Hidden historical heroines (#23: George Eliot)

"George Eliot"Mary Anne (Marian) Evans (22 November 1819 – 22 December 1880) was one of the most prolific writers of the Victorian era; her novel Middlemarch has been lauded as the best novel written ever in the English language. You may recognise her by her pen-name, George Eliot.

Marian was born in the Warwickshire countryside in 1819. An otherwise unremarkable middle-child of an unremarkable family, she proved herself to be a voracious reader. Due to the intelligence she displayed and – insultingly! – his opinion that she was not physically attractive and therefore unlikely to make a good marriage, Marian’s father invested in an above-average education for his daughter. He was the estate manager for a family of Warwickshire gentry, which allowed Marian access to a well-stocked library. It also meant she had a “front row seat” for seeing the imbalance between the lifestyle of the rich and that of the poor, something she would explore again and again in her fiction.

Marian’s “debated” beauty notwithstanding, it is certainly true that marriage didn’t appear to be on the cards. When her brother married and took over their family home, Marian went with her father when he moved to Coventry. There she was respected for her intelligence and quick wit and soon became involved with other young, free-thinking and progressive intellectuals. She even translated some of their controversial works into English. Her exposure to this new learning led to a hesitant agnosticism, something she had to hide from her religious father for the rest of his life, which was not to be much longer; he died when Marian was thirty and she took herself off to Geneva to mourn.

The following year, Marian returned to England and decided to reinvent herself in London. She took the position of Assistant Editor on a publication called The Westminster Review, owned by the publisher who had handled her translations whilst she lived in Coventry. He of course was Editor in name, but Marian did most, if not all, of the work, on the management side as well as contributing essays and articles.

Although female writers had grown much more common and therefore more acceptable, Marian Evans the “business woman” was an uncomfortable prospect for Victorian men. As a result, she was treated rather unkindly in society. Remarks were made on her “ugliness”. She was also presented as emotionally unstable, falling in love at the drop of a hat and always with men who were married and didn’t reciprocate her feelings; one of these men was said to be her employer.

In 1851 Marian finally met a man who – whilst he couldn’t be considered exactly suitable – was at least interested. He was the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes. He was married but luckily for Marian, it was an open marriage (his wife had four children with another man). After a few years in this strange relationship, George and Marian began to cohabit and consider themselves married – she referred to herself as Marian Evans Lewes and to George as “my husband”. The pair’s frank admission of their affair was considered scandalous. Marian’s reputation dropped and dropped.

George Henry Lewes

In 1856, Marian wrote a curious article for The Westminster Review. Entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, it criticised the trivial and ridiculous plots of contemporary fiction by women. Marian had resolved to become a novelist, that of a new type of novel (especially by a woman author) – one where realism was the crux. Marian realised that due to the prejudice against female novelists (that she of course was guilty in perpetuating) it would perhaps be best if she published any future novels under a male pen-name, as well as her article; she chose George Eliot.

In 1858 the first of the Scenes of a Clerical Life (a collection of three separate short stories) was released and extremely well received. A full length novel – Adam Bede – followed the next year, to critical acclaim. The whole country was taken up with wondering who this mystery novelist was. It isn’t clear as to whether or not Marian was just waiting for popularity and social acceptance before revealing her true identity (and true gender) or whether she would have remained “George Eliot” for the rest of her career, but as it turned out, her hand was forced. A random man popped up, claiming to be George Eliot, enjoying the commendations and attention. Marian couldn’t be having that, so she stepped forward. At first her rather salubrious reputation and lifestyle gave her fans pause, but such was her talent and fame that this was quickly overcome. In 1877 she was introduced to Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, who professed herself a great fan.

Over the next fifteen years, Marian continued in her nontraditional lifestyle and churned out novel after novel, interspersed with poetry. Her full length novels were, in order: Adam Bede, 1859; The Mill on the Floss, 1860; Silas Marner, 1861; Romola, 1863; Felix Holt, the Radical, 1866; Middlemarch, 1871–72; Daniel Deronda, 1876. Her “marriage” remained a close and happy one; in the manuscript to The Mill on the Floss she wrote: “To my beloved husband, George Henry Lewes, I give this MS. of my third book, written in the sixth year of our life together, at Holly Lodge, South Field, Wandsworth, and finished 21 March 1860.”

Her novels were a sensation, featuring “real” people from all classes, compellingly drawn, with real psychological depth. These characters faced “real” issues, particularly political crises; Middlemarch, for example, presents the stories of the inhabitants of a particular village on the eve of the controversial Reform Bill of 1832. The books also promoted Marian’s “humanist” values; what she wanted was a world where all people were kind to and helped one another as standard, rather than through religious or dogmatic demand. Her general advice was: “Wear a smile and make friends; wear a scowl and make wrinkles. What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other?”

Marian Evans Lewes

Not long after Marian had completed Daniel Deronda, George’s health grew frail. Marian retired with him to the country in Surrey, but he died within two years. Marian was grief-stricken, and dedicated the next few years of her life into completing and editing George’s seminal work (Life and Mind) and seeing it through to publication.

As often happens, two bereaved people found solace in one another. Marian became close with a man called John Walter Cross, whose mother had recently died. John was twenty years younger than Marian, yet the two married in May 1880. This marriage was to be short-lived, as Marian succumbed to a throat infection that same December; as she had been unwell with other ailments for several years, this proved enough to send her to her grave. She was 61 and her husband, with almost indecent haste, was to produce a white-washed and partially fictitious “biography” of her. The establishment refused to let her be buried in Westminster Abbey, due to her leanings towards atheism and her relationship with the married George Lewes. Instead you can see her grave out in the open, at Highgate Cemetery, right next to George Lewes’; I can’t help but feel she would have preferred it that way, anyway.

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