- Daniel Deronda, Marital Rape, and the End of Reproduction
Although her novels deeply engage with Victorian discourses concerning women's emotional needs, social function, and intellectual maturation, George Eliot did not offer programmatic prescriptions for women to follow. In her correspondence, she professed a long-standing interest in the "Woman Question" and attendant political debates that shaped the gradual extension of women's legal rights during the second half of the nineteenth century. However, in an 1869 letter, Eliot qualified her investment in projects promising to improve women's political position because she felt "too imperfect a sympathy" with feminist agitators of her time (Letters 5: 58). She recognized that women chafed against social conventions and the pressure to conform to ideological as well as legal mandates, especially those related to marriage and childbearing. But Eliot thought that "the conditions of an imperfect social state" could only be corrected through slow and diffuse improvement brought about by cooperation (Middlemarch 784). This might account for her refusal to sign John Stuart Mill's suffrage petition of 1866.1 Eliot considered women's public self-display, including that of political campaigners, to be deeply degrading and, despite her own prominence and literary achievements, harboured skepticism about openly agitatorial approaches to reform.
In Eliot's later novels, depictions of power struggles between men and women, and particularly within contemporary models of marriage, markedly gain in prominence. Although, in Eliot's view, marriage and maternity represented sacred social obligations, the many unsuccessful wives, mothers, and childless women in her oeuvre indicate a concession that marriage and motherhood constitute problematic states. The maternal ideal was closely related to Eliot's lifelong advocacy for sympathy and the need to recognize alterity, yet she did not countenance expressions of female will that ran counter to the greater good. In her final novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), Eliot presents a double critique of unruly maidens and vicious patriarchs, whose selfish encounters endanger the continuation of the upper-middle-class family.2 If, for Eliot, the "future is suggested through progeny," as Gillian Beer notes (173), the reproduction of elite families in Daniel Deronda is critically threatened because no main character has produced legally recognized offspring by the last chapter. As I will show, Eliot employs legal and medical frameworks to situate the Grandcourts' marriage, contrasting an outdated [End Page 247] model based on patriarchal force with the implicit modern ideal of the companionate marriage. While it is not surprising that Eliot was acutely aware of the competing legal and ethical frameworks underlying marriage in the 1870s, her radically pessimistic representation of the Grandcourts' union indicates a response to, and overall agreement with, reformist political discourses that were much more focused and deliberate than we might expect.
I argue in this essay that Eliot, in Daniel Deronda, offers a sustained reflection on the need for ongoing marital reform, both legal and cultural. Yet she does so in a curiously sublimated way via the clandestine plot of Gwendolen's rape, psychological breakdown, and imperfect reconstitution as a moral subject. This plot remains hidden owing to three representational barriers with which Eliot saw herself confronted: her own aversion toward openly feminist agitation; the taboo surrounding the depiction of elite men's abuse of power; and, of course, the injunction against the explicit depiction of sexually suggestive content. Nevertheless, as I will show, the novel's critique of mercenary marriage is wholly framed in terms of sadistic sexual performance, although Grandcourt, until his death, officially remains "perfectly polite" (575).3 By transferring the implied physical violence onto bodies other than Grandcourt's and Gwendolen's, Eliot mutes the connection between Gwendolen's frantic sense of entrapment and her experience of mandatory marital sexual intercourse.4 Whenever Eliot's prose confronts representational taboos erected by legally entrenched male sexual and class power, her narrator depicts Gwendolen's invaded body by means of highly conventional rhetorical devices, such as the representation of Gwendolen as hysterical or animalistic and the use of Gothic or sensationalist imagery.
As medical writers of the day were unclear about many fundamental processes governing women's reproductive bodies, they resorted to morally prescriptive, and often apparently entirely...