Gascoigne in Christian's Mistake or the rejected wife Rachel Armstrong in The Head of the Family arises not only because they have no satisfactory place in the social world but also from the emotional pain of what seems to them rejection of their persons. Craik's awareness of women's sexual needs is almost [111/112] entirely covert, but the only wholly contented unmarried women in her fiction are well past reproductive age.

The second crucial feature in Craik's map of interior territory is illness, disability, and the figure of the weak or damaged human. This characteristic is common to a great many women writers of the period, and it can be interpreted in several ways. Certainly the ill or disabled male is an inevitable persona for the woman who sees herself as being in every way like a man except that she has less muscular strength. Physical incapacity codifies the pain of helplessness, the lack of power and social position and financial ability and legal right to control the circumstances of one's own life.

Midcentury religious novelists often portrayed the saintly, pure, holy invalid as a feminized Christ figure, who enforced virtue by the influence of her pain. Craik, however, uses her in unadulterated form only once, in Agatha's Husband. The pure invalid shares the disabling incapacity of woman's stereotypical role; she can use her pain to manipulate others only if they are virtuous enough to respond. She is petrified — enshrined and circumscribed, as all too many women were within physical limits imposed by society. The Earl of Cairnforth, therefore, in A Noble Life, is not quite the same figure because he is an Earl, and rich.

For Craik, furthermore, the constellation man-woman-illness-pain often exudes an erotic tension that seems to enclose the sexual function. In some of Craik's early books strong human children must be weakened in order to become adult women. Both Rhoda Ashton and Eunice Lychett, who are bold and active girls, are injured, through their own foolhardiness, at the age of thirteen, and learn to become sweet and passive while lying helplessly in bed. Yet each instantly uses her awareness of human dependence to become caretaker for someone weaker yet — in one case a male infant, in the other a young brother. Alice Learmont begins her transformation to womanhood, at the age of fourteen, by rescuing her brother; she completes it, at seventeen, by taking care of her mother.

How to Win Love contains a second key figure, seen in her purest form in the simplicity of a child's book: the maternal yet husbandless woman. The village schoolmistress Winifred Lee was totally ignored by her father and mistreated by her stepmother, and therefore married, too young, a man who "seemed all love and sympathy." But the man who married to rescue soon deserted, and took their child with him. Winifred Lee is loved and admired by all the village [112/113] schoolgirls, but yearns constantly for the baby she wants so much. (She also has a cat with the same name as the cat Dinah Mulock had when she was a girl.) It is Winifred's baby that Rhoda finds in the snow, and the bad husband soon dies, so that Winifred can be left contentedly widowed, working hard at her school, and happy because she has a child to raise.

These two personae — the disabled man, the maternal yet husbandless woman — are divided by a great gap which simply does not admit the existence of women's sexuality. Craik recognized that men had sexual drives. She seems to have felt that women did not; in "Concerning Men" she said that she doubted if any ordinary woman could even understand "that side of men's nature, in which the senses predominate over . .. the soul" (375). Yet Craik's novels reveal the emotional distress of the single woman, the feeling of incompleteness, the sense of dissatisfaction, the yearning for something more, the need to feel loved, the unidentifiable longings. The only term for these needs that was acceptable to Craik's own sense of woman's nature was the maternal instinct.

The strong desire for children may be only a code for women's sexual drive. But, since Craik believed in that code, the maternal instinct shaped her conception of the difference between women and men. The maternal instinct, as she saw it, was not merely the desire to give birth but the impulse to re-create, in oneself, the perfect, all-powerful mother of infancy. Women could safely and satisfactorily transform their need to be dependent, protected, and guided not by remaining children and confiding themselves to their husbands' power, but by re-creating the atmosphere of total care while becoming themselves the nurturers.

A Craik heroine, therefore, can be attracted to a man when he needs her care — when she can feel toward him the tender protectiveness that expresses her sexual (i.e., maternal) instinct. The man's illness or disability or need to be rescued from a moral difficulty is also a route to feminine power. It allows women to exhibit their strength in socially acceptable ways. Furthermore, it subdues the aggressive male sexuality that threatens women's independence and self-preservation, making it safe to love. Olive is comfortable about her love for Harold Gwynne when he is ill; Ursula makes emotional overtures to John Halifax while he is weak from typhoid; Agatha pours out the depth of her feeling for Nathanael when he is injured; [113/114] Christian grows tender toward her husband when she begins to see him as a child in need of care and protection.

