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  • The Gendering of Habit in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
  • Jennifer Judge (bio)

In Middlemarch (1871–72), George Eliot introduces her famous metaphor of the candlelit pier-glass to illustrate Rosamond Vincy’s superlative selfishness while also illuminating the habitual selfishness of all human beings: “The candle is the egoism of any person now absent” (248). This parable, which critics have consistently read (in company with Middlemarch’s own narrator) as the text’s most poignant metaphor for self-centredness, is also a striking illustration of the Victorian conception of the mental mechanics of habit. The lines on the glass, “minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions,” represent life’s events, while the “exclusive optical selection” that arranges the scratches into “concentric circles” in the candlelight (248) is analogous to the circuitous mental revolutions created by the grooves or etchings of habit: the subjective perceptions of an individual’s habitual mental associations. Nancy Paxton identifies Herbert Spencer as the “eminent philosopher among my friends” (Eliot, Middlemarch 248) to whom the narrator credits the pier-glass metaphor.1 Certainly, Spencer was among Eliot’s numerous friends and intellectual compeers (along with William B. Carpenter, Alexander Bain, John Stuart Mill, James Sully, and George Henry Lewes) whose philosophical and scientific writings shaped the emergent field of physiological psychology but who nonetheless, following John Locke and David Hume, emphasized older associative notions of impression; Victorian mental physiologists asserted that the brain and nerves are inscribed by channels or pathways of thought made almost indelible by habit.2 Indeed, “that familiar fact, the power of habit” (Mill, Utilitarianism 10: 238), is a central preoccupation of nineteenth-century philosophical, scientific, and, later, evolutionary theories of individual character formation and of social and ethical practice. As Eliot’s pier-glass metaphor suggests, the human mind was thought to be literally made of “impressible stuff ” (Middlemarch 364).

In 2000, Athena Vrettos brought an expansive new subject to the field of Victorian studies through her landmark elucidation of the links between culturally prevalent discussions of habit throughout the nineteenth century and the development of the novel of psychological realism.3 Her work is part of a large array of recent historical and context-focused studies by scholars such as Gillian Beer, George Levine, Jenny Bourne Taylor, Sally Shuttleworth, and Bernard Lightman, who observe that Victorian discursive practices encouraged [End Page 158] cross-fertilization or “two-way traffic” (Lightman 9), between science and literature. Furthering Vrettos’s important historicizing work, this essay seeks to uncover the gendered dimension of the period’s habit theory, exposing how the discourse of physiological psychology theorized women’s greater enthrallment to the automatism of habit. I propose that in Middlemarch, Eliot subverts a pivotal gendered assumption of nineteenth-century evolutionary physiological psychology: namely, that women’s minds are more prone than men’s to passive, instinctive forms of habit. Eliot’s novel, far from promoting the notion that women’s minds run more readily along pre-existing mental channels, satirizes the catastrophic folly of ubiquitously reflexive masculine egotism. The routine belittlement of women and accompanying aggrandizement of men is itself exposed to be a destructive mental and moral habit, one encouraged by society. Rosamond, after all, is hardly representative of female nature; she is a caricature of enculturated feminine habits designed to satisfy masculine vanity. Moreover, Middlemarch’s narrator, in company with the text’s internal female satirists, Mary Garth and Mrs. Cadwallader, continually exposes the “habitual foibles” (143) of Middlemarch’s men. A substantially satiric novel, Middlemarch indicts empathy-eroding and intellect-deadening habits of egotism in general and culturally engendered masculine egotism in particular, promoting instead the Wordsworthian ideal of “habitual and direct sympathy” that connects us “with our fellow beings” (Wordsworth 52).

In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James showcases the Duke of Wellington’s purported exclamation, “Habit a second nature! Habit is ten times nature” (124); in doing so, he highlights the centrality of conceptions of habit to nineteenth-century thought. Numerous scientists, psychologists, political economists, and “men of letters” contributed to widely resonant debates concerning habit’s role in determining human behaviour. From physiology to psychology, established and then-emerging scientific discourses isolated habit as the driving force...


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