George Eliot’s Byronic Heroes I: Early Works and Poetry

  • Sarah Wootton


George Eliot, like Austen and Gaskell before her, was equally engaged with the reformulation of Romanticism and models of masculinity. For U. C. Knoepflmacher, Eliot’s ‘fiction offers what is probably the richest and most variegated cast of male characters created by any woman nov-elist’.1 The fleshing out or dissolving of masculine stereotypes is a distinctive feature of Eliot’s fiction, with the title characters in works such as Adam Bede (1859), Silas Marner (1861), Felix Holt: The Radical (1866) and Daniel Deronda (1876) remaining in the foreground. Adam Bede, Eliot’s first novel, explores conventional as well as emerging models of masculinity through the theme of work, the interrelated issue of class, and the family.2 The charming yet feckless aristocratic seducer, Captain Arthur Donnithorne, is found wanting when compared with the integrity of the carpenter, Adam Bede. Middlemarch (1871–72) is populated by, among many others, the mutable shades of Will Ladislaw’s artistic sensibilities and Casaubon’s pitiful frailties. In her last novel, Daniel Deronda, the title character’s delicacy of feeling and Mordecai’s spirit of self-sacrifice provide the counterpoint to Grandcourt’s hard, yet meticulously studied, masculinity. Both Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.


Short Story Male Character Gender Nonconformity Mutable Shade Romantic Poet 
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  1. 1.
    U. C. Knoepflmacher, ‘Unveiling Men: Power and Masculinity in George Eliot’s Fiction’, in Men by Women, ed. by Janet Todd (New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1981), pp. 130–46 (p. 134). Knoepflmacher’s argument about Eliot’s ‘gender dysfunctions’ is less convincing (p. 131).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See, for example, John R. Reed, ‘Soldier Boy: Forming Masculinity in Adam Bede’, Studies in the Novel, 33:3 (2001), pp. 268–84. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick regards Adam Bede as an exemplar of ‘the historicity of women’s relations to men’s bonds’, in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York and Chichester: Columbia UP, 1985), p. 135.Google Scholar
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    George Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. by Margaret Reynolds (London: Penguin, 2008), p. 197. Subsequent references will be given in the text.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    William Wordsworth, ‘Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems (1802)’, in William Wordsworth: The Major Works, ed. by Stephen Gill, rpt (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 595–615 (p. 597). Subsequent references to the Preface are taken from this edition and will be given in the text. Eliot’s relationship with the ‘incomparable Wordsworth’, as she referred to the poet, was ‘always ardent’, according to Stephen Gill. Eliot wrote of Wordsworth’s poetry: ‘I have never before met with so many of my own feelings, expressed just as I could like’, and purchased a six-volume set of his works a year later when she was 21. His poetry features more frequently in Eliot’s epigraphs and chapter headings than any other author except Shakespeare.Google Scholar
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    The sonnet sequence, ‘Brother and Sister’, was published in The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems (1874). Denise Tischler Millstein argues for a literary conversation between Eliot’s poems and Byron’s ‘Epistle to Augusta’: The sonnet sequence, which reads like a letter from a cast-off sister to her brother, is a mirror version of Byron’s ‘Epistle to Augusta’, from a beloved brother to his cast-off sister. It is almost as if the two poems create a whole when read together, with Eliot as the sister of her poem responding to Byron as the brother of his. (original emphasis) Tischler Millstein, ‘George Eliot’s Felix Holt, The Radical and Byronic Secrets’, in Victorian Secrecy: Economies of Knowledge and Concealment, ed. by Albert D. Pionke and Denise Tischler Millstein (Farnham, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 135–48 (p. 139).Google Scholar
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  19. 32.
    Cited in Dorothy Mermin, Godiva’s Ride: Women of Letters in England, 1830–1880 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1993), p. 6. The description of Eliot’s letter as ‘singularly priggish’, quoted in the next paragraph, is Mermin’s (p. 13).Google Scholar
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    Of Eliot’s familiarity with German Romanticism, Newton writes: There is ample evidence in George Eliot’s letters and essays that she was well read in Romantic writing in English but what perhaps separates her from many of her contemporaries is that her knowledge of European Romantic writing was also extensive. The fact that she accompanied G. H. Lewes to Germany while he was researching his biography of Goethe was a particularly significant experience as this gave her first-hand contact with a German intellectual life that had its roots in Romanticism. See K. M. Newton, ‘Romanticism’, in Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot, ed. by John Rignall (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), pp. 336–9 (p. 337).Google Scholar
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    Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery’, 11. 8, 36, in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1994).Google Scholar
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    Hallam Tennyson, cited in Tennyson: A Selected Edition, ed. by Christopher Ricks (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p. 515.Google Scholar
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    Byron’s Cain: A Mystery (1821) underscores Eliot’s later poem, ‘The Legend of Jubal’ (1870). Eliot’s eponymous hero, a shepherd who discovers the art of music along with the pains of mortality, leaves the fellowship of his community on a solitary pilgrimage. Martin Bidney argues that the ‘work ethic of Eliot/Jubal consorts oddly with the tragic, alienating quest of the Romantic solitary wanderer […]. “The Legend of Jubal,” we must conclude, is an ideologically conflicted work’. Bidney rightly identifies a ‘neo-Romantic’ strain in the poem, which encompasses Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron (with the Byronic hero channelled through Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’). But what is read as an incongruous intertextual backdrop can be seen as usefully indicative of Eliot’s treatment of Romanticism. Jubal may be the hero of the poem, but his brother, Tubal-Cain, emerges as a second protagonist with an equally striking Romantic provenance. The anti-heroes of ‘The Legend of Jubal’ serve to illustrate an advanced and revisionary Romanticism that pairs Tubal’s formidable autonomy and ambition with an energetic industry, and Jubal’s vision of inward enlightenment with an ‘external soul’ (p. 98). See Bidney, ‘“The Legend of Jubal” as Romanticism Refashioned: Struggles of a Spirit in George Eliot’s Musical Midrash’, George Eliot — George Henry Lewes Studies, 52–53 (2007), pp. 28–59 (pp. 29, 28).Google Scholar
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    K. M. Newton, ‘Byronic Egoism and George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy’, Neophilologus, 57 (1973), pp. 388–400 (p. 393).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 73.
    Richard Lansdown traces the genesis of the Byronic heroine from Dickens’s Edith Dombey and Lady Dedlock to Eliot’s Mrs Transome and Gwendolen Harleth. Lansdown sees The Corsair’s Gulnare as an important precursor to these Victorian heroines; Don Juan’s Lady Adeline Amundeville also ‘anticipates a great deal in Victorian fiction’. Richard Lansdown, ‘The Byronic Hero and the Victorian Heroine’, Critical Review, 41 (2001), pp. 105–16 (p. 107).Google Scholar
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  39. See Kehler, ‘Armgart’s Voice Problems’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 34 (2006), pp. 147–66 (p. 148).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Charlotte Brontë, Villette, ed. by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten, rpt (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991), p. 322. Subsequent references will be given in the text. Eliot admired Brontë’s novel and, as Louise Hudd details, she attended a performance by Rachel. See Hudd, ‘The Politics of a Feminist Poetics: “Armgart” and George Eliot’s Critical Response to Aurora Leigh’, Essays and Studies, 49 (1996), pp. 62–83 (pp. 72–3).Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Sarah Wootton 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah Wootton
    • 1
  1. 1.Durham UniversityUK

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