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« The Medical Profession in MIDDLEMARCH | Main | MIDDLEMARCH and the Reform Bills »
Sunday
Dec182011

Becoming George Eliot

I ask you to consider the fate of two women, born six months apart in 1819. One was born on November 22nd in a small stone farmhouse in central England (specifically, in landlocked Warwickshire). She was the fifth child and third daughter of middle-aged Robert Evans. He was the land agent for the Newdigate family of Arbury Hall; he had say over their 7000 acres. His daughter, Mary Ann Evans, was born in the middle of his very busy work life, overseeing an enormous farming and dairy operation. He barely noted her birth in his journal.

The other was born in May of that same year: Princess Alexandrina Victoria. In its own way, hers was also an obscure birth, the daughter of the fifty-two-year-old Prince Edward of Kent, the fourth son of Mad King George III. The Prince barely marked her birth. She was, after all, a daughter. Not a one of the crazy king's twelve children had been able to produce a male heir. Edward's older brother was about to ascend the throne; the surviving three brothers had been told to give up their bejewelled mistresses, be married for life, and set about the business of producing sons. (They would each fail at each task in that list.)

Neither of those baby girls had a promising future, although the royal family's wealth could certainly keep the little princess more comfortable than the daughter of a well-established land agent. Commerce, industry, the church, the law, medicine--every profession you can name was closed to them both. Neither would be able to take a degree from a university, vote in an election, or even speak in church. Their duties were clear even at their births: keep house, whether farm or palace; have children; be companions to whatever husbands their families would find them; and take care of their aging parents.

Queen Victoria in 1882Instead, each came to define her age. The princess would become not only the monarch, but perhaps the first truly modern "brand," giving her very name to the times. "Victorian" came to mean starchy manners and stuffy morality. It also meant unfettered prosperity: money in the bank, ships on the oceans, factories at full tilt. The queen's lacy collars and cuffs seemed somehow to mitigate the appalling conditions of the working class--especially since so many laborers and their families had her biddyish, bosomy, prudish figure stitched into table cloths, sewn into samplers, and framed in portraits on their walls.

If people turned to Victoria, they initially turned away from Mary Ann Evans. She was considered so appallingly ugly that her mother forbade her from entering certain rooms of the house; by middle age, her looks were the butt of literally hundreds of jokes around London. She feared society because she knew the snickers--although never to her face. Typical was the assessment of Henry James in a private letter to a friend: "She had a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth . . . a vast ugliness."

George Eliot, in one of the only photographs taken of her, about 1858She was tough, seemingly unassailable, no lace anywhere in sight. She was a self-taught intellectual, one of the most prodigious readers of her day, an evangelical who "converted" to agnosticism, a writer who translated and published German philosophy, who also edited one of the most respected academic journals of her day, the Westminster Review. No wonder James added this in his letter: "[Y]ou end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking."

For her part, Victoria eventually was married to a man her family chose, but whom neither the public nor the papers particularly liked. She hung on to him as if he were the monarch and she, his loyal servant. Mary Ann chose a different path. She lived openly for over twenty years with a man who was not divorced from his wife, defying custom and shame. She was the epitome of the "Fallen Woman." In London, she became public Exhibit A for why you do not dare educate your daughters too far. And when she realized her voice was compromised, she did the unthinkable: she assumed a male persona, "George Eliot," dressing her writings up in drag as it were, so that she herself would not be a distraction from them.

George Henry Lewes, Eliot's companion and great loveYet Queen Victoria and George Eliot were not so far apart. Both used their partners--Prince Albert, George Henry Lewes--to shield them from the larger world. Both men lavished affection on their women, so much so that both were seen as rather "fey" or somehow compromised. Both men died long before the women--and left the women in almost unspeakable grief, depressions so adamantine that it was thought neither could recover.

Queen Victoria and John Brown at Balmoral in 1863Both did. Victoria found John Brown, her personal servant. She took up with him, petted him, installed him in the bedroom next to hers, probably bedded him, may have even secretly married him (a deathbed confession by a priest to the action is still under dispute), and got herself called "Mrs. Brown" behind her back.

Eliot married John Cross, a dashing banker decades her junior. Randiness after menopause was a joke directed at both by the London swells. When Cross was fished out of the Venetian canals half-drunk on their honeymoon, the London tabloids wondered if he would have preferred to drown himself than make love to George Eliot. She died of kidney disease only a few months after their marriage--and was buried, not in Westminster Abbey, but because of her doubter's position toward Christianity and her unmarried but nonetheless monogamous relationship with Lewes, in Highgate Cemetery, in a section marked for dissenters. Ironically (or perhaps not), her grave is quite close to Karl Marx's memorial.

John Cross, about the time he married the sixty-year-old George EliotThe two women never met. Eliot did write the Queen a brief note on the death of one of her courtier's beloved children; Victoria pressed the note and kept it among her private things, a message from one of the most famous women of her day, a woman who had grown rich on her writings. But Victoria's daughters went much further, seeking Eliot out, asking her advice on matters of the heart and hearth.

They weren't the only ones. By the mid-1860s, the whole world wrote to Eliot. This stern intellectual, this sometimes snarky writer, this unflinching agnostic, received hundreds of letters a month from working class men and women, from middle-class mothers, from New England housewives, from New York immigrant Jews, from downtrodden Irish priests, from Australian convicts. She was the "Dear Abby" of her day, although none of the letters was ever published. Her novels had become the coin of the realm, available in cheap editions in most homes, offered in lending libraries, those bastions (at the time) of good Christian morality, and translated into a dizzying number of languages long before such things were commonplace. The British stiff upper lip may have quivered at the death of little Jo in Dickens' BLEAK HOUSE, Americans may have had fainting spells at the death of Little Eva in Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, but they all saved their intimacy for Eliot.

They asked her how to live, what was wrong with the world, how to vote, how to manage their personal economies. By the 1860s, the worst of the Victorian project was clearly visible to all: the belching factories, the coal dust that masqueraded as fog in London, the prudish religion of cheap sentiment, the chronic conditions of the working class, the income disparity, the halting political reforms that were still ideals rather than facts, the love of bookish learning that was leading to the new sciences, to the new geology that was undermining traditional faith, questioning the Bible's timeline for human history. People were becoming disenchanted with the nineteenth century. So they turned to both the Queen and this Fallen Woman, the first as a lacy symbol of what they hoped, the second as a steely-eyed realist who could handle what they feared.

What did Eliot tell them? How should they live their lives in a world seemingly on the verge of chaos and prosperity all at once? What is it one should be doing in a time of political unrest, economic uncertainty, and gross imperialism, a time when fat cats stepped over dying beggars in the streets and justified their callousness in the name of religion, a time when women were considered the foundation of society but not allowed to participate in it? Yes, Eliot personally answered almost every letter. But I would argue that her most complete, abundant, and generous answer is the one she started writing in 1869: MIDDLEMARCH.

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