Rereading George Eliot One Year After “Dobbs”

By Dara Rossman RegaignonAugust 28, 2023

Rereading George Eliot One Year After “Dobbs”
LAST SPRING, the bodies of pregnant people were everywhere in the news. Justice Samuel Alito’s preliminary decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked on May 2. During the eight weeks between the leak and the delivery of the official decision on June 24, the infant formula crisis peaked, filling the news with a different set of discussions about women’s bodies and desires, about their reproductive and child-rearing decisions. News about bodies—pregnant or not pregnant, lactating or not lactating—overwhelmed my feed. So, I turned (as I often do) to a Victorian novel, and starting rereading George Eliot.

Eliot is one of the great British novelists. When she began to publish fiction in the 1850s, she was already well known as a scholar, editor, and writer under her own name: Marian (or Mary Ann) Evans. She chose the pseudonym for many reasons, one of which was that her own personal life was scandalous: she was living with a man who was married to another woman. When Adam Bede was published in 1859, Evans’s connection to “George Eliot” wasn’t yet widely known. By Middlemarch (1871–72), the secret was out.

Adam Bede is set in a pastoral village in 1799, and like most big, fat Victorian novels, it has several plots going at once, one of which is a marriage plot. In that plot, a central complication is our hero Adam’s infatuation with a young woman named Hetty Sorrel, who is in turn infatuated with Arthur, the son of the local squire. Hetty and Arthur have a secret affair; she realizes that she is pregnant after he has left town (to return to his militia); she is ultimately tried and convicted of infanticide. (Adam ultimately falls in love with someone else.) According to Eliot, Hetty’s story is the “germ” of the novel. It’s a fictionalization of a real case recounted to Eliot by her aunt, who visited in prison the “very ignorant young girl who murdered her child.” Although she’d previously refused—or been unable—to speak, that young girl confessed the crime to Eliot’s aunt after they spent the night praying together.

The tale of Hetty’s crime, which might or might not be falling pregnant in the first place, followed the contours of 19th-century stories about unintentional pregnancies, as well as older narratives about sex workers. (William Hogarth’s 1732 work A Harlot’s Progress is one example of the latter.) In these stories, designed to provoke sympathy for the pregnant person, a beautiful young woman from the countryside is seduced and then abandoned, left to figure out what to do about her pregnancy without the support of her erstwhile lover. Hetty gets engaged to Adam before realizing that she’s pregnant. She then leaves town to try to locate Arthur, who turns out not to be where she expected. She then embarks on the journey to return home. Both legs of the trip take days, she has barely enough money to get there, and she finds herself wandering the fields on foot, hungry and desperate as she tries to make her way back.

Eliot describes it as a “long, lonely journey,” and there are echoes of Hetty’s experience in the stories told as abortion restrictions grew more and more severe in the years leading up to Dobbs. In a wrenching essay published just days before the decision, for example, Stephania Taladrid describes the “odyssey” from Dallas to New Mexico a 13-year-old and her family must take because the Texas Heartbeat Act has made it impossible for her to secure an abortion closer to home.

It is over the course of her own odyssey that Hetty gives birth to and then abandons her baby. We hear about it afterwards, first through the testimony of a witness, a farm laborer, during her trial for murder. He reports seeing Hetty from a distance, sitting “under a bit of a haystack”; he “thought she looked a bit crazy” but decides it’s none of his business until he hears a baby cry. By the time he finds the child “lying on the ground under a nut-bush by [his] side,” it’s barely alive, and it dies soon afterwards. (This is important, since in 1800 magistrates tended to classify such cases as stillbirths rather than murders unless there was decisive evidence that the child was not born dead.) “[T]he next morning,” he continues, a “constable came to me, to go with him to the spot where I found the child. And when we got there, there was the prisoner a-sitting against the bush where I found the child; and she cried out when she saw us, but she never offered to move. She’d got a big piece of bread on her lap.”

After spending her entire arrest and trial apparently stupefied and unable to speak, Hetty confesses at the end of a long night spent in prayer with Dinah, a Methodist minister. After admitting “I did do it, Dinah … I buried it in the wood,” she reflects: “But I thought perhaps it wouldn’t die—there might somebody find it. I didn’t kill it—I didn’t kill it myself.” Her long explanation continues:

I put it down there and covered it up, and when I came back it was gone … It was because I was so very miserable, Dinah … I didn’t know where to go. […]

And then the little baby was born, when I didn’t expect it; and the thought came into my mind that I might get rid of it and go home again. […]

And it darted into me like lightning—I’d lay the baby there and cover it with the grass and the chips. I couldn’t kill it any other way. And I’d done it in a minute; and, oh, it cried so, Dinah—I couldn’t cover it quite up—I thought perhaps somebody ’ud come and take care of it, and then it wouldn’t die. […]

I could hear it crying at every step … I thought it was alive … I don’t know whether I was frightened or glad … I don’t know what I felt. […] I don’t know what I felt till I saw the baby was gone. And when I’d put it there, I thought I should like somebody to find it and save it from dying; but when I saw it was gone, I was struck like a stone, with fear. […] My heart went like a stone.

