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Promises Not Kept:

Sexual Infidelity and the Vengeful George Eliot

Elizabeth Langland
University of Florida
Feminist critics have begun to revise the image of George Eliot as wise
and tolerant sage by looking at patterns of providential death in her fiction, a pattern that arguably enacts the woman author's anger and vengeance

againstmen whoembodypatriarchalpower.I Their revisionsdescribecontradictions between "feminine renunciation countenanced by the narrator
and female (even feminist) vengeance enacted by the author."2
The image of George Eliot as wise woman has also tended to obscure
the discontinuities in her own experience that she tapped in her novels. And
we need to remind ourselves--in her case particularly, where the mind is
so forceful--that writers create from sources other than their consciousness.
The discontinuities of Eliot's life are mirrored in textual discontinuities that
give rise to the novels' complexity and power.
The single vengeful events and individual deaths that have been noted
by other critics form only part of a general narrative pattern of values in
Eliot's novels that I shall explore here. One such value is that placed on
sexual fidelity and marital responsibility as reflected in the punishments that
befall males who violate these principles. The pattern of seduction and
betrayal, followed by a punishment enacted in the plot, figures significantly in Eliot's earliest fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, and still predominates
in her final novel, Daniel Deronda. These patterns create an alternative text
to that provided by the narrator's compassionate voice and they generate
dynamic tensions in the novels.
George Eliot's unfaithful men, seducers who betray George Eliot's
women, consistently receive punishment within the plot, punishments that
include death, exile, ostracism, and subsequent sterility. Those who die for
their sins--Grandcourt, Tito Melema, Captain Wybrow--are in some ways
the least interesting, because their punishment is so blatant. We need only
glance at them to define the pattern before we turn to the subtler
punishments in store for other faithless men.
The pattern of punishment for male sexual infidelity is most obvious
in Daniel Deronda and Romola. Grandcourt betrays the claims of his


longheld mistress to marry Gwendolen Harleth. His drowning allows Gwendolen to fulfill the conditions of his will and do justice to the claims of
his illegitimatechildren. Similarly,Tito keepsa mistress whom Romola
discovers, supports, and lives with in community after Tito is murdered
by Baldassare. It is notable that these men, who are fertile with their
mistresses, are sterile in their marriages afterwards. In Eliot's world, sexual promiscuity and lack of fidelity to one's natural children and to one's
lover always culminate in the destruction of the man and his legitimate line.)
In these later novels, however, the women thrive. In Romola a new family
is forgedthrough the sororal bondingof wifeand mistress,a matriarchal
family that legitimizes offspring as the woman's issue. Thus Tito's illegitimate son turns to his figure of authority, "Mamma Romola," to ask,
"What am I to be?" (Epilogue).
A variation of this pattern of the seducer who dies occurs in "Mr.
Gilfil's Love Story." Here, Captain Wybrow seduces his family's Italian
ward, Caterina Sarti, "whose only talent lay in loving" (Chap. 4). When
he begins courting a neighboring lady, she feels his betrayal keenly, and
she resolves to kill him. She is spared that fate by Wybrow's sudden, providentialdeath from heart disease.The vengefulauthor has punishedthe
seducer and released his victim from murderous action. The enormity of
seductionfar outweighsher contemplatedcrimein the narrator's rhetoric.
In fact, Mr. Gilfil, who articulates the novel's deep values, comforts
Caterina by saying, "the fault has not all been yours, he was wrong; he
gave you provocation. And wrong makes wrong. When people use us ill,
we can hardly help having ill feelings towards them. But that second wrong
is more excusable" (Chap. 19). Caterina finds forgiveness through a process that heightens rather than extenuates the magnitude of Captain
Wybrow's responsibility and guilt.
More subtle punishmentsnand perhaps more cruel because more
prolongednbefall Arthur Donnithorne in Adam Bede, Godfrey Cass in Silas
Marner, and Amos Barton in "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos
Barton." The last, a "mongrel and ungainly dog," is by no reach of the

