Many of us from The Floating Academy attended the annual Victorian Studies Association of Ontario conference this weekend. The conference’s theme — “Manipulation: Victorian Variations on Hands, Handling, and Underhanded Behaviour” — was taken up in various illuminating ways by the day’s speakers (including our own Gregory Brophy) but one key thread that emerged through all the papers was a critical identification of hands with agency. In addressing this concept of agency, or, in some cases, control (as in the case of Thackeray’s puppetmaster, which Peter Capuano discussed in his interesting analysis of the relationship between text and image in Vanity Fair), the day’s speakers often highlighted the ambiguity inherent in the concept of agency.
I found James Eli Adams’s talk, “The Dead Hand: George Eliot and the Uses of Inheritance” particularly compelling in this regard because he added a new layer to my understanding of the image of Dorothea Brooke as a “foundress of nothing” in Middlemarch:
“Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering on some long-recognizable deed” (4).
This line from Eliot’s prelude has always seemed so devastating in the way it pinpoints the struggle of an individual, especially an individual woman, against cultural expectations and social obstacles. Adams’s paper, however, has inspired me to re-think this line, and Dorothea’s struggle for personal agency, by emphasizing how personal and social bonds that seem to constrain the agency of the individual may also be a source of power or pleasure.
Adams argued, in a wonderful turn of phrase, that “Dorothea’s virtuoso asceticism” could be understood as a source of personal agency because she sought “the freedom of voluntary submission.” In reading this construction of Dorothea against the history of Victorian inheritance laws, and the criticism of those (like real-life Featherstones or Casaubons) who attempted to control their property after death through their will, often to preserve their own name or posterity, Adams provided a new way of thinking about Dorothea’s influence on the world around her. Dorothea’s desire to forfeit her wealth and to, in effect, deliberately become a foundress of nothing, becomes a somewhat noble deed, one that refused to preserve her legacy or force obligations or bonds on others. Dorothea never forms her imagined colony nor reforms a religious order like Saint Theresa of Avila. There is no doubt that she was constrained by her social position and the particular world in which she lived but perhaps there is also a way of reading Dorothea’s legacy as a foundress of nothing as somehow redemptive.
Adams, James Eli. “The Dead Hand: George Eliot and the Uses of Inheritance.” (Conference Paper). The Victorian Studies Association of Ontario Annual Conference. Toronto, Ontario. 30 April 2011.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Penguin, 1994.