In recounting the anecdote that inspired this plot, Eliot wrote that Mary Voce “confessed her crime” (my italics), but her fictionalization of it opens up many questions. Hetty’s baby seems to have been born premature, or at least early (“when I didn’t expect it”), so there’s a question of whether or not it would have lived beyond its first few days in any case. And while Hetty has the impulse to “get rid of it,” the closest she can come to murder is abandoning the baby. The cries haunt her until she returns, expecting and hoping (it seems) to find the infant where she had left it. Perhaps she changed her mind and wanted to keep the child. Perhaps she realized, too late, that she didn’t want “somebody [else] to find it and save it from dying.”

Ultimately, we can’t know. The space between the germ and the novel is a space between certainty and uncertainty, between clear motive and unknowable desires.

Eliot returned to this question 15 years later, in Middlemarch. Unlike Adam Bede, where the story of a pregnancy and its end centered the novel as a whole, this book’s pregnancy is almost incidental, the story buried in the midst of a longer paragraph that’s part of a longer narrative about Rosamond and Tertius Lydgate’s not-so-happy marriage: Rosamond gives birth prematurely and the baby dies. “This misfortune,” the narrator explains, “was attributed entirely to her having persisted in going out on horseback one day when her husband had desired her not to do so.” The horse startles, Rosamond takes a “fright” (there’s no suggestion that she falls) that “lead[s] finally to the loss of her baby”: “In all future conversations on the subject, Rosamond was mildly certain that the ride had made no difference, and that if she had stayed at home the same symptoms would have come on and would have ended in the same way, because she had felt something like them before.”

As I read it, Middlemarch is a novel about the challenges of ambition in real life. Rosamond is arguably one of those challenges, specifically for her husband, an ambitious and idealistic young surgeon. But Rosamond is ambitious herself: she marries Tertius Lydgate not for himself (as we might understand it) but as an upwardly mobile step, including his connection to a titled family. Her defiance of his advice or wishes here is characteristic.

Doreen Thierauf has read this moment as an abortion—an intentional miscarriage, so to speak—rather than as an accident, drawing on Rosamond’s feelings about her decision to ride when “desired not to”: she likes riding, and she does so in the company of her husband’s titled cousin. She’d “felt these pains before,” which could mean that this was not her first attempt to induce a miscarriage or that, if she’d wanted to keep the baby, she would have been more careful. But it’s also quite possible, as Thierauf argues, that Rosamond didn’t want to understand her body and life solely in terms of biological reproduction, that she had other ambitions and took control of family planning accordingly.

Rosamond and Hetty are often linked together in Eliot criticism, in part because they are beautiful characters with whom it is difficult to sympathize fully. (The narrator condescends to both, and judges them harshly.) But I have been thinking about them together because they echo two of the narratives that circulate around Dobbs, and around abortion more generally. One is the story circulated by abortion rights advocates: that of the young, foolish, and almost always poor girl, unintentionally pregnant, who must travel enormous distances to obtain an abortion. The other, as circulated by opponents of reproductive rights, is that of the highly educated middle-class woman whose abortion is an act of selfish ambition.

Eliot opens up questions about what we can know about any pregnancy, or about its end.


The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade’s identification of a constitutional right to an abortion. Roe located that right in the 14th Amendment, which mandated that states cannot pass laws that treat citizens differently. The Dobbs decision dwells for some time on the existence of laws outlawing abortion in 1868 (when the 14th Amendment was passed) to show that it could not have been meant to include that right.

Another significant emphasis of the decision, authored by Justice Alito, focuses on the question of the “viability” of the fetus, a central element of Roe that was upheld and reinforced in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Viability traditionally refers to the possibility of an infant living outside the uterus, and is conceptually connected to the older term, “quickening.” Alito writes that under “the common law […] abortion was a crime at least after ‘quickening’—i.e., the first felt movement of the fetus in the womb, which usually occurs between the 16th and 18th week of pregnancy.” Rooted in the embodied experience of the pregnant person, quickening hardly provides a clear line for criminalizing the termination of a pregnancy.

Neither, it turns out, does the medicalized version of quickening, viability. Alito, again:

A physician determining a particular fetus’s odds of surviving outside the womb must consider “a number of variables,” including “gestational age,” “fetal weight,” a woman’s “general health and nutrition,” the “quality of the available medical facilities,” and other factors. It is thus “only with difficulty” that a physician can estimate the “probability” of a particular fetus’s survival. […] Can such a judgment be made by a State? And can a State specify a gestational age limit that applies in all cases? Or must these difficult questions be left entirely to the individual “attending physician on the particular facts of the case before him”?

Viability is thus immediately mired not only in statistics and uncertainty but also in questions of race and class, although the majority opinion does not name them as such. It has been amply documented that maternal health and nutrition, as well as the availability of good prenatal care and medical facilities in which to give birth, are racialized.

