I’ve been re-reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch and realising how much of the plot I’d forgotten in the several years since I last read it. But reading it again I was also struck by an interesting theme that I don’t think I noticed last time, but which plays into a lot of my current interests: how many of the male characters are pre-occupied with questions of their reputation, and how endangered that reputation often is. Farebrother risks his clerical reputation by his need to win money at cards. Lydgate’s repeated difficulties stem from the intertwining of suspicion at his radical medical views and his debt problems. Fred Vincy is desperate to restore Mary Garth’s good opinion of him even at the expense of his social standing. Mr Bulstrode is destroyed socially by rumours about him. Will Ladislaw’s reputation is repeatedly called into question: indeed his very surname is a threat to his reputation. Even those whose social position seems more secure have problems. Mr Brooke’s reputation is a key part of his difficulty as a reform candidate; Mr Casaubon’s concerns about his scholarly reputation becoming paralysing. Even Caleb Garth, seemingly secure in his humble position, is rapid to distance himself from anything that might damage his honour to himself. Only three significant male characters avoid such fears: Sir James Chettham (by being well-born and entirely conventional), Peter Featherstone, too rich and eccentric to care and Raffles.
Why I find this intriguing is that many Victorian novels are preoccupied with female reputation, particularly in the contrast of angelic innocent and fallen woman. I can’t off-hand think of one where so many male characters are so imperilled (though given my haphazard reading, there may be some which better-informed readers can tell me about: Trollope, possibly?). I don’t think this is purely about female versus male writers: Ellen Wood’s East Lynne is largely about female reputation, with only a few marginal men (murderers and suspected murderers) having damaged reputations. And though a novel set in provincial England is intrinsically likely to have more on reputation than one in London (where anonymity and re-invention is far easier), that doesn’t explain all the traumas these men suffer. I’m left wondering whether George Eliot was more sensitive to such male concerns or whether she’s over-emphasised them. But it is useful to be reminded that when looking at masculine anxiety (and there’s a lot on display in the novel), that such anxiety can be distinctively male, without in any way being concerned about either physical strength or sexual behaviour.