imaginationa lover. Barton has neither the appearancenor aptitude for

the role, but George Eliot's pattern for unfaithful lovers helps explain some
potentially problematic plot developments in this, her first fiction. From
her beginnings, we can see, in its harshest and least justified form, the impulse to punish male sexual infidelity, an impulse that persists through to
Daniel Deronda.
What is immediatelynoticeablefrom this newperspectiveis the sheer
melodrama informing the plots in Scenes of Clerical Life.' George Eliot
began writing these stories shortly after completing "Silly Novels by Lady
Novelists" for The Westminster Review. In this essay, she criticizes the ex-


travagance and unreality of their novels and counsels women to build their
art out of "genuine observation, humour, and passion.") Her own art,
George Eliot's narrator frequently claims, is built on this premise. Her narrator ironicallylaments: "For not having a lofty imagination, as you
perceive, and being unable to invent thrilling incidents for your amusement,
my only merit must lie in the truth with which I represent to you the humble experienceof ordinary fellow-mortals. I wish to stir your sympathy with
commonplace troubles. "6 Yet, not only in the Scenes, but in Silas Marner
and Adam Bede as well, her plots take their suspense and motive force
straight from Victorian melodrama--permutations on the plot of the wicked seducer and the innocent betrayed virgin or wife.
Of the three Scenes, "Amos Barton" conforms least to this
melodramatic model. Melodrama enters, however, in the person of the
Countess Czerlaski, whose centrality to the story calls for explanation. Why
did Eliot create this episode in which an impoverished Countess, who has
quarreled with her brother and meal-ticket, quarters herself on the Bartons month after month? It is certainly true that she adds to the physical
burdens of an already over-burdened Milly, who has six children and a
seventh pregnancy coming to term. The countess certainly increasesthe family's financial strain. Perhaps most important, however, she damages the
family's reputation by becoming a source of rumor. The local gossip interprets her prolonged stay as stemming from only one source: an illicit relationship with Amos Barton. Here then is the familiar melodramatic triangle
and the motif of betrayal. Of course, there is no foundation whatsoever
for the rumor. On one level, perhaps, George Eliot wants to document the
narrow, provincial mind at work and encourage our superior powers of
I daresay the long residence of the Countess Czerlaski at Shepperton Vicarage is very puzzling to you also, dear reader, as well
as to Mr. Barton's clerical brethren; the more so, as I hope you
are not in the least inclined to put that very evil interpretation
on it
You have seen enough, I trust, of the Rev. Amos Barton, to be convinced he was more apt to fall into a blunder than
into a will have detected that the Countess
Czerlaski loved herself far too well to get entangled in an unprofitable vice.
(Chap. 7)
The dialectic between appearance/rumor and reality, however, does not
offer a sufficient accounting for this lengthy plot episode. The answer seems
rather to lie in the way the insult falls on the saintly Milly Barton. She is
sensitive toward her husband's position and character--"she felt these [insults] almost entirely on her husband's account" (Chap. 7)--but she receives
no answering sensitivity from him toward hers. Indeed, Amos Barton's
rumored betrayal of his wife with the Countess becomes an image of his



betrayal of husbandly sympathy for which the plot of the novel punishes
him. The narrator, characteristically, offers a more balanced and tolerant
Mr. Barton was feelinga little cold and cross. It is difficult, when
you have been doing disagreeable duties, without praise, on a
snowy day, to attend to the very minor morals. So he showed
no recognition of Milly's attentions but simply said, "Fetch me
my dressing gown, will you?"
(Chap. 2)
This passage blends sympathy, "disagreeable duties, without praise," and
irony "to attend to very minor morals," and seems to exculpate the curate.
That is often the quality that strikes us in the narrator's voice: insightful
comment and forgiving understanding.
But, the narrator's are not the final words on the subject. The narrative or plot neither understands nor forgives Amos Barton for failing to
appreciate his jewel of a wife. Milly's death, which releases her from her
troubles, precipitates Amos into a keen sense of his loss and selfishness:
"'She isn't dead?' shrieked the poor desolate man" (Chap. 8) who "while
Milly was with him... was never visited by the thought that perhaps his sympathy with her was not quick and watchful enough...he felt as if his very
love needed a pardon for its poverty and selfishness" (Chap. 9).
The narrator has immediately before this statement assured us that
"Amos Barton had been an affectionate husband," seeming to intend some
exculpation. In the plot, loss follows on loss. No sooner has Amos buried
his wife and begun to feel some "outward solace" in the returning affection of his congregation, than he is forced to leave his curacy. Unexpectedly, the Vicar has resolved to return to Shepperton. The reader, to this point,
has been unaware of the Vicar's existence; now he appears only to dislodge
the disconsolate curate and add to his miseries: "0, it was hard! Just when
Shepperton had become the place where he most wished to stay" (Chap.
9). Not only must he remove, but the only employment he can find is in
a "large manufacturing town" where "his walks would lie among noisy
streets and dingy alleys" (Chap. 9). "It was another blow inflicted on the
bruised man," the narrator tells us, seeming to ask our sympathy, and we
can only respond, "yes, but by whom?" Ostensibly by the Vicar and circumstances, but we find our attention shifting to the author who created

