George Eliot wrote “Janet’s Repentance” as one of her Scenes from Clerical Life (1857) to support Barbara Leigh Smith’s campaign for freer access to divorce. Eliot was inspired to sign Smith’s petition by brutal stories of abused wives such as Caroline Norton. She was distressed by the idea of women trapped in marriages to violent men by the misogynistic divorce laws. Eliot then made the unusual artistic choice of writing a “scene” about middle-class drinking (as opposed to working- or upper-class drinking) and marriage featuring a lawyer, Robert Dempster, and his wife, Janet. Middle-class drinking was a subject rarely broached by popular novelists or temperance campaigners, who had until this time focussed on less socially transgressive subjects among the working-classes and aristocracy. However, Eliot was angered by the portrayals of innocent husbands trapped in unhappy marriages by their drunken and irresponsible wives written in temperance fiction and by popular authors such as Charles Dickens. The latter’s account of Stephen Blackpool’s wife in Hard Times, written to support his own campaign for changes to the divorce laws in the early 1850s, makes the figure of the drunken wife abhuman. Eliot’s “scene” counterbalances such common figures. This article will examine the cause and effect of Eliot’s portrayal of a drunken husband and the psychological impact on his intelligent and caring wife.
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- domestic abuse