Throughout her life, George Eliot was known by many names – from Mary Anne Evans at birth, to Marian Evans Lewes in her middle age, to George Eliot in her fiction – with the latter name prevailing in the years since her death through the continued popularity of her novels. Eliot has long been recognised as one of the greatest Victorian writers, in life and in death, having published seven acclaimed novels and a number of poems, in addition to her work as a translator and a journalist.
Today marks George Eliot’s 200th birthday. To celebrate this esteemed writer, discover eight facts you may not know about George Eliot.
- Before writing fiction, George Eliot was the editor of a radical left-wing journal.
At the age of 30, Eliot moved to London, where she launched her career in journalism through John Chapman, who specialized in publishing works of a left-wing or sceptical tendency. The same year Eliot moved to London, Chapman bought the great radical periodical, the Westminster Review, first set up in the 1820s to further the cause of political and social reform in the long run-up to the Reform Act of 1832. Chapman was the nominal editor, while Eliot – from a mixture of diffidence, modesty, and fear of playing a public role – was happy to remain behind the scenes, doing the work and letting Chapman put his name to it. Eliot did however sign her name – Marian Evans – to the articles she wrote for the periodical, and became one of its best and most widely admired reviewers.
- George Eliot was highly critical of other female novelists.
The popular view of George Eliot is that she was a serious woman who wrote highly serious novels. She was at the other end of the spectrum from writers whose works she criticised heavily in an essay published in the Westminster Review in 1856, titled “Silly novels by lady novelists.” Following this scathing attack on frivolous novels, Eliot set out to demonstrate how women should write novels.
- Queen Victoria and George Eliot were born in the same year.
George Eliot was one of several major influential Victorian figures born in 1819, along with Queen Victoria herself. Victoria and Eliot never met, but the two were connected. In 1859 – the year they both turned 40 – Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede. Victoria enjoyed the book so much that she read it multiple times, including to her husband Prince Albert, and even commissioned watercolour paintings of two scenes from the book.
- George Eliot’s love affairs led to public scandal.
Eliot did not follow Victorian social conventions in her romantic relationships, which led to scandal. Her first relationship was with George Lewes, a regular contributor to the Westminster Review, who had entered into an open marriage with Agnes Jervis twelve years earlier. Although he left Jervis in 1852, Lewes could not sue for divorce; under the terms of the law, he had condoned his wife’s adultery by registering the births of her children by another man in his own name. As a result, Eliot and Lewes lived together as unwed partners for the remainder of Lewes’ life.
- Marian Evans adopted a pseudonym to separate her novels from her scandalous life.
Some may assume Eliot chose to use a pseudonym due to the misogyny of Victorian society, but this would be reductive. Marian Evans was known as the freethinking radical of the Westminster Review, and the woman who was living with a married man; she needed the protection of a pseudonym. But why “George Eliot”? She picked the name – as she later told her husband, John Cross – because George was her long-term partner Lewes’ first name and Eliot was “a good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word.”
- Charles Dickens suspected that George Eliot was a woman working under a male pseudonym.
Dickens wrote two notable letters to Eliot: one before and another after he discovered the author was in fact a woman. The first, addressed “My Dear Sir,” expressed his suspicions about her gender, as the collection of short stories in Scenes of a Clerical Life (1857) bore “such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now.” Due in part to the sexism faced by women writers in the 19th century, Evans reluctantly maintained the male mask even after she read his letter. In Dickens’s second letter, written the following year once he discovered her gender, he makes it clear that being female brought no discredit to her, expressing his delight with Adam Bede (1859) and respectfully addressing her as “My Dear Madam.”
- A great deal of Eliot’s works focus on social history and the use of accents to pre-determine social status.
Some critics of Eliot have addressed her preoccupation with social history. One critic, Lynda Mugglestone, argues that Eliot’s novels, from the early Scenes of Clerical Life to the late Daniel Deronda, “contain recurrent descriptions of accent, of attitudes to accent, and of attitudes to linguistic correctness,” examining Eliot’s use of language to expose the different worth inherent in sympathy, and the snobbery that comes from idea of linguistic correctness that pre-determine social status.
- George Eliot was ahead of the game in calling out anti-Semitism.
The opening scene of George Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, was inspired by a trip to the spa town of Bad Homburg where she witnessed a game of roulette at Europe’s oldest casino. Bad Homburg lies only a few kilometres north of Frankfurt, which at the time was a centre for Jewish culture. Her experiences here, along with her lifelong interest in Judaism, influenced Eliot to incorporate a positive representation of Judaism throughout the novel. According to Eliot, the English were bigoted and narrow-minded, and with her latest novel she hoped to “rouse the imagination of” her readers “to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.”
Though today we recognise just how remarkable George Eliot was, this wasn’t always the case. Following a series of dry biographies written shortly after her death, Eliot’s reputation as a great writer in life temporarily declined. But, on the centenary of her birth, Virginia Woolf began the true rehabilitation of George Eliot’s reputation with an essay in the Times Literary Supplement, in which she famously remarked that Middlemarch was “one of the few English books written for grown-up people,” causing the appreciation of George Eliot’s greatness, and interest in all aspects of her life and work, to be restored for at least another 100 years.
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