the narrativeand its events.8 It istrue that Amos' daughterPatty "remains

by her father's side, and makes the evening sunshine of his life" (Conclusion), but she stands there as a constant though imperfect reminder of her
mother. The source of Barton's solace is also the source of his reproach:
"'MilIy...I didn't love thee enough--I wasn't tender enough to thee" (Chap.

Why, then, must Amos Barton suffer? His fault is infidelity, though
of a more subtle and indirect sort. The motif of sexual infidelity is supplied by the rumors surrounding Barton and the Countess CzerIaski. Lending substance to these rumors is Barton's own insensitivityto Milly, a failure
of husbandly sympathy that is itself a form of betrayal.
The crime is more tangible and the punishment more direct in Adam
Bede. An anecdote Mary Ann Evans had heard as a young woman from
her aunt provided the germ of Eliot's first novel. The story was of a "condemned criminal, a very ignorant girl who had murdered her child and refused to confess."9 Although criticism has focused on the handling of Hetty
and the severity of Eliot's presentation from both biographical and textual

points of view,10 little has been said about the way the novel's creator
mitigates the harshness toward Hetty and distributes culpability and punishment between Hetty Sorrel and Arthur Donnithorne. Particularly because
the murdering mother is an anecdotal "given"--an uninvented episode--it
is all the more important to look at the novelist's treatment of this subject.
Two aspects of the narrative call for close attention: the representation of
the murder and the representation of Arthur's responsibility for the guilty
The murder itself is represented only retrospectively through the tortured woman's consciousness. Making us share entirely in Hetty's perspective tends to soften our censure and prepare us for a mitigated punishment; her transportation rather than hanging. Here, it is significant that
in altering the fate of Hetty, George Eliot alters the story she was told. As
self-absorbed and selfish as Hetty is represented to be, George Eliot still
chose to soften her penalty. The author does not exact her pound of flesh.
Notably, other women in George Eliot's canon who are guilty of selfishness
or thoughtlessness with children all largely escape punishment: Rosamond
Lydgate in provoking a miscarriage by disobeying her husband's order and
going horseback riding, the unthinking Tessa who bears three children as
Tito's mistress, and the improvident Lydia Glasher who bears Grandcourt's
three children. Each of these women escapes absolute censure and, even
if censured, almost entirely escapes punishment. The rector in Daniel Deronda is allowed to grumble that "Female morality is likely to suffer from this
marked advantage and prominence being given to illegitimate offspring"
(Chap. 64), but Lydia Glasher suffers no heavier punishment than his
unheard words. This effect is partly a function of the narrator's voice--the
rhetoric of compassion that is so signal a feature of Eliot's novels. But
notable is the continuity here between narrator's voice and narrative event
in the women's fates and the discontinuity between narrative voice and narrative events in the men's fates. The plot punishes the men for sexual incontinence while it lets the women off.


