Enlightenment Utopias, Fall 2014

literary thought experiments of the 17th and 18th centuries

Millennium Hall Questions

by Elissa Myers

  1. The author of the introduction to the Broadview edition of Millennium Hall suggests that the narrative represents a feminization of gentry capitalism. However, this characterization ignores the extent to which the ladies’ religion influences the way they run their “business,” whose expanding operations are always ones of charity. On the other hand, the ladies engage in some shady labor practices, i.e. using child labor and the labor of the aged and disabled frequently, who don’t own their own labor and sometimes even labor for free. The ladies justify this by spreading money around in the way they see fit. How do the ladies’ Christian principles structure the acts of charity they perform? How are these principles used to justify their maternalistic (?) attitudes toward those whom they aid and in the process, rationalize class divisions and labor exploitation in a way that is problematic?
  2. The structure of Millennium Hall is puzzling to me. How do the frequent interruptions function in the narrative structure? Why are we presented with so many stories, and how do the descriptions of the women’s community (as well as the other communities, homes of villagers, and industries that are the fruits of their organizational labor) fit with the narratives of the women’s individual stories? What purpose do the two frame stories (the narrator and Lamont’s visit and the narrator’s letter home) serve?
  3. Friendship between women seems to be the heart of both the ladies’ utopian community and their personal stories. Common strands that appear in many of the narratives are the importance of friendship with women of the same age, of good mothering or mentorship by older women (and vice versa, the disastrous effects of bad mothering).These friendships are founded on the ladies’ common Christianity, and sometimes even initiated because of a desire to evangelize. The women help each other resist temptation, teach each other to love virtue instead of vice, and revel in their common love of God. In what ways do you see the Christian nature of the ladies’ friendship having a liberating effect on them? How does it help them to negotiate difficult social situations and moral dilemmas? In what ways does it tinge the ladies’ friendships (and self-concepts) with hints of queerness or auto-eroticism.
  4. Men are a disruptive, and often an outright evil force in Sarah Scott’s narrative. The young women’s narratives are rife with attempted seduction, and emotional (and implied sexual) abuse. The only harmless relationships between men and women are abortive ones, which nevertheless cause intense emotional pain. However, the novel seems markedly progressive in its ability to even acknowledge men’s culpability in the rape culture that is the eighteenth-century seduction narrative. How is Sarah Scott using these narratives of sexual violence and pain in love to reinforce her rhetorical point about the preferability of female friendship as a relation that soothes one’s emotional pain by facilitating and even mediating one’s connection to God? Does she ever seem to create a male character who does not exist for a primarily rhetorical purpose, but as a fully-rounded character?
  5. Expanding the common idea of female education seems to be an incredibly important aim of Scott’s narrative. Scott gives much attention to the ladies’ formative years, and to describing the modes by which they were taught intellectually, as well as the moral lessons they learned through experience. How do the ladies’ educations differ from what many women would have received in the eighteenth century? How do we see Scott militating against the adverse effects of the “accomplishment”-based education many women received? How does female friendship reinforce the moral and practical education Scott seems to advocate for women?
  6. Sarah Scott’s novel is full of overt deus-ex-machinas, and seemingly unlikely plot twists (the reappearance of long-lost mothers, the convenient death of Mr. Hintman, the child molester, etc.) Though devices such as this were common in eighteenth-century romances, Scott asserts that they are not caused by chance, but by the intervention of God. How are these devices used to reinforce Scott’s idea about the superior morality of female friendship? How does she use such devices to dramatize the incredibly difficult moral choices women were often forced to make in the eighteenth century?

Eliot Article Analysis

by Elissa Myers

Thierauf, Doreen. “The Hidden Abortion Plot in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.Victorian Studies 56.3 (Spring 2014): 479-489. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

1. Consider the title of the article. Does it work well? Did it motivate you to read the article in the first place? Web.


Yes. “The Hidden Abortion Plot in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.” It is simple and descriptive but also has the value of shock factor.

2. How does the article begin and end? How does it introduce its fundamental argument? How much of the article is given over to the introduction? Conclusion?

The article begins by stating the fact that our knowledge of abortion in the nineteenth century is still shadowy. Then the author asserts the importance of studying such a topic in light of the emphasis placed on family planning by modern feminists. Then the author clarifies how she will apply the concept to Middlemarch, and what the stakes would be for our understanding of Rosamond’s character and the novel (we could read abortion as an extension of Rosamond’s carelessness and of her autonomy, but also of Eliot’s critique of female education).

The article ends by articulating how this reading has changed our assumptions about Rosamond (she is not merely careless, but is deliberately prioritizing her own happiness over that of her husband, unborn child, and family in general), and our assumption that middle-class women must not have been in control of their reproduction. It also provides an illustration of one coded way in which authors might have talked about abortion. Finally, the author articulates the impossibility of speculating on George Eliot’s intentions, but does actually speculate a little bit about the meaning of an entry of a peculiar abortifacient plant in her diary, using this instance to state that there were subterranean means of knowledge about abortion women might have had.

