Sciences sociales et humaines
A critical study of education as seen through George
Eliot's the miIJ on the floss and Daniel Deronda
Université nationale du Bénin (République du Bénin).
perspective on the. educational system in general, are
George Eliot's interest in the subject of clearlydelineatedinTheMillontheFloss, whichhad
education and the effect that their educational
been published in 1860, sorne seven years before she
backgrounds had on people's lives is reflected
received her call from Miss Davies.
in many of her letters and essays, and it is very
In this paper, I would 1ike to trace George Eliot's views
apparent in two of her novels, namely The Mill on the
on the education of women, along with the proper type
Floss and Daniel Deronda. Although George Eliot's
of education that should be given to boys. Actually, the
emphasis on particular types of education varies from
two subjects are closely related: if women (or girls) are
the first novel to the second, she is consistent in the
to get equal education with men, then obviously, the
stress she places on the importance of sound training
quality of the education offered to men should be high,
which is suitable for the character under consideration.
and the curriculum for both male and female students
should be wisely adapted to their individual needs and
biographers as being mildly responsive to the social
talents. The Mill on the Floss is a sane and sensible
and political issues of her day. She did give 50 pounds
analysis of what education really means.
to Girton College. On November 22,
1867 (her
In the novel, Mr. Tulliver is faced with a thomy
birthday) George Eliot wrote to Sara Hennell:
problem: Tom, now about fifteen years old, is leaving
There is a shame on foot for a wornan's college, or rather
an Academy because he is not satisfied with his
university; to be built between London and Cambridge,
progress there, and his father agrees with him. But
sharing its professors, examinations and degrees! (Letters,
where is he to be sent next? Mr. Tulliver, the least
financially successful of the Dodson in-laws, is very
Only a few days before, on November 16, she wrote
eager to have his son educated to be a gentleman and a
to Emily Davies, the primary force behind the
'scollard'. He is not quite sure just what a gentleman
establishment that became in 1869 Girton College,
or a 'scollard' is, but he thinks it must be a man who
can speak standard English, wear fine clothes, and use
inviting her to call and discuss the founding of the new
in his conversation 'big' words that only important
institution designed to offer higher education for
people can understand. In Mr. Tulliver's eyes, Tom
women. On the same day (presumably ... the date of
must be a gentleman and a celebrity in the provincial
the letter is unknown) she wrote to Barbara Bodichon,
world of St. Ogg's. But Tom's father has only the
a co-sponsor of the new college: '1 shall rejoice if this
fuzziest notions, at best, of what constitutes good
idea of a college can be carried out' (Ibid).
education. To be a gentleman, a boy must study Latin.
But many ofher liberal contemporaries expected her to
On the other hand, Tom has to make a living and
take a more active part in their various campaigns.
everybody knows that a man cannot eam a living by
George Eliot, however, knew that in the light of her
spouting Latin phrases to people who are not in ithe
unconventional liaison with George Henry Lewes, she
least bit interested. And this is then clearly expressed
would undoubtedly throw obloquy on any cause if she
in Daniel Deronda.
were to support it publicly. There can be no doubt that
Daniel Deronda is sent to Eton and then to Cambridge
she felt strongly about equal education for women
because his guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger, wants hirn
from her earliest years, but her convictions in this
to have the education of an English gentleman .arid a
respect, as many others, found their most articulate
'pass-port in life'. A firm believer in traditional
expression in her novels. Her views on the educational
education, Sir Hugo also states that classical studies
opportunities for wornen, as weil as her broader
can lead to excessive narrowness:
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Sciences sociales et humaines
Unless a man can get prestige and income of a
ln a typical ironical aside to the reader on what she has
Don and write donnish books, it's hardly worth white
just said about Deronda's problem at Cambridge,
for him to make a Greek and Latin machine of himself...
