George Eliot's Silly Novels by Lady Novelists: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Background on George Eliot
  • 0:47 Definition of…
  • 1:58 'Silly Novels by Lady…
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Roxanna Coldiron

Roxanna has a master's in media management from The New School and a bachelor's in Communication from Hiram College.

The 19th century author George Eliot denounced frivolous novels written by women in her pivotal essay 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.' In this lesson, we will discuss Eliot's message in this important piece of literary criticism.

Background on George Eliot

The writer George Eliot was the pen name of female novelist Mary Ann Evans who was born in 1819. In the 1850s, she chose to have her writing published under a masculine pen name because she felt that work by a male author would be taken more seriously by readers and critics.

Eliot's essay 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' was first published in 1856. The essay describes a particular sort of genre Eliot found problematic: novels written by women in which narratives were fatuous, unrealistic, and preachy. This sort of overwrought popular literature could be thought of as Victorian 'chick lit,' complete with inexhaustible, flawless female characters.

Definition of Mind-and-Millinery Novels

Eliot's disdain was perhaps strongest for mind-and-millinery novels. In the 19th century, millinery shops sold women's hats and the style of the day tended to be extremely decorative and impractical. Likewise, Eliot considered these novels to have over-dressed language and impractical plots.

These mind-and-millinery novels stick to a particular formula. The heroine, or female lead, was always impossibly beautiful, wealthy, bright, popular, and virtuous beyond measure. She would, of course, have dozens of suitors, all of them rich, intelligent or morally upstanding. The plot of a mind-and-millinery novel followed this typical pattern: a wealthy heiress, or one who recently had good fortune to enter high society, enthralls everyone with her wit and frustrates the men who seek her hand. She might marry the wrong man at first but events transpire that allow her to be with her male counterpart, who is naturally approving of her intelligence and education. By the end of the novel, she is even more perfect than she'd begun.

'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' Analysis

Imagine living in a time before women could vote or own property. An educated woman would be the punchline of jokes about spinsterhood and undesirability, and a woman's worth tended to be tied to either her father or her husband. Many female novelists of this ilk were bored, wealthy women who wrote books to impress their friends, flaunting their limited knowledge and mawkish stories like sparkling diamonds. George Eliot considered their books to be unrealistic and trite. She expressed the view that their hackneyed literature might actually hurt the cause of education for women.

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