Punishment rains heavily on the male lovers, and this pattern echoes

in Arthur Donnithorne'sfate. I I In this case,wehavefull knowledgeof the

horror that has befallen Hetty while Arthur does not. He has returned to
Loamshire for his grandfather's funeral and is ignorant of Hetty's arrest.
His ignorance allows him to speculate first on the great things he is now
in a position to do as Squire and second, on his relationship to Hetty as
Adam's wife. Presenting Arthur's jubilant hopes under the shadow of Hetty's guilt forces us to feel that his hopes are permanently blasted--that the
good he hoped to do can never be done by him--at best, Adam can be his
agent. Arthur, with Hetty, must be banished from the human community.
We might argue the thematic appropriateness of representingArthur's hopes
when we know they can never be realized; they dramatize the interconnections of events in Eliot's world, and they demonstrate painfully that Arthur must take responsibility for the consequences of his earlier actions.
It is less easy to understand thematically why Arthur must reflect
salaciously on Hetty as Adam's wife. All of Adam's harsh words about
Arthur cannot even begin to approximate the condemnation of Arthur that
is a direct result of this structuring of events. The rhetorical effect of our
knowledge and Arthur's ignorance begins to amount to something like embarrassment for the reader who "overhears" things grossly inappropriate
under the circumstances: "Sweet--sweet little Hetty! The little puss hadn't
cared for him [Arthur] half as much as he cared for her; for he was a great
fool about her still"; or "Many men would have retained a feeling of vindictiveness towards Adam; but he would not" (Chap. 44). In all his imagined magnanimity, Arthur appears very much a cad. The effect of the
scene is thoroughly to condemn the man, even while the narrator speaks
movingly of the need for compassion in her world. Major portions of the
remaining story depict the Reverend Mr. Irwine encouraging Adam to
forgive Arthur because he cannot assess circumstances sufficiently to judge:
"It is not for us men to apportion the shares of moral guilt and retribution
The evil consequences that may lie folded in a single act of selfish
indulgence, is a thought so awful that it ought surely to awaken some feeling less presumptuous than a rash desire to punish" (Chap. 41). Although
Adam must heed Mr. Irwine's caution, the author judges Arthur and exacts her pound of flesh through a string of narrative circumstances: exile,
sickness, and futility. In this case, the events have made us expect and desire
Arthur's alienation as just. The voice of forgiveness, whose strains are not
harmonious with this narrative structure, has no mitigating effect for Arthur, whose closing words to Adam are, "I could never do anything for
her, Adam--she lived long enough for all the sufferingnand I'd thought
so of the time when I might do something for her. But you told me the
truth when you said to me once, 'There's a sort of wrong that can never

be made up for'" (Epilogue). Arthur is never allowed to find a place within

the human community.
The behavior of Godfrey Cass in Silas Marner generates a similar pattern. Godfrey has married the woman he has seduced, but his shame forces
him to conceal her and their child. This lover is at first seemingly spared
the consequences of his early importunity by the woman's death, but the
child survives to become the ultimate agent of punishment. Several of the
novel's later chapters focus on Godfrey as he is forced to drink the bitter
dregs from his cup of infidelity. Punishment begins with his sterility in his
second marriage--sterility enforced by his new wife's theology--and concludes in his explicit repudiation by his daughter, Eppie.
Godfrey Cass keenly feels "the absence of children from their
hearth.. .as a privation to which he could not reconcile himself" (Chap. 17),
yet Nancy, his wife, resists "her husband's wish that they should adopt
a child" because "to adopt a child, because children of your own had been
denied you, was to try to choose your lot in spite of Providence." Godfrey
is thwarted by his wife until he confesses his past wrong and her ready
forgiveness now forces him to feel "all the bitterness of an error that was
not simply futile, but had defeated its own end" (Chap. 17). His soulscalding sense of error is further compounded when Godfrey goes to Eppie
to claim kinship. His daughter's rebuke and evident dislike of him force
Godfrey to endure a further humiliation. He has to accept that "there's
debts we can't pay like money debts" (Chap. 18), and the "exalted consciousness" he has had of discharging this debt is severely chastened by
Eppie's frustration of his purpose. Godfrey confesses to his wife, "I wanted
to pass for childless once, Nancynl shall pass for childless now against my
wish" (Chap. 18). And he adds to this figurative sterility the mortification
of his daughter's ill opinion, "She thinks me worse than 1 am." But he
accepts that "It's part of my punishment" (Chap. 18).
Punishmentnno doubt these seducers deserved it. But we must always
evaluate individual deserts within the ethical scheme a novelist establishes.
And the compassion and forgiveness that shape the narrator's voice and
infuse the lives of many of her characters are absent for these men in the
unfolding of the plot. For them, the Reverend Mr. Irwine's words "consequences are unpitying" ring true and events, shaped by the female author
as Nemesis, pursue them to their graves.
It is tempting to speculate on the ambiguous status of Marian Evans
as "wife" to G.H. Lewes and as co-supporter of the varied brood of Agnes
Jervis. This triangle might well make her sensitive to its permutations in
her plots. As mistress-wife who supported the wife-mistress, she enacted
the fate of her best heroines. But the precariousness of her own situation