George Eliot continues: 'Deronda's undergraduateship
(l, XVI: 264).
occurred fifteen years ago, when the perfection of
ln The Mill on the Floss, through Mr, TuUiver's
our university methods was not yet indisputable'
dialogues with his wife about the course of Tom's
(L, XVI: 269).
schooling, and through Tom's experiences at school,
George Eliot has proven herself to be a prophet of
After Deronda's retum to England, following a period
twentieth century trends in education. For one thing,
of study and travel on the Continent, he meets Mirah
Mr. Tulliver's concems about Tom's education are
Lapidoth and her scholarly brother, Mordecai Cohen.
Because of this interest in Mordecai's study of Jewish
incontrovertible fact: his daughter, Maggie, though
history, he starts to leam Hebrew. The next great
several years younger than Tom, is obviously more
change in Deronda's life appears when his mother,
intelligent than he. But that shouldn't be! Boys are
Leonora Halm-Eberstein, tells him that he is of Jewish
supposed to be sharper than girls. And girls can't be
parentage. He is particularly struck by the fact that his
educated. Tom is the one who must be educated, the
grand-father, Daniel Charisi, 'thought continuaUy of
only question being what he will study and where. Mr.
our people's future' (III, IX: 274). With the knowledge
Riley recommends Mr. Steeling, a clergyman who
of his true ancestry, the trunk of papers left by Charisi,
wishes to supplement his income by boarding and
and his growing love for Mirah, Deronda feels a great
teaching a few boys at his vicarage, a vocation for
interest in fulfilling the consumptive Mordecai's wish
which he has no formal training and little inclination.
that Deronda carries on this work. At the close of the
And here it must be noted that in The Mill on the Floss,
nove1, Deronda tells Gwendolen Harleth his plans for
George Eliot makes a strong case for the need for well-
the future, plans for which his independent study and
trained teachers.
travel have been useful preparation.
ln her account of Tom's formal schooling, George Eliot
One must not suppose that George is deprecating Latin
reveals her advanced views on the nature and scope of
and Greek as subjects for modem study. She merely
education for the emerging middle class. She shows
insists that all humanistic studies are intended for those
quite simply but convincingly that education should be
who have the interest and the intelligence to probe
adapted to the individual's talents; tradition and snob
beyond the bookkeeper's ledger with
its strict
appeal have no place in modem education. Latin and
accounting of profit and loss. Further, she insists that
Greek are eminently suitable for those people who
those who are attracted to the realms of thought must
have a genuine interest in humanistic studies, whether
of necessity include girls and women. Mr. Tulliver, in
or not they manage to put them to practical use. What
The Mill on the Floss, though he fears Latin, might not
Tom both wants and needs is what today we call
provide Tom with a decent livelihood, nevertheless he
vocational training courses. He is far less stupid when
considers it a masculine subject. Books are for men:
he is working with Mr. Deane doing the kind of work
the kitchen and the bedroom are for women, the latter
he really enjoys doing.
room being the only one in which the two sexes share
ln Daniel Deronda, George Eliot deals with this
a common interest.
question of interest at a higher level. In the novel,
ln The Mill on the Floss, as far as George Eliot's
Deronda's interest first becomes apparent at Eton. His
treatment of Maggie's formal education is concemed,
intelligence is never questioned, but he fails to be an
the novelist as we can well imagine devotes very little
outstanding student because he will, or cannot, focus his
space to her heroine's career as a pupil. We noted
energies on the 'fight for prize acquirement in narrow
above that her father gave seant regard to the education
tracks' (1, XVI:265). The same situation continued, at
of a girl, however capable she may be. He laments to
increasing levels, at Cambridge where he felt a
Mr. Riley:
heightening discontent with the wearing futility and
She understands what one's talking about so as never
enfeebling strains of a demand for excessive retention
was. And you should hear her read straight off as if she
and dexterity without any insight into the principle
knowed it ail beforehand. And always at her book. But it's
which forms the vital connections of know1edge.
bad. A woman's no business Wi' being so clever; it' Il turn
(l, XVI: 268-69).
to trouble, 1think (l, ch.3, 82).