Weakness or illness also makes men more like women — and therefore more good. We can see this most clearly by looking at the characteristics of the men who are not invalids. The heroine may be able to control the physical circumstances of her life, but she is not happy unless she has emotional response from other people. And that response is something she cannot control; she wants assurance that she is loved, but men do not have the same emotions to give. They have blocked their ability to admit their own needs; they are proud, silent, reticent, and therefore unable to love.

In Craik's emotional landscape both women and men learn through suffering to recognize that humans are unable to stand alone, that they need one another and need both to give and to receive gentleness, compassion, and help. The strongest women, in particular, may require the excuse of illness to let themselves be cared for. There is almost no book in which the woman does no nursing; there are many in which she also needs nursing. In The Ogilvies, Cola Monti, John Halifax, and The Woman's Kingdom men nurse one another. These scenes also have, often, a suppressed but inescapable erotic content.

In later years, however, Craik's imagination dwelled more ambiguously on the same scene. Helen Cardross was drawn to the villainous Captain Bruce by her sympathy for his poor health, but weakness taught him nothing but selfishness. The Brave Lady has little reward, and much pain, in caring for her ailing husband. Edna Kenderdine — probably the one of Craik's heroines most intended to be a model woman on the John Halifax plan — is momentarily attracted to Julius when he is suffering from rheumatic fever, but shortly realizes that his brother Will — the nurturing male — is more suitable as a life companion than the boy who needs care and babying.

In the final analysis, the men that Craik approves most are also maternal; the ideal man, like the ideal woman, is sensitive, supportive, and, when necessary, self-sacrificing, but always competent. Two of the best husbands — Max Urquhart and Will Stedman — are medical doctors. This resolution, then, takes society's image of the ideal woman as the ideal mother and transforms it into an image of the ideal person as the ideal mother.

The imagery of Craik's emotional landscape was, perhaps, conceived subconsciously out of the materials of her own life and the [114/115] situation of women in her time. She also drew on her map deliberate lines, molding the images so that they could provide scripts for acceptably strong women. Her decision — surely, in the light of her criticism of George Eliot, a conscious decision as well as a psychic necessity — to make the characters in her books live, grow up, and do something with their lives led to endings that sometimes strike us as unimaginative, conventional, and a retreat to socially acceptable roles. Craik did not break free into new territory. But she did manipulate the stereotypes to provide images that resolved, at least in imagination, the great Victorian social-moral paradox, which insisted that women were morally superior, yet required them to submit to men.

In her novels, as in her essays, Craik tends toward the conservative edge of radical thought. Her heroines earn respect from other people by nurturing, intelligence, honesty, courage, competence, and self-sufficiency. They are good at mastering the practical details of their own lives; that is one reason that the reader, and eventually the hero, respects them. Most important, the heroines further their aims by breaking emotional barriers — by recognizing feelings. In the earlier books, sometimes, a physical disaster is needed to lower resistance; in only two or three — mostly late does the heroine voluntarily martyr herself to demonstrate her moral superiority and make others feel guilty. Generally, even in these cases, the rescue or martyrdom simply sets the stage; the heroine, essentially, makes human emotion important by forcing confrontations and speaking honestly.

The fantasy does not end simply with the securing of a suitable mate. There is almost always some explicit equality — that is, the woman has some advantage of morality, practical ability, or nurturing competence that gives her a share of power in the marriage. When women enter marriage unequally — because they are young and helpless — or when men propose because they think the girl needs care and protection, either the offer is refused or the marriage is a mistake.

Every heroine is or has been married by the end of the book. But even when marriage forms the climax, it is not seen as the beginning of perfect happiness. Craik's heroines are not wholly ratified by their society; the men that they marry detach themselves from established institutions. Hannah and Dora leave the country; Harold Gwynne, like Hannah's Bernard Rivers, leaves the ministry; young Mr. Jardine [115/116] and Parson Garland's son give up their class standing And real motherhood, as circumscribed by social convention, tends to diminish the women who experience it; both Ursula Halifax and Edna Kenderdine grow physically weaker. Craik could not find any realistic way for women to transform the wider world they lived in. Only in the male class fantasy of John Halifax, Gentleman could the outsider truly achieve power. The women who survive do so by achieving a satisfactory accommodation within woman's sphere.


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Last modified 16 August 2007