Intro lasts a little over two pages out of a total of ten pages. The conclusion is a little over a page.

3. How does the article marshal evidentiary support and proof? Do you see any flaws in the argument? What aspects of the article render it convincing to you?

The article “maps the question of abortion onto Middlemarch and then analyzes the discursive ramifications of that reading practice” (480). This also means that she is in some sense justifying her approach indirectly by fitting her approach into what we already know about Middlemarch (i.e. that Rosamond is willful, skilled at maintaining physical and mental autonomy, that she doesn’t regret losing the baby, and that she goes horseback riding to achieve her own ambitions). She also uses advice books to illustrate that Rosamond’s techniques of domestic control can be understood as generally encouraged, and uses 19th century medical knowledge as it was disseminated in newspapers to show that Rosamond would have known the consequences of riding. I mostly buy her argument, but I think it could have benefited from some narratological theory examining the way Lydgate believes the miscarriage to be Rosamond’s fault, and readers are encouraged to think the same.

4.  Evaluate the style of the article. What makes it well written? What would you change if you could?

I would make it more direct and structured. I think she buries the lead in some cases, and I am a little confused by the structure of her thesis paragraph and statement. She states a lot of important points in the paragraph before her thesis paragrah and then leads up to a more specific point. It seems like a lot of the time she is trying to prove these points simultaneously in the same paragraphs, structuring her article more by which sources she is using than rhetorically, using each paragraph to prove a single point.

5.  Is the article interdisciplinary in nature and/ or rooted within the specific discipline of English?

I would say it relies mostly on previous literary criticism and theory regarding Middlemarch and nineteenth-century literature, but incorporates some history as well.

6. How does the article use secondary sources/ work of other critics generally? How does it stake out new territory? Are you convinced of its originality?

The article is certainly original, but I often think she cites in ways that seem defensive or juvenile (using scholars’ names in parentheses, but not attributing ideas to them in the sentences themselves. She is often not citing someone’s unique theoretical concept or phrasing, but merely historical fact, often “showing too much iceberg,” in the words of Eric Hayot (116), or citing concepts that are already common knowledge to Victorianists.


Utopian Thought in George Eliot’s Middlemarch

by Elissa Myers

I am interested in the concept of utopia as a restrictive environment in which in order to achieve a certain ideal of perfection, the standards of a few are effectively mandated and difference is therefore suffocated. I think this idea could be usefully applied to the concept of the home that is visible in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch.
My analysis of Middlemarch would center on the home that Tertius Lydgate , a promising young doctor and a stranger to town, and Rosamond Vincy, his materialistic, naive wife, build together.
Their home can be considered a utopia in that though both Rosamond and Lydgate aim high in their choice of each other as sexually and socially desirable mates and their attempts to achieve a higher class status than they have at the novel’s beginning, their individual utopian impulses are contradictory, precluding their chance of sustaining a happy home. Rosamond’s tenaciously espoused idea that “the good life” is obtained through membership in a certain class causes her to spend much of Lydgate’s meager salary on rich furnishings for their home and to disapprove of his (to her mind) undignified position as a doctor. Lydgate’s marriage thus makes impossible both his pride, as he is forced to beg his friends for money to support Rosamond’s lifestyle, and his professional ambition, as he is forced to become a gout doctor to make more money, abandoning the more idealistic work he previously did with the poor.
This central conflict between the two–the impossibility of Rosamond’s being happy as a woman of status, while Lydgate remains happy as a doctor to the poor–stems significantly from their gendered socialization, and the fact that that socialization seemed to aim primarily at upward mobility. Rosamond has been inculcated with a desire for upward mobility from a young age, believing that nothing but the best quality household goods and clothing will “answer.” Furthermore, as a woman, she understands marriage as, to a large extent, to be about the establishment of the home, and the beautiful, highly-valued things with which it is adorned.
On the other hand, Lydgate has been taught from a young age to value the surface-level beauty (which Rosamond has in spades) as the best quality in a woman. He has also been taught to value marks of status as enabling him to establish a reputation among his clients, and thus, to continue to be an effective breadwinner for his family. It is this duty to his gendered role as breadwinner that causes him to take on Rosamond’s excessive requirements for happiness as his responsibility. Therefore, Rosamond and Lydgate’s happiness is made impossible by idealized, yet narrow conceptions of the ideal home as a gendered space rich in material comforts.
I would also like to look at the material objects in their home, such as Rosamond’s copy of the popular periodical, the Keepsake Annual, as well as the couple’s piano in order to see if such objects reinforce the utopian aspects of the home. Perhaps in the instance of the Keepsake, women are depicted in very normative ways? And the piano certainly reinforces the home as a gendered space, as women are usually the ones requested to play and sing at parties.
To complicate this idea, I would also like to look at the relationships of Will Lladislaw and Dorothea Brooke, and Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, who end up much happier than the Lydgates. I think examining their relationships will illustrate that Eliot thinks happy homes are created through both much less narrow gender expectations, and lifestyles in which money is not used to mindlessly acquire material goods, but is instead distributed to the poor, or used to make investments that yield simple joys over time (i.e. farm animals, which give milk, eggs, and the satisfaction of hard work).
Though I have read one essay discussing the economics of Middlemarch, I think my analysis would be uniquely pertinent to the field of Victorian Studies, as it presents an interpretation more grounded in material history–an approach which, though it is very popular, to my knowledge, has not been taken before with regard to this novel. Ideally, I would like to say that Eliot owes a literal debt to the genre of utopia–that perhaps she read Thomas More or (even more likely) that she read Gulliver’s Travels in her studies (which are known for being much more in-depth and philosophical than what most women were allowed to pursue). I would then try to find evidence in her letters, which I believe are easily accessible, that she might have seen some similarities between Middlemarch and famous utopian narratives, or that her philosophy might at least have been affected by utopian though. I think this would also present something new to the study of this very important novel, as I have never seen Eliot’s and More’s (or Swift’s) names linked.
My goal with this paper is to try to mesh the concept of utopia with a classic of Victorian literature in order to produce something unique (but pertinent) that I can present at a Victorian conference or publish in a Victorian journal. My biggest anxiety, however, is that this audience might not understand my rationale for meshing these two topics. To that end, it would be very useful if y’all could give me feedback on how convincing this proposal is, and/or suggestions as to how to make the connection between the fields of Utopian Studies and Victorian Studies more visible to readers.