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Sciences sociales et humaines
Nevertheless, Maggie is sent to Miss Fimiss's boarding
, Maggie drew a long breath and pushed her heavy hair
school, an establishment which occupies the reader's
back, as if to see a sudden vision more clearly'.
attention for only a few pages: Maggie is soon
George Eliot adds:
withdrawn when her father suffers financial ruin. We
Here, then, was a secret of Iife ... here was 'Ins'Ight, and
are only told that Maggie had formerly prornised to
strength and conquest ta be won by means entirely within
kiss Tom when next she saw him, as 'a young lady
her own soul, where a supreme Teacher was waiting
ta be heard. (l, 6 : 101)
who had been at boarding school she knew that such a
greeting was out of the question ...' Maggie was a
One can't help thinking that George Eliot, as weIl as
genuine intellectual, not a blue stocking, but a young
many of her readers, is observing that it is an
girl who was fired with an insatiable quest for
unfortunate commentary on society that a girl (a boy,
knowledge. Nor did she equate knowledge with
too, for that matter) could not have been introduced to
advancement in the world of commerce. George Eliot
this priceless wisdom in a classroom presided over by
says of her: ' ... she wanted sorne key that would
a competent teacher who could have it in his or her
enable her to understand, and, in understanding,
power to make viable the word education, a word that
endure the heavy weight that had fallen on a young
must apply to girls as weil as boys.
heart' (1,3:83)..
Although her family is not aristocratie, Gwendolen
Maggie's intellectual and moral development can be
Harleth, in Daniel Deronda, grew up in a sheltered and
traced through the books she reads on her own, not as
privileged environment. Perhaps the clearest picture of
school assignments. The two chapters devoted to her
Gwendolen early in the novel cornes from Eliot's
visits to Tom at King's Lorton de serve careful study.
Tom as we know, is completely antipathetic to aIl
With regard ta much in her lot hitherto, she had
heId herselt rather hardly dealt with, but as ta her
school books. But Maggie, who was then about twelve
, education' she could have admitted that it left her under
years old, is wildly excited by Tom's Latin books and
no disadvantages. In the school-room her quick mind had
other items that she doesn't know the meaning of these
taken readily that strong starch ot unexplained rules
books, she flings at him a true scholar's retort: ' But 1
and disconnected tacts which saves ignorance trom
any painful sense of limpness; and what remained
could soon find out ." 1 should look inside and see
ot ail things knowable, she was conscious ot being
what it was about' (l, 3:85).
sutticiently acquainted with through novels, plays, and
poems. About her French and music, the two justitying
These two chapters on Maggie's visits to Tom stress
accomplishments ot a young lady, she telt no ground
the deplorable fact valuable time and effort is wasted
for uneasiness ... (l, V: 54).
on the education of those who do not care to leam what
Gwendolen feels herself 'hardly dealt with', but she is
they are being taught whereas those who have both the
the most pampared member of her family. The use of
intelligence and the desire to be educated in the
'quick' to de scribe her mind is ironie; she can master
the sort of information which Deronda found tiresome
opportunities because of their sex, or are shunted off to
in school, but the shallowness implied here is obvious.
boarding schools where their time and talents are
Much of her acquaintance with life has come through
frittered away in a ridiculous attempt to make ladies of
reading instead of experience. George Eliot would
merchant's daughters.
condemn the idea that music and French could be
Maggie's real
encounter with books and their
application to life cornes when she reads The Imitation
Gwendolen's musical abilities, in which she places so
of Christ by THOMAS A Kempis. The Imitation
just what she needs in the dark days been taught 'real
learning and wisdom', she couId now hold the' secret
Deronda occasionally meets Gwendolen socially, and
of life'. It is at this moment of deepest despair that
she leams to enjoy asking him for advice. George Eliot
Maggie happens to pick up The Imitation from the
says, ' Those who trust us educate us. And perhaps in
heap of books Bob Jakins had brought to her. Far
that ideal consecration of Gwendolen sorne education
removed from school assignments, Maggie finds at
was being prepared for Deronda' (II, XXXV: 236). He
last what she is looking for, i.e. a book full of wisdom,
does leam something about the importance of human
true wisdom that tells us in an incomparably beautiful
relationships and the necessity of feeling a sense of
prose what life is aIl about. After reading a paragraph,
purpose in life, and he suggests, 'Sorne real knowledge
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Sciences sociales et humaines
would give you an interest in the world beyond the
education is suitable for everyone: it should be
small draina of your personal desires' (II, XXXVI:
appropriate to the student's abilities and goals in life.
265). Gwendolen took to her room a selection. of
She has, in fact, a twentieth century outlook in this
books, 'Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Butler, Burke,
respect. George Eliot doesn't condernn such studies as
Guizot ... hoping that by dipping into themall in
the classics and music, provided that they are well
succession, with her rapid understanding she might get
taught and that the student has the necessary interest
a point of view nearer his level' (III, XLIV:4).
and ability. However, she stresses that education
Naturally, Gwendolen finds no time to pursue her
should help the student to gain sorne understanding of
the world and to fulfil his or her role in it, Education
should not be limited to a few years of, formal
The other women who were major influences on
schooling. Eliot wrote to Sara Sophia Hennell in 1847,
Deronda's life received educations very different from
Gwendolen's. His father, Leonora Halm-Eberstein,
'1 think 'live and teach' should be a proverb as well as
tells him that her scholarly, but narrow-minded father
'live and learn' , (Letters, 1:242).
tried to form her according to ber concept of ' the
Each of the major characters in Daniel Deronda is
Jewish woman' (III, L 1: 123). She rebelled rejecting
strongly influenced by his or her early training.
him and her heritage; her only satisfaction in life came
Gwendolen's education andjher mother's indulgence
from her musical training and her life as a famous
prepared her to fit into only one niche in society; she
singer. Mirah Lapidoth's education was the most
was unwilling, and probably unable to adapt to any
haphazard of that of any major character in Daniel
other sort of life. Deronda's mother was well prepared
Deronda. One of the few good things that can be said
as a professional singer, but her life- was otherwise
of her thoroughly unpleasant father is that he made an
empty. Mirah and Mordecai, largely through their own
effort to educate his daughter, Much of Mirah's
efforts, acquired knowledge which enable them to
education was in connection with her roles_ on the
appreciate others, to make a contribution to society,
stage, which began when she was nine. Her reading,
and earn money. Bothwere disappointed that they
unlike Gwendolen, was a strong positive influence on
were not able to fulfill their highest ambitions, but the y
her life. In describing her early reading, she states,' 1
learned to adapt to reality. Deronda found his life's
gathered thoughts very fast, because 1 read many
work far outside that which might have been expected
things, plays and poetry, Shakespeare and Schiller, and
of a former Cambridge student. In fact, the biggest
learned good and evil' (I, XIX:284).-Although she did
difference between Deronda, Mirah and Mordecai and
not pursue a stage career, she did learn to use her
the characters such as Leonora and Gwendolen is that
musical training profitably,
the former, like their author, had the flexibility to
Despite the fact that Mirah's brother, Mordecai Cohen,
continue learning and share their interest with others.O
sometimes gets carried away by his enthusiasm,
George Eliot presents him very favourably as a
character. He is a religious scholar who has a dream for
1- Texts: George Eliot
the future of his people and is driven by the need to
THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, Everyman's Library, Dent: London,
pass on his knowledge and aspirations to others.
Dutton: New York, 1972.
Unlike sorne scholars in George Eliot's other novels,
DANIEL DERONDA, Cabinet Edition (Edingburgh and London:
Mordecai is not pompous or condescending, and is
Blackwood, 1878), l, XVI, 263.
genuinely kind. Unlike Charisi, Mordecai doesn't
11- Secondary sources
insist that others measure up· to his own level of
HAIGHT G. S. ed. The George Eliot Letters, 9 vols (New Haven:
Yale Uni versity Press, 1955, 1978), 1, 242.
successor, has an opportunity to refuse.
HARDY B. The Novels of George Eliot, New York: Oxford
If in The Mill on the Floss George Eliot insists on the
University Press, 1962.
fact that education is for boys as well as girls, in
ADAMS K. Those
of Us who Loved Her, published by 'The
Daniel Deronda, Eliot points out that no one sort of
George Eliot Fellowship', 1980.
Rev. CAMES - Série B, vol. 02, 2000.