Instructor’s Teaching Experience

This text by George Eliot was first published as an anonymous essay in the Westminster Review in 1856. It provides a stinging critique of novels written by and for women in the nineteenth-century, objecting to their “silliness,” their penchant for cheap romance, and above all else, their disregard for reality. In many cases, it is regarded as an argument for what fiction should not do. I typically teach Eliot’s essay in a segment on authorship, reception, and nineteenth-century print culture. However, the essay could work equally well in a course examining gender and sexuality, women’s education, or the Victorian period more generally. Though the essay is scathing, it is quite funny and stylistic – so students typically enjoy it once they acclimate to the “old” language.

Classroom Strategies

Before assigning this text, I typically give a mini-lecture on Victorian gender norms, providing the students with some context for what they are about to read. Once students have read the essay, I then have them discuss the essay in small groups, asking them to identify what specific qualms Eliot has with women writers. After these small discussions, we reconvene as a class to analyze Eliot’s critiques more closely, paying attention to her ‘objective’ prose style and her attempts to differentiate herself from the “silly” novelists that she critiques. In most cases, these conversations extend into today, where students discuss the various pressures that women face in the workplace and beyond. Although I teach this essay in the context of reception, I feel that it could still be a useful supplement to any George Eliot novel or ‘romance’ novel written by a nineteenth-century woman.

Additional Resources

PDF of Eliot’s “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”: