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George Eliot: Strong-Minded Woman and Varying Unfolding Self

by Rob Jacklosky

“When we are young we think our troubles a mighty business—that the world is spread out expressly as a stage for the particular drama of our lives and that we have a right to rant and foam at the mouth if we are crossed. I have done enough of that in my time. But we begin at last to understand that these things are important only to one’s own consciousness which is but as a globule of dew on a rose-leaf that at midday there will be no trace of.”

—-Letter from Marian Evans to Cara Bray, June 1854, Age 35

When we talk about George Eliot (née Marian Evans) as a “late” bloomer we must qualify that term.  It may have been true that her first effort at fiction came at the relatively late age of 38 (and that’s later in Victorian years, remember). Adam Bede, her first fully-formed novel (rather than the “sketches” that comprised Scenes of Clerical Life) came when she was 40 and her greatest achievement, Middlemarch, when she was 52 years old. But like all Victorian novelists, her consistent, varied, and early literary output would put any modern writer to shame.  Here was a woman who began a landmark translation of David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) when she was 22 years old.  When she was asked to undertake this monumental work—which questioned the divinity of Jesus and which would earn for her early fame in literary circles—she had already moved through her own tumultuous religious conversions. She would need those experiences as well as German, Latin, Greek and the Hebrew she had already mastered to complete the work.  All this to say that, as a young woman, the daughter of an estate agent, Marian (or Mary Ann, Mary Anne, Marianne…she varied it for years before settling on Marian) Evans had already accomplished more than most so-called late bloomers.

But the author of Middlemarch, Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss would need more reading and learning and, even more crucially, more experience—particularly in relationships with men—before she began her career as a novelist. Unlike the typical Victorian woman who might know two or three men well (Father, Brother, Husband), Evans came to know a series of men who served as models for her flawed heroes.  Her emotional development, too, tracked with her artistic development. As she met men who were, successively, more supportive, she began to reveal more of herself and take risks.

Marian Evans was fearless in her rejection of orthodoxy and conventional morality. And as she often pointed out herself, her lack of conventional beauty set her apart from other women and the marriage market that consumed her contemporaries. She lived a serious life of the mind and was contemptuous of a certain kind of lady novelist (as expressed in her famous essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”).

Even so, she was an early and voracious reader of novels; and one way to look at her life and her gradual movement from serious reviews, theological investigations, and editorial duties to her own glorious fiction is to look at how often her pursuits were subsumed by those of the men in her life.  For such a thoroughly unconventional woman, this part of the story is conventional enough.

Like Middlemarch’s Dorothea, young Marian Evans was rigid in her teenage evangelicalism. She was so devout that she denounced novels as  “pernicious,” and made her family and friends uncomfortable with her moralizing.  Then, under the influence of the radical free-thinker Charles Bray—the first of many men who would mentor her—she lost her faith and came to accept the heretical notion that the life of Christ might be instructive but not miraculous; and a traumatic conflict with her father followed (she called it a “Holy War”). She had begun to evolve toward what we’d now call humanism —then associated with Auguste Comte’s Positivism and the secular “Religion of Humanity”—but suppressed it for her father and dutifully attended church with him.  This collision of ardent openness and neglect of one’s own needs was something she explored in all her novels; it was a plot that Evans lived through a few times before fictionalizing it.

George Eliot portrait (1850) by  Francois D'Albert Durade

George Eliot (1850) Portrait by Francois D’Albert Durade

Her next significant relationship was with the 62-year-old Dr. Robert Brabant—once doctor to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, acquainted with David Friedrich Strauss, and involved in the new theology coming out of Germany.  She met him when she was 22, through his daughter, and when that daughter married a year later, Dr. Brabant asked that Evans “fill the place of his daughter.”  She obliged, reading German and Greek with him and helping him pursue his interests in German theology. His wife, who was blind, was ultimately not blind to the growing intimacy between them. Evans was more or less expelled from the house by Mrs. Brabant, with a cowardly Dr. Brabant blaming it (whatever “it” was) on Evans.  The end of this tentative move into the world sent her back to her father’s house, where she lived until she was 30.

Her next relationship with a mentor, and possible lover, came when Evans was 31—a spinster by Victorian standards.  John Chapman, only 29 himself, was the putative editor of the Westminister Review (putative because, eventually, Evans became the actual editor).  The vigorous and charismatic Chapman asked that Evans join him in editing the re-launch of the journal (which earlier had been founded by James Mill in 1824). Chapman was another well-connected man of letters: many of the leading literary lights stayed at his home at 142 Strand when they came to London. The lower floors of 142 were given over to editorial offices, and the upper to literary tenants, his 43-year old wife Susanna, three children, and a 29-year old mistress, the governess Miss Elizabeth Tilley. Marian Evans moved into a room on the upper floor, and while Susanna apparently countenanced Chapman’s affair with the governess, the governess couldn’t abide Chapman’s growing intimacy with Evans.  It’s a matter of continued controversy whether the relationship was romantic, let alone physical; for Evans, romantic entanglements were always fundamentally intellectual. After the jealousies cooled, Evans continued to edit The Westminster Review, and even continued to live in the house as she got involved with her next mentor.

Throughout this period, Evans had primarily considered the work of others—writing book reviews and longer review essays. Her work as editor of The Westminster had her reading hundreds of books every few months, everything from science to the great, now canonical, works of the day: Tennyson’s Maud, E.B. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Matthew Arnold’s second volume of poems, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruskin’s Modern Painters, to name just a few. This on top of her deep reading in German and Greek classics in the original.  She also continued to contribute essays to The Westminster and other journals.

Herber Spencer Photo

Herbet Spencer

Marian’s next entanglement was with Herbert Spencer, with whom she became intimate through her connection with Chapman (one mentor often led to the next). A philosopher, biologist, and coiner of the phrase “survival of the fittest” who had been thinking and writing on evolution before Darwin published Origin of the Species (1864), Spencer was one of the leading intellectuals of the age (Evans seemed to be attracted to scientific thinkers in this phase of her life, and would use what she learned to inform her novels’ scientific preoccupations). He was a bachelor and conducted an intense relationship with Evans, but finally claimed never to have been in love with her because she was not beautiful enough. Later he would reject a great beauty because he did “not quite like the shape of her head.”  Survival of the fittest, indeed.

It took Spencer’s friend, George Henry Lewes, yet another mentor—a rising intellectual and man of letters—to provide Evans, at the age of 34, with the opportunity and confidence to disengage herself from the projects of powerful, disappointing men; and to embark on her own. Lewes and Evans, by all accounts, were soul mates.  He was vivacious, animated, and playful. Lewes was also ugly, and short. He was said by Mrs. Thomas Carlyle to have “immense ugliness” and was called “Ape” by his friends.  Many thought he was not serious enough. He was also married, but it was a marriage in name only: his wife had had four illegitimate children with his good friend Leigh Hunt.  Lewes was aware of the indiscretions but all remained friends, and in one of those Victorian contradictions, because Lewes had condoned his wife’s infidelity, and acknowledged the children, he could not sue for divorce.

George Henry Lewes Photo

George Henry Lewes

Despite Evans’s unconventionally close liaisons with other men previously, it was her decision to travel and move in with the still-married Lewes that put her on the outside of polite society. It caused a rupture with many of her friends, who wondered if the relationship was prompted by “insanity” and spoke of how she had “degraded herself.” Evans was undaunted. When scandalously travelling in Germany with Lewes at the age of 35, she wrote, “I have had a month of exquisite enjoyment, and seem to have begun life afresh…I am really strong and well and have recovered the power of learning in spite of age and grey hairs.” She located this well being in a place familiar for Victorians, but new to her: domesticity.

I am happier every day and find my domesticity more and more delightful and beneficial to me. Affection, respect, and intellectual sympathy deepen, and for the first time in my life I can say to the moments Verweilen sie sie sind so schon.

Leave it to Marian to express it in German: I wish them to linger. They are so beautiful.  She seemed to say that the precondition for the opening up of her imagination was the “deepened sympathies” she discovered in and with Lewes. She had already been a leading intellectual, edited one of the most serious journals in a serious age, was as accomplished as any of her male peers, and more accomplished than most. She had recently translated Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity.  Those who knew her admired her. But in 1857, at the age of 38, she was ready to begin writing fiction.  That a marriage and the love of a good man should be the climax of her unconventional life was an irony probably not lost on Evans.  It was a plot device she had rejected in Jane Eyre. It’s been said that George Eliot could never have written a character as implausible as Marian Evans.

She would write a series of novels that emphasized realities of a small provincial community (Scenes of Clerical Life), expressive of her ardent nature and her need to love and be loved (Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss).  She would write stories in which characters pursue ideals only to discover that the ideal is always compromised by the actual world (Daniel Deronda), where politics and petty passion interfere with these ideals (Adam Bede, Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda, Romola). She would explore the intersections of faith, religion and goodness (Adam Bede and Romola). And in 1871, at the age of 52, she would write a masterful work that did all of the above: Middlemarch. By the time she came to write the greatest novel in the age of great novels, she was widely considered to be the greatest living English novelist.

When Evans broached the idea of writing fiction to Lewes, he first expressed “disbelief in [her] possession of dramatic power.” She shared this misgiving.  But, crucially, he softened and encouraged her. She wrote later, “He began to think I might as well try some time what I could do in fiction….He began to say very positively ‘you must try and write a story.’”  In Lewes she was lucky enough to find not only her first encourager, but her literary agent. He sent her first story to John Blackwood of Blackwood’s Magazine, pretending it came from an “unusually sensitive” male friend, George Eliot.  Even though Blackwood enthusiastically published the first two installments, he happened to make requests for revisions for the third. Lewes once again intervened and cautioned Blackwood that his friend Eliot was  “so easily discouraged, and so diffident of himself” that the slightest criticism might easily convince him to “give it up.” From that point on, Blackwood only praised, and throughout Evans’s life, Lewes would shield her from negative responses to her work. Eliot was so reluctant to be connected with her fiction (fearing that being a woman, and an “infamous” woman at that, would damage the reception of the work), that it wasn’t until her third novel, The Mill on the Floss, that she finally revealed her identity. And the reluctant admission of authorship was prompted as much by an imposter—Joseph Liggins from her home county of Warwickshire who was allowing authorship to be attributed to him—as it was by the growing whispers fueled by her old friends Spencer and Chapman that George Eliot was Marian Evans.

In Middlemarch’s panoramic examination of provincial life in the midlands, Evans plumbs the intimate depths of marriage and its dark nights of the soul, along with its sometimes slow, grinding loss of illusions. With unprecedented realism, she shows us the petty politics that will undermine high-minded scientific progress.  And the psychological and moral costs of those who stand up for what is right and those who do not. She can write clinically, like a scientist overseeing an experiment, and also with warm humor. She does the work of numbering the “small unnumbered acts” of anonymous heroines like Dorothea Brook. And even though Dorothea is valorized for being subsumed in the work of her soul mate Ladislaw, “Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and a mother.” Dorothea may be denied what noted George Eliot scholar George Levine calls her own “world historical project,” but Evans answers by writing of Dorothea, “No one states exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather have done” in the constricting “medium” (as the ever-scientific Evans called it) of Middlemarch.  Characters, like organisms, can only do what their mediums allow.

Luckily for us all, George Eliot escaped such absorption into the life of another.

Instead, she found an intellectually sympathetic partner interested in promoting her project rather than recruiting her for his own. As she wrote to an old friend after the tremendous success of Adam Bede:

Under the influence of the intense happiness I have enjoyed in my married life from thorough moral and intellectual sympathy, I have at last found out my true vocation, after which my nature had always been feeling and striving uneasily without finding it. What do you think that vocation is? I pause for you to guess.  I have turned out to be an artist.

When she began to write fiction, she was fully prepared. Her life, both intellectual and emotional, had readied her for this work of writing at “midday.”  As she wrote to her childhood friend Cara Bray, she had begun to understand things.

Bloom Post End

Footnote to the title: “Strong-Minded Woman” was how Thomas Carlyle addressed a letter to George Henry Lewes and George Eliot: “To G.H. Lewes and Strong-Minded woman.” “Varying Unfolding Self” is George Eliot’s own description of herself.

Rob Jacklosky is chair and Professor of English at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. His scholarly publications include essays on Matthew Arnold and Frank Sinatra. Last year, he was a top-ten finalist in the Esquire Short Short Fiction Contest (judged by Colum McCann). A series of his comic essays appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His short stories have appeared in Sonora Review, Sendero, Konundrum Literary Engine Review and Construction. His Ph.D. is from Rutgers and his M.A. and B.A. are from New York University.

Homepage Image Credit: Hulton/Getty

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