Was George Eliot reticent about sex? During the period in which her reputation was at its lowest, between 1890 and 1940, one element in the general argument that her novels were philosophical treatises rather than art was her supposed coyness in sexual matters.[*] 'Pallas with prejudices and a corset,' cried W.E. Henley in 1890, 'George Sand plus Science and minus Sex.' Since Leavis rehabilitated her in The Great Tradition in 1948, critics have laboured to answer the criticism. Strangely, though, the subject has brought mainly defences of her reticence, such as Barbara Hardy's eloquent discussion of the 'hints and implications' of George Eliot's handling of sexual relationships in The Appropriate Form (1964), the appropriate chapter of which is now reprinted in Particularities, or, in the George Eliot Centenary Tribute, Juliet McMaster's vigorous attempt 'to bring back the voluptuous George Eliot' by arguing that 'the physical and sexual lives of her characters are very fully expressed, albeit often by indirection.' Leavis himself came much nearer to claiming for George Eliot a daring lack of reticence. Of Felix Holt he wrote: 'It is remarkable - and it is characteristic of George Eliot's mature art - that the treatment of Mrs Transome's early lapse should have in it nothing of the Victorian moralist. In the world of this art the atmosphere of the taboo is unknown; there is none of the excited hush, the skirting round, the thrill of shocked reprobation, or any of the forms of sentimentality typical of Victorian fiction when such themes are handled.' We may find Leavis's circumlocution itself rather coy ('Mrs Transome's early lapse'), but I think it surprising that critics have not generally taken his lead and tackled the question of sexuality in the novels head-on.
LRB 17 February 1983 | PDF Download