Jane Austen may have made writing a respectable occupation for a woman, but ‘respectable’ isn’t the same thing as ‘respected’, and in a world where women were considered to have little to say that was worth listening to, and expected to remain firmly within the domestic sphere rather than engaging in ‘serious’ work, many 19th century female writers chose to publish under male pseudonyms. One of these, better known even today by her chosen pseudonym, was Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans a.k.a. George Eliot.
It should be noted that Evans didn’t use a pseudonym only in order to be taken seriously (although that was certainly a factor), but also to separate her fictional writing from her work as a journalist, editor and critic, and to prevent the scandal of her private life from affecting her success as a writer.
And scandal there certainly was: in 1854 she set up house with the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes, a married man, albeit estranged from his wife, Agnes Jervis. In what would be considered a complicated relationship even today, Jervis had readily agreed to an open marriage, and in addition to three children fathered by Lewes she bore four more by her lover Thornton Hunt. Lewes (who was himself illegitimate) agreed to be named as their father on the birth certificates, meaning that he was legally complicit in his wife’s adultery and thus under the laws of the time they were unable to obtain a divorce.
None of which affected the strength of Evans and Lewes’ relationship, and they remained together until his death in 1878. It is possible, however, that her convoluted personal life and the criticism and condemnation which she faced from many as a result of it, provided inspiration for Evans’ writing. Although Evans married an old friend, John W. Cross (another scandal, as he was some twenty years her junior), a few months before her death, she was buried alongside Lewes in Highgate Cemetery, in the section reserved for religious dissenters and agnostics.
By the standards of the time, Evans was a highly educated woman, in part because her parents considered her unattractive and thus unlikely to find a husband to support her. Her father, the manager of Arbury Hall Estate in Warwickshire, paid for her to be educated formally until the age of 16, and after this she continued to educate herself informally, in part through access to the library at Arbury Hall. Religious, and religiously observant, in her youth, Evans later became critical of the Christian faith, although she retained a respect for the place of religion in society.
Openly scornful of the silly, romantic novels which many female novelists were producing at the time, Evans’ own writing reflect a realism and psychological insight which marked her as part of the avant garde at the time. Middlemarch (1871-72, the only one of her novels that I’ve read so far) is often hailed as one of the greatest English novels of all time and is definitely the book I would recommend as a starting-point, if only so you can say you’ve been there, done that.
Evans’ other novels are:
Adam Bede, 1859
The Mill on the Floss, 1860
Silas Marner, 1861
Felix Holt, The Radical, 1866
Daniel Deronda, 1876
She also wrote numerous poems, essays, and non-fiction works, as well as being a translator of works in German and Italian.
Have you read Middlemarch, or any of Evans’ other works? What did you think?