In the NYTimes Sunday Book Review section, Joyce Carol Oates reviews Rebecca Mead on George Eliot.
Right there, thats a stream of intelligent women. I can’t claim that I ever really read and re-read and re-re-read George Eliot because by the time I could, science fiction had already claimed my soul. Mead’s book is titled “My Life in Middlemarch”, and as Oates makes clear, a valentine to Eliot. Oates even quotes Virginia Woolf on Middlemarch: “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
Oates goes on to say:
The book’s theme, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life,” was “certainly one with which Eliot had been long preoccupied. . . . And it’s a theme that has made many young women, myself included, feel that ‘Middlemarch’ is speaking directly to us. How on earth might one contain one’s intolerable, overpowering, private yearnings? Where is a woman to put her energies? How is she to express her longings? What can she do to exercise her potential and affect the lives of others? What, in the end, is a young woman to do with herself?”
So true. So true. And then (yes, lots of quotes, but Oates says it so well):
And contemporary readers are likely to feel, as feminists like Kate Millett have observed, that Dorothea is a flawed heroine in that she chooses marriage — and then remarriage — in place of a courageously ambitious life of her own or one that approximates the life of her creator. It’s as if Eliot didn’t dare, for all Dorothea’s superiority, to end “Middlemarch” in a region beyond the “marriage plot” — the formulaic conclusion to conventional romances Eliot derided in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”
The review is about Eliot’s place in the canon, and her sense of women’s lives. But, this bit of the review struck me. I think it is easy when you have a partner, a family, a support system to talk about choosing independence. But how hard is that when you are alone?
Contrast this with Oates’ own story.Her husband of 47 years died, and she wrote a memoir “The Widow’s Story” in response. Yet, as Janet Maslin’s review points out, Oates remarried (happily) 13 months later. I think that it is a bit hypocritical to encourage women to go out, risk alone-ness to achieve. Here is her answer to that critique.
There are lots of arguments about “having it all” and whether women, especially scientists can have life, job, success (oh yes, and sleep). It irritates the hell out of me when Oates in the review, and in her memoir presents herself as championing the alternatives to marriage. For many, it is that partner that gives the strength to achieve. For many, especially biologists, it is the joy of children, of young people and young things in general that inspire to create, whether it be science or art.
Please stop lecturing, not just me, but the young women (and men!) that I mentor that marriage is a plot to keep us from “a courageously ambitious life of her own”. I know of a friend, single, who in his mid-50’s has adopted a child. He has money and resources for the help he needs. He chose life. Go read Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Then choose life.