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Zoe: The History of Two Lives by Geraldine…
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Zoe: The History of Two Lives (1845)

by Geraldine Jewsbury

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Geraldine Jewsbury and Zoe are scarcely known nowadays, except perhaps to readers of lesser known Victorian fiction. However, when Zoe was first published in 1845, it was considered sensational material. The Manchester Public Library withdrew it from circulation, not just for fear of offending feminine sensibilities, but also out of fear for its effect on the minds of young men.

Originally, Jewsbury started writing the novel as a joint project with her good friend [[Jane Carlyle]], and a mutual friend, Elizabeth Paulet. Jane felt the novel was taking an indecent turn, that it was "... an extraordinary jumble of sense and nonsense, insight beyond the stars, and blindness". She and Paulet withdrew, leaving Jewsbury to continue on her own. Jane was to retract her criticism once the novel was published, when she called it "wonderful".

What then caused all the commotion? [Zoe] is subtitled "The History of Two Lives". While Zoe herself may have shocked the English reading public, the second character, Everhard Burrows presented it with disturbing questions.

Everhard is introduced first, a precocious and neglected young boy, who becomes a renowned Catholic priest and scholar. Zoe makes her entrance some 68 pages in, arriving at the home of her uncle, a respected Anglican clergyman, where she is to be brought up. Zoe's background was murky. She was the daughter of an English captain and a beautiful Greek woman he had rescued from pirates. They married after Zoe was born.

Here, in the tradition of [[Mathew Lewis]] and [[Ann Radcliffe]] are things aplenty to disturb the reader: priests, illegitimacy and Mediterranean people - foreigners. This is not a Gothic novel though. Instead, it addressed two challenging concepts central to nineteenth century thought: the role and purpose of religion, and the role and education of women. Zoe had become a highly educated and attractive woman, one capable of challenging Mirabeau, and more importantly, able to debate Everhard and hold her ground. It is the philosophical encounters and developing relationship between Everhard and Zoe that are the heart of this book. There are standard Victorian maxims here; "...life is no holiday game; they who live earnestly are weary enough at their journey's end - they rejoice when the time comes to rest from their labours". However, now, as then, the interpretation is with the reader. This one saw it as an encouragement to keep questioning.
  SassyLassy | Nov 22, 2017 |
This book has a killer premise: a father in the eighteenth century gives his daughter a classical education, like a man would receive, and as a result she ends up unable to fit into either the world of man or woman. You wouldn't know it, though, because it barely does anything with that premise; we're mostly just told that it's true, but we never really see Zoe move through society or try to find her place in the world, except when she decides to get married, and though she has her occasional regrets after that, they're not developed substantively or interestingly.

One can't help but feeling that if Elizabeth Gaskell or George Eliot had turned their hands to this premise, you would have got a book with keener insight. The narrator comes out with these sweeping generalizations about women, and it's like, where did you even get this from? Aren't you a woman? Be smart for a second! "A true woman always blames herself, and it is a point on which her lover, to do him justice, never contradicts her" (387)? Really? But I guess it's mean to blame Jewsbury for the fact that no one had come along and invented Realism yet. (Mary Barton was three years away, and that's where I would peg it.)

Also there is a story about a doubting priest named Everhard (the second of the subtitle's "two lives"). Like Zoe's story, this one starts interesting but soon meanders into nothingness, and then we end up pondering whether Zoe's stepdaughter Clotilde will marry the right man, which isn't really what any of us came here for. The Everhard subplot does yield, however, the book's funniest moment, an apology from the narrator:

"It is very troublesome to have to deal with a hero of seventeen! A girl of seventeen, fortune favouring, may be made into a very interesting heroine; people will believe all that can be said of her beauty, wit, and wisdom, and will patiently read through three or even six volumes full of her adventures, and find themselves much edified with the perusal. But a lad of seventeen! merciful heaven! to make a hero of him would require a suspension of the laws of nature! All his graces of childhood have run to seed, and the victims of manhood have not yet replaced them; he is no longer the chubby darling [...] but an unfinished, uneasy biped, a plague to every body within his reach, and with whose doings and sufferings, nobody, not absolutely obliged, wishes to have the least concern." (40)

I think that if the whole novel had been that fun, well, it would have maintained my interest much more.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Jun 9, 2014 |
Zoe is the story of a young woman who marries at a young age and ends up having an affair—with the priest Everhard Burrows. Both of them are outsiders to their ways of life, so it’s natural that they find themselves drawn to each other.

Geraldine Jewsbury spent many years in Manchester’s cultural scene, becoming friends with the Carlyles, GH Lewes, and others. Jewsbury was famous for her outrageous behavior—she wore men’s clothing, smoked, cursed, and claimed George Sand as her inspiration. As such, her novel Zoe was meant to titillate her readers, but as a modern reader, I didn’t care so much for either of the protagonists especially Zoe, who behaves as a coquette in her pursuit of Everhard. I didn’t find her behavior shocking so much as annoying.

The theme certainly would have been shocking to the Victorian reader, but to a modern-day reader, the most interesting part of the book is how it got written. This novel was actually a collaboration between Jewsbury, Jane Carlyle, and another friend, but became a solo effort when Jane Carlyle expressed her displeasure with the content of the novel. Also, the religious expostulating got tiresome after a while. ( )
  Kasthu | Sep 9, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Geraldine Jewsburyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Foster, ShirleyIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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On the fourteenth of June, 17--, the little town of Sutton, in Warwickshire, was thrown into a state of violent excitement by the news, that the son of the old squire who "used to belong to the old Manor House, was to have his own again", that he had married in foreign parts some grand lady, - a princess at the very least according to some versions, - that the king had written him a letter with his own hand begging him to come to England, and making him welcome to the old house, and all the land, that had been in the family for generations and generations!
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"You are not like other women, Zoe, you are stronger for both good and evil and it may be that you will be tried.  Women like you seldom pass through life easily."
In the early part of the eighteenth century, a child is born on foreign shores to an English man and a Greek woman - a liaison of love, if not legitimacy. The young girl is sent to England where her uncle, seeing that meekness is not her distinguishing virtue, offers her the classical education usually reserved for boys. This is the story of Zoe's life: of the marriage she accepts as her only semblance of freedom; of her exuberance and wit which both captivate and outrage, and of her determination to be the woman she is - unshackled by convention. Alongside her story runs that of the scion of an ancient Catholic family, the distinguished priest, Everhard Burrows. He too questions his role, and his meeting with Zoe kindles a flame which only death can extinguish.
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