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Folklore in British Literature

Naming and Narrating in Women’s Fiction, 1750-1880


Sarah R. Wakefield

Folklore provides a metaphor for insecurity in British women’s writing published between 1750 and 1880. When characters feel uneasy about separations between races, classes, or sexes, they speak of mermaids and «Cinderella» to make threatening women unreal and thus harmless. Because supernatural creatures change constantly, a name or story from folklore merely reinforces fears about empire, labor, and desire. To illustrate these fascinating rhetorical strategies, this book explores works by Sarah Fielding, Ann Radcliffe, Sydney Owenson, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Anne Thackeray, and Jean Ingelow, pushing our understanding of allusions to folktales, fairy tales, and myths beyond «happily ever after.»


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Chapter Five. George Eliot’s English Water–Nixies and Sad–Eyed Princesses 97


C H A P T E R F I V E George Eliot’s English Water-Nixies and Sad-Eyed Princesses THE dynamics of folklore-naming and -narrating enter more troubled waters with George Eliot, who stands with Charlotte Brontë as a preeminent Victo- rian novelist. In scholarship on The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda, critics debate, among other topics, her portrayal of women, her use of contemporary science, and her treatment of religion. Compared to Radcliffe, Owenson, or Brontë, Eliot uses folklore terms more sparingly in her novels. We might expect this, since allusions to fairies jar with the pic- ture of a great realist. The same superstition in the books of George Eliot as in children’s literature or The Mysteries of Udolpho? Certainly not. In his book George Eliot’s Mythmaking, Joseph Wiesenfarth would have scholars believe differently about the interaction between the fantastic and the realist traditions. He suggests: If Eliot uses a classical allusions or recalls the plot of a fairy tale, if she fashions a world of superstition among peasant folk or creates a legend for a town, if she in- vokes the pattern of an old story in telling a new one or suggests the energizing force of a living mythological tradition—if she does any or all of these things she does them because she is a realist.1 Wiesenfarth argues that the novelist seeks to underscore people’s “common humanity” and to augment the authenticity of her character sketches and the action of her plots via...

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