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Literature / Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

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"She is the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces."

"Silly Novels By Lady Novelists" is an essay written by George Eliot in 1856, in which she skewers so many Common Mary Sue Traits it's amazing—everything from her beautiful singing voice to her hordes of admirers to her astounding intellect.

You can read it here.

Tropes diagnosed in this essay (not all of them Mary Sue Tropes, actually) and tropes used by George Eliot:

  • Alliterative List: Used more than once:
    • In the first sentence:
    Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic.
    • When discussing the typical heroine of the "mind-and-millinery species" of novel:
    She is the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: One of the characters Eliot says are almost invariably present is "a vicious baronet" who subjects her to plots and intrigues, but have no worries, for he is "sure to be killed in a duel" before he can do her any lasting damage.
  • Author Tract: Occurs regularly in these novels, mostly in the form of inopportune quotes in conversations and indecipherable philosophical or religious ramblings.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The inevitable setting of any such novel, even in cases where the lower and middle classes would make for far more interesting subjects.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: George Eliot makes fun of this trope because no matter what horrible things happen to heroines of silly novelist, she remains breathtakingly beautiful.
    ...whatever vicissitudes she may undergo, from being dashed out of her carriage to having her head shaved in a fever, she comes out of them all with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever.
  • Big Fancy House: Comes naturally with the setting amongst The Beautiful Elite.
  • Blue Blood: These novels are full of vicious baronets and strapping young lords ready for marriage to the heroine.
  • Bold Inflation: Occurs a lot in Author Tracts in the form of italics and lowercase notes, which invariably fail to actually clarify the meaning of these tracts.
  • Character Filibuster: When discussing a novel called Laura Gay:
    We have often met with women much more novel and profound in their observations than Laura Gay, but rarely with any so inopportunely long-winded.
  • Dances and Balls: How some heroines, who dance "like a sylph" of the "mind-and-millinery species" of novel, meet their men:
    They see her at a ball, and they are dazzled.
  • Deathbed Confession: When discussing the "mind-and-millinery species" of novel, where the heroine marries the Wrong Guy First:
    The vicious baronet is sure to be killed in a duel, and the tedious husband dies in his bed requesting his wife, as a particular favor to him, to marry the man she loves best, and having already dispatched a note to the lover informing him of the comfortable arrangement.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: The phenomenon where, at the end of the novel, and often after marrying the Wrong Guy First, the Wrong Guy will invariably be killed in a duel or accident if evil, or else pass peacefully away and endorse the heroine's marrying her true love on his death bed in case of mere dullness.
  • Distressed Dude: In one of the example novels, a son is at the mercy of his mother's overzealous attempts to set him up with the novel's female heroine.
  • Duel to the Death: How the "vicious baronet" usually dies in the "mind-and-millinery species" of novel:
    The vicious baronet is sure to be killed in a duel, and the tedious husband dies in his bed requesting his wife, as a particular favor to him, to marry the man she loves best, and having already dispatched a note to the lover informing him of the comfortable arrangement.
  • Easy Evangelism: In one of the novels discussed, Adonijah A Tale Of The Jewish Dispersion, the Jewish hero and his friends become "converted to Christianity after the shortest and easiest method approved by the 'Society for Promoting the Conversion of the Jews'."
  • Everything's Sparkly with Jewelry: The conclusion of Rags to Riches novels where the heroine of low birth manages to enter and marry into high society.
  • Genius Book Club: A regular occurrence in these novels, sometimes physical, such as a very ostentatiously placed and described volume of Shakespeare, and sometimes demonstrated in speech, with effusive quotations of classical literature, scripture, or philosophy.
  • Historical Fiction: One of the types of novel discussed, where the work is often poorly researched if at all and constitutes of little more than foreign names and settings, sprinkled with archaic expressions to invoke "ancient" settings.
  • Ignorant of Their Own Ignorance: Elliot suggests that the authors in question are so impressed by their own education and literacy that they don't realize how trite their ideas are or how poor their writing really is. She says that female authors with more skill and self awareness don't publish their writing at all; those with more than that write books which are actually good.
  • Improbable Age: One novel revolves around a heroine falling in love with a prime minister, who seems to have gained this office while still being young enough to be considered a youth.
  • Informed Ability: Particularly the heroine's intellect. Eliot does praise one author for realizing this and keeping it off-screen, which makes the dialogue much more readable than that of authors who try to write their heroines as smarter than themselves.
  • Little Professor Dialog: A common occurence among these novels, where heroines constantly espouse their knowledge regardless of the situation, but special mention goes to the five year old girl who uses the same poetic and philosophical language as the adults.