must have made very threatening the possibility of male sexual infidelity
and that infidelity her novels cannot eye dispassionately.

See Carol Christ, "Aggression and Providential Death in George Eliot's Fiction," Novel

(Winter 1976), 130-40; and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Allie
(New Haven, 1979), pp. 491-499.
'Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Allie, p. 491.
'Ibid., p. 495. Gilbert and Gubar have noted that "Both Romola and Gwendolen are
especially aware that their husbands' selfishness has victimized other women: as the legal wives
of men whose mistresses have borne children invisible because illegitimate, both Romola and
Gwendolen identify wi;h the dispossessed women, as if Eliot were obsessively considering her
own ambiguous 'wife-hood. '''Their point is a corollary to mine, but Gilbert and Gubar do
not spell out the consistent pattern of punishment for male sexual infidelity. They are interested
in "how the author is involved in punishing male characters who specifically symbolize patriarchal power" (p. 491).
'Not surprisingly, Gilbert and Gubar also looking at vengeance in George Eliot's fiction-particularly the punitive deaths--remark,
too, on the melodrama of these plots. The Mad.
woman in the Atllc, pp. 484-85.
'Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London, 1963), p. 324.
'''The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton" in Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. David
Lodge (Harmondsworth,
1973), Chap. 7.
'Maggie Tulliver's comments in The Mill on the Floss about the prescribed fates of darkhaired heroines, a fate she fulfills, make a related point about the frequent melodrama of
George Eliot's plots in dramatizing sexual relations.
'U.C. Knoeptlmacher,
George Eliot's Early Novels (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968) sees
"The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton" as depicting George Eliot's desire "to
shatter a complacent and commonplace clergyman's indifference to the suffering of his fellow
mortals. The plot is mechanical and sentimental. The unexpected death of Barton's "sweet"
wife, Milly, impresses on him the precariousness of earthly life and forces him into an awareness
of George Eliot's own temporal "religion of humanity'"
(p. 5). Knoepflmacher's
is a sensitive interpretation
that addresses the same problem I have discussed--the harshness of Barton's punishment.
But my seeing his fate in light of the sexual triangles helps explain that
harshness more thoroughly than does the religion of humanity with its implicit ethic of
"'George Eliot Journal, Richmond, 30 Nov. 1858," in the George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon
Haight, II (New Haven, 1954-55), p. 502.
"See, for example, Walton Allen, George Eliot (New York and Toronto, 1964), p. 102;
Joseph Warren Beach, The Twenlieth-Century
Novel: Studies in Technique (New York, 1960),
p. 19; and V.S. Pritchett, The Living Novel (New York, 1957), p. 92.
I IKnoepflmacher,
George Eliot's Early Novels, p. 77n, observes, in considering Hetty,
that "Mothers who betray or deny their children recur throughout her fiction," but with the
possible exception of the Princess Halm-Eberstein in Daniel Deronda, I can think of no other.
Indeed, Eliot's novels are full of mothers who suffer anguish at the trials of their offspring:
Mrs. Raynor in "Janet's Repentance,"
Mrs. Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, Mrs. Transome in Felix Holt, Bulstrode's first wife in Mlddlemarch, and Mrs. Davilow in Daniel
Deronda--to mention some of the most prominent. As I've already noted, Helly was an anecdotal' 'given" and George Eliot altered the true story in favor of compassion: transportation
instead of hanging. The real pattern or "hidden story" remains that of the unfaithful fathers
and their punishment.