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Wednesday
Jan182012

Remaining George Eliot

There's always been a lot of chatter in literary circles about how a girl named Mary Ann Evans morphed into a woman named George Eliot. Perhaps we should simply take her word for it. Near her death, she told John Cross, her husband, that she had taken the first name, George, as a tribute to the man she lived with and loved, the man who oversaw her literary career with a firm hand: George Henry Lewes. She chose the surname, she told Cross, because it was a "good, mouth-filling, easily-pronounced word."

Fair enough. But the larger question is why she remained George Eliot throughout her life. She published every one of her novels under that pen name, even after it was well known who she was.

Why the continued subterfuge? Here's one clue. Just before Eliot began to write her first work of fiction, the three short novellas that make up SCENES FROM CLERICAL LIFE, she penned a rather scathing article for the Westminster Review entitled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." She exempted Charlotte Bronte and a few others from her scorn--which she heaped in full measure on most of the women writers of her day.

She classified them with the sneer of a modern social scientist into "species": the "mind-and-millinery species" (given to "feelings, faculties, and flounces"), the "oracular species" ("the ability of a lady novelist to describe actual life . . . is in inverse proportion to her confidence about God"), and the "white neckcloth species" (who wrote implausible love stories with an evangelical yet very wealthy minister somehow at the center of the plot).

She wrote this article anonymously, as she did all her articles for the Westminster Review (which she also edited); but its subject matter may have weighed on her writerly soul as she embarked on fiction. Thus, a ruse, a fence: George Eliot.

Yes, she wanted her books to escape the scandal of her personal life. She didn't want it to interfere with her books' reception--or with her getting published in the first place. John Blackwood, her editor and publisher, was a stodgy, devout sort from a prim and stiff family. He named every one of his dogs "Tory." No wonder she didn't let him know her identity until she was well underway in her career as a novelist.

But the truth of the matter may have been that she wanted to be judged, not as a man, but as essentially genderless. Writing as a woman would bring the gender issue to the foreground, the novel always judged by socially accepted distinctions, based on what a woman "should" think or write about. Writing as a man, given the patriarchal misogyny of the time, allowed her the veneer of "objectivity." (I'm not saying men were objective, only that the gender politics of the time allowed them to appear so.) To put it bluntly, novels written by women were "women's novels"; novels written by men were just "novels."

There's also the strange problem that a (stereotypical) male identity may well have fitted her better. She lived for philosophical and artistic discussions--something she could not have had as a woman. When she and Lewes ran off together to Germany before they set up house in London, she was constantly chafing under Continental tolerance. While no one in Weimar or Berlin cared that they were not married, she was nonetheless expected to "play the wife" even without being one. While Lewes sat with the men discussing the hot topics of the day, she was expected to sit across the drawing room with the other women, discussing mending and the servants. She grew increasingly resistive, and even more restless. In Germany, she was not "other," outside the confines of gender roles; she was "just another woman."

Back in London, she thrived, not on the moral horror provoked by her status, but on the sturdy blankness that seemed to follow it. As an unmarried woman living with a man not her husband, she could command a "male" role once the SOP outrage had been expressed. She then did not have to sit at the far end of the drawing room with the women. In fact, good women still shunned her company--which seems to have been just fine with her. She didn't have to discuss the mending. At the Westminster Review, she was often the only woman in the room. And that, too, suited her just fine.

And finally, there was the blandness of her pen name. "George Eliot" isn't awe-inspiring or daftly romantic, like Henrietta Martineau (one of the great writers of her day) or Christina Rossetti. It's workaday, even stripped down. Until the end of her life, Eliot embraced that austerity. She did not go visiting, did not play the social circuits of London. During the 1860s, she had been spurned by society as a fallen woman. But when she became famous in the late 1860s and the 1870s (the time she was writing MIDDLEMARCH), she sat in her drawing room and the visitors--almost always men--came to her. She did not rise. She did not simper. She did not move toward them. They were to come across the room to her as she held her rather famous, open-invitation salons every week. And yes, they dropped by in droves, leaving their wives at home, lest they be tainted by paying a social call on a reprobate. By her own admission, she didn't give a fig. She met the men as George Eliot, not Mary Ann Evans. And so she met them on an even playing field.

But there's more. Today, we do not refer to Currer, Acton, or Ellis Bell by their pen names; we call them Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronte. But George Eliot's books have always born her pen name, even after her identity was public. And the books still do. Nobody ever talks of Mary Ann Evans. She is George Eliot. Still. And that may say something about the generations after her as well.

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