  • Love at First Sight: Heroines so beautiful and noble and skilled that they bewitch their one true love immediately are mocked with gusto.
    "They see her at a ball, and they are dazzled; at a flower-show, and they are fascinated; on a riding excursion, and they are witched by her noble horsemanship; at church, and they are awed by the sweet solemnity of her demeanor."
  • Love Dodecahedron: A common result of the abundant Love at First Sight moments around the heroine.
  • Melodrama: A regular feature, where perfectly ordinary events and innocent misunderstandings are blown up into dramatic crises and confrontations.
  • Moral Myopia: A common feature of novels with a religious bent.
  • Most Writers Are Adults: Eliot takes a moment to skewer a story that includes a four-and-a-half year old child talking in Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness:
    There are few women, we suppose, who have not seen something of children under five years of age, yet in “Compensation,” a recent novel of the mind-and-millinery species, which calls itself a “story of real life,” we have a child of four and a half years old talking in this Ossianic fashion:
    “‘Oh, I am so happy, dear grand mamma;—I have seen—I have seen such a delightful person; he is like everything beautiful—like the smell of sweet flowers, and the view from Ben Lemond;—or no, better than that—he is like what I think of and see when I am very, very happy; and he is really like mamma, too, when she sings; and his forehead is like that distant sea,’ she continued, pointing to the blue Mediterranean; ‘there seems no end—no end; or like the clusters of stars I like best to look at on a warm fine night. . . . Don’t look so . . . your forehead is like Loch Lomond, when the wind is blowing and the sun is gone in; I like the sunshine best when the lake is smooth. . . . So now—I like it better than ever . . . It is more beautiful still from the dark cloud that has gone over it, when the sun suddenly lights up all the colors of the forests and shining purple rocks, and it is all reflected in the waters below.’”
    We are not surprised to learn that the mother of this infant phenomenon, who exhibits symptoms so alarmingly like those of adolescence repressed by gin, is herself a phœnix. We are assured, again and again, that she had a remarkably original in mind, that she was a genius, and “conscious of her originality,” and she was fortunate enough to have a lover who was also a genius and a man of “most original mind.”
  • Nice Guy: The designated hero of the Evangelical white neck-cloth species.
  • Omniglot:
    "Of course! Greek and Hebrew are mere play to a heroine; Sanscrit is no more than a-b-c to her; and she can talk with perfect correctness in any language, except English. She is a polking polyglot, a Creuzer in crinoline." note 
  • One-Word Title: One of the novels mentioned is called Compensation.
    Compensation, a recent novel of the mind-and-millinery species
  • Parental Marriage Veto: One of the discussed novels is about a mother trying to force her son into a relationship with an upper class woman he is not interested in, rather than the lower class woman he is in love with.
  • Period Piece: One of the varieties of novels skewered.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Comes naturally with The Beautiful Elite settings.
  • Purple Prose: An ubiquitous occurrence with the displays of knowledge by the heroines.
  • Rags to Royalty: When discussing a common heroine of the "mind-and-millinery species" of novel:
    Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress—that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best, and she wears some family jewels or other as a sort of crown of righteousness at the end.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Very regularly, but the most notable example is the five year old talking like an adult woman.
  • Small Reference Pools: While the depiction of the upper classes is unrealistic, the writers in question display utter ignorance of the rest of society.
  • Starving Artist: Invoked and subverted; the essay claims, ironically, that the romantic notion that lady novelists are poor but determined women writing to make a living is subverted by many female writers belonging to the idle rich. Later, dealing with a specific author, she observes that the dialogue she writes shows her to be lower middle class.
  • Stock Aesop: Discussed:
    There is a striking resemblance, too, in the character of their moral comments, such, for instance, as that "It is a fact, no less true than melancholy, that all people, more or less, richer or poorer, are swayed by bad example;" that "Books, however trivial, contain some subjects from which useful information may be drawn;" that "Vice can too often borrow the language of virtue;" that "Merit and nobility of nature must exist, to be accepted, for clamor and pretension cannot impose upon those too well read in human nature to be easily deceived;" and that "In order to forgive, we must have been injured." There is doubtless a class of readers to whom these remarks appear peculiarly pointed and pungent; for we often find them doubly and trebly scored with the pencil, and delicate hands giving in their determined adhesion to these hardy novelties by a distinct très vrai, emphasized by many notes of exclamation.
  • Stop Being Stereotypical: Eliot expresses worry that people will take bad novels as proof that women as a whole are too dumb to be worth educating, since all it has apparently done for the authors is give them Delusions of Eloquence.
  • Wrong Guy First: When discussing the typical heroine of the "mind-and-millinery species" of novel:
    For all this she as often as not marries the wrong person to begin with, and she suffers terribly from the plots and intrigues of the vicious baronet; but even death has a soft place in his heart for such a paragon, and remedies all mistakes for her just at the right moment.