In Dobbs, the difficulty of making a viability call is grounds for returning abortion law from the court to the states, but Alito’s emphasis here invokes the inherent uncertainty of pregnancy outcomes and the dangerous intersection of that ambiguity with the question of what the pregnant person wants or intends. According to my calculations, Hetty was six or seven months pregnant when she gave birth; it seems quite likely that her physical and emotional stress brought on premature labor, and that the baby (even if she hadn’t abandoned it in a field) would not have lived. It’s harder to peg the timing of Rosamond’s pregnancy; critics typically refer to it as a miscarriage, which suggests that it was before 20 weeks, and she is far enough along that (Eliot tells us) they have started to acquire “embroidered robes and caps” in anticipation of the birth. Had Rosamond’s baby “quickened”? Would Hetty’s baby have survived? Did either of them want a baby?


There are many things we cannot know about pregnancies, about the feelings and desires of pregnant people, and there are no guarantees.

When I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second child, my niece died in utero at 32 weeks. Had she lived, she would have been two months older than my kid, the oldest of a set of cousins born to my various siblings and in-laws over consecutive months in the spring and summer of that year. Instead, my niece stopped moving and, two days later, was finally delivered stillborn. Nine months after that, my sister had a son born at 26.5 weeks: he weighed just over two pounds and spent the next three months in the neonatal intensive care unit. He’s the youngest, rather than the oldest, of that set of cousins.

I was born at 34 weeks—two gestational weeks older than my niece was when she died. My nephew was born nearly six weeks younger than his sister and lived. Hetty delivered her child in the vicinity of 28 weeks. Rosamond miscarried, perhaps intentionally, probably some time after 12 weeks. The doctors could find no reason for my niece’s death—no umbilical cord strangling her body, no nutritional deficiencies or genetic abnormalities that could explain this tragedy medically. This is true in two-thirds of stillbirths.

My sister is white; at that time, she lived in California, and it was, in any case, before Dobbs turned questions of the mysteries of pregnant experience and desire into questions of criminal intent. It was before states had the legal right not only to force people to carry a pregnancy to term but also to presume criminality when that does not happen.

But now, a pregnancy ending in miscarriage or unexplained stillbirth in many states could well trigger a host of different questions and actions than those of the generous and patient medical staff who cared for my sister as she labored to birth a baby who had already died. The question of the pregnant person’s desire for that baby could require evidence. If she is Black, both the likelihood of her experiencing such a tragedy and being suspected of wanting it would be increased: according to the CDC, women of color have higher shares of both miscarriage and stillbirth, and Black women are more than twice as likely to experience pregnancy loss as white or Latinx women.

In his decision in Dobbs, Alito characteristically insists on considering the “original” historical circumstances. As I noted earlier, he emphasizes the prevalence of anti-abortion laws in force in the states in 1868, when the 14th Amendment was passed. He does this to show that the 14th Amendment couldn’t possibly have anything to do with abortion. But Eliot—with her novels in 1859 and 1872—shows us that, on either side of 1868, there were women who (perhaps) didn’t want to be pregnant, and that there were single women who (perhaps) didn’t mean for their babies to die. She shows us that these desires aren’t necessarily visible, aren’t matters of evidence.

It is important, in all this, that the 14th Amendment is one of the three Reconstruction amendments, designed to ensure equal rights to Black citizens. By removing the constitutional guarantee of abortion rights as a matter of all citizens being subject to equal protection under the law, Dobbs allows states not only to force the continuation of pregnancies but also to criminalize pregnancy loss. No one can actually guarantee that a pregnancy will end at 40 or so weeks and with a live birth.

The majority of states enacting legislation that radically limits reproductive rights are states that fought a war to protect the right of white people to enslave Black people. The violent control of Black women’s bodies, including forced pregnancy and the criminalization of Black women’s experiences of pregnancy loss, was essential to enslavement. In its fantasies of certainty about pregnancy, its outcomes, and the minds and feelings of pregnant people, Dobbs lays the groundwork for more legal surveillance of Black people’s bodies and the criminalization of all their experiences of pregnancy loss. It returns us to such a devaluing of—especially Black—life.


Dara Rossman Regaignon is an associate professor of English at New York University whose most recent book is Writing Maternity: Medicine, Anxiety, Rhetoric, and Genre (Ohio State UP, 2021). A scholar of rhetoric and writing studies who works on 19th-century British texts, her current research is on race and vulnerability in women’s rights rhetoric since Mary Wollstonecraft.

LARB Contributor

Dara Rossman Regaignon is an associate professor of English at New York University. She has published widely in rhetoric and writing studies as well as on the literature and culture of 19th-century Britain. Her book Writing Program Administration at Small Liberal Arts Colleges (co-authored with Jill M. Gladstein; Parlor Press, 2012) was the first empirical study of writing programs at small private liberal arts colleges, combining historical and rhetorical analysis with survey and focus group data. Writing Maternity: Medicine, Anxiety, Rhetoric, and Genre (Ohio State UP, 2021) offers a literary-rhetorical history of maternal anxiety as a cultural formation, as well as the first study of child-rearing advice literature as a distinct genre. Her current research is on race and vulnerability in women’s rights rhetoric since Mary Wollstonecraft.


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