A Secondary Article about Cavendish and Romance

by Elissa Myers

Turner, James Grantham. “Romance and the Novel in Restoration England.” Review of English Studies 63.258 (2012): 58-85. Oxford Journals Online. Web.


While Turner only mentions Margaret Cavendish in passing in this article, it is useful for contextualizing her utopian narrative, The Blazing World within the context of other developments in fictional narrative of the Restoration. Turner’s argument relates to the developing distinction between “old” romances, involving giants, dragons, and other unlikely beings and occurrences, and “new” romances, in which authors made vehement attempts at verisimilitude, often purporting to relate true stories from history which were embellished with conversations between and interior thoughts of characters.

Though today, we often think of such devices as realistic, Turner states that it was just this quality of realism that made “new” romance a contested genre. Many thought such devices to be embellishments which unnecessarily muddled fact and fiction in readers’ minds. Turner notes that Cavendish herself felt ambivalently about the genre, expressing an aversion to “telling Romansical falsehoods for historical truths,” while overtly calling Blazing World “romancical” (Cavendish qtd. Turner 71).

However, Cavendish’s work also resists categorization under Turner’s definitions of romance. Unlike either old or new romances, Cavendish’s romance attempts to make the impossible appear realistic. Examples of this tendency are when she makes scientific justifications for the fantastic things in her blazing world, such as how two worlds could exist at the same geographical location though people can only see one sun, and when she describes at length the kinds of precious stones available in this world, etc.

The question for me was: Why would Cavendish go to such trouble to make these unrealistic things seem realistic? What does this say about her purpose for writing The Blazing World? Luckily, we can also turn to Cavendish’s own words, as she discusses her purpose in the preface to the work. Cavendish acknowledges that her work joins two genres, the philosophical and the “romancical,” and that this is an unorthodox choice (Cavendish 124). In her preface, she states that her purpose in making this choice is twofold: to “divert my studious thoughts,” and to “delight the reader with variety” (Cavendish 124). Though divert may mean, in one sense, to amuse, according to the OED, it can also mean to “turn aside (a thing, as a stream, etc.) from its (proper) direction. Thus, Cavendish’s Blazing World could also be read as an attempt to dazzle the reader with its brightness, to alienate one from one’s serious thoughts on philosophy and science by presenting another fully formed, thought out world, which though it is ostensibly merely a fanciful world to be enjoyed, actually presents serious philosophical arguments about the best ways to engage in scientific inquiry and to structure a state. Indeed, in the Empress’s words, the Blazing World is a “romancical Cabbala, wherein you can use metaphors, allegories, similitudes, etc. and interpret them as you please” (Cavendish 183).

Though Turner does not struggle with the ways in which Cavendish’s Blazing World departs from the romance genre, his delimitation of the genre’s boundaries and discussion of her ambivalence about the genre helped me begin to think about how her work troubles generic boundaries and why she might have been interested in doing so. I hope others find these questions interesting as well, and that my review of the article and thoughts about it might spark discussion about them!

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