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« Writing "Middlemarch" | Main | Remaining George Eliot »

Eliot's "Holy War"

At the ripe old age of twenty-two, on January 1st, 1842, long before she'd written a word of fiction, long before she became George Eliot, Mary Ann Evans announced to her family that she would no longer attend church.

It was a momentous event for several reasons. First, Mary Ann lived with her father. She was, according to law and custom, under his care. In fact, given the times and her age, she was well on her way to turning into the spinster daughter whose job was to care for the family patriarch until he passed--and then hope some sibling (particularly her older brother, Isaac) would take her in and warehouse her for the rest of her days.

But Mary Ann Evans was too ambitious, too smart, and too independent to worry about custom. So her announcement to her father that she would no longer attend church caused what she referred to in her letters and journals as her "holy war."

For the next five months, her father threatened her in every way imaginable. He talked to lawyers about making sure not a red cent of an inheritance could ever come her way. He threatened to move to a smaller house, thereby forcing her into service, probably as a governess--although who would hire a governess who wouldn't take the kids to church? He rallied a bevy of local clergyman to come talk to her. (One can only imagine what this at times snarky, withering writer had to say to them.) He called in her brothers and sisters for family meetings.

They, too, threatened to cut her off. Her brother Isaac, particularly cruel, let her know that she would have no home with him when her elder days came. And everyone talked about her impending poverty. What man would have her?

That is, when they talked to her at all. Apparently her father stayed silent for weeks on end. In her desperate attempt to make him understand, she wrote him a long letter. From the next room! Amazingly, it has survived.

She began by making clear that she had not become a Unitarian. (Heavens!) She told him that she had also not rejected God. (That would come later and in a more unusual way.) She instead told him that she regarded the Bible as "a mingled truth and fiction"--and that while she admired the "moral teachings of Jesus," she believed that "the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life [were] . . . dishonourable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness."

Needless to say, her letter didn't help matters. But her father's confusion was understandable. His daughter had once been so religious as to appear a zealot, if not an outright fanatic. In her teens and even up until a year and a half before the holy war, she had been a committed evangelical low-churcher--not quite a dissenter as her Methodist aunt and uncle were, but certainly a pious, Bible-toting evangelical within the Church of England. As a young girl, she had even refused to read novels for fear they'd lead her down the wrong path. (Think about this: one of the great novelists of the English language began her life by believing that novels were intrinsically sinful, prone to leading people astray.)

Now, at the beginning of 1842, she had changed course. Rather dramatically. What had happened in the meantime? She had begun translating German philosophy for publication--always dangerous. She had also spent time with the Brays, a radical, arty, free-love family in a nearby town. Mr. Bray was known to keep both his wife and his mistress in the same house--and fathered children by both. In fact, his mistress had become the governess with his wife's permission, so it was all rather convenient. The Brays had a profound influence on Mary Ann Evans--although they themselves were actually an odd mix of radicalism and prudery, a common stance among the mid-Victorians. Years later, the Brays would cut Mary Ann off when she "eloped" with George Henry Lewes, despite their own rather non-traditional arrangements.

And yet. . . . As always with George Eliot, there's an "and yet." On May 15, 1842, her father records something that must have made him very happy: "Went to church. Mary Ann went with me today."

Had she reversed course? Not according to her journals and letters. Rather, she had come across an astounding discovery: that the martyr was motivated by the same egotism as the sycophant, that the only reason people climbed up on their crosses and crucified themselves was to be fawned over.

Mary Ann did stay with her father--to the end. She took care of him in his dying days in ways that exhausted her and pitched her into a long depression in her mid-twenties. And although she became increasingly committed to an agnostist's--or even an atheist's--path in her life, George Eliot continued to show up in church on Sundays, even when she was middle-aged and living in London.

I have a friend who calls himself a "hymnostic"--he has rejected the church but still goes on occasion for the hymns. I have a feeling George Eliot's reasons were more complex. Until the end of her days, she claimed to "believe in" the church, if not the God in the church. It is one of many Eliot conundrums that have driven academics and scholars mad over the years. She was the conservative radical--or the radical conservative.

It is one of the many reasons she is often dismissed by feminist scholars today. She was indeed a woman who stamped out her own path, who dared London and society in general by living with a man not her husband, not in the wilds of middle England or Wales (as many in similar arrangements did--like the Brays), but instead publically and openly. A woman who made her own living in the 1860s and 1870s. A woman who became one of the most revered figures of the age, despite her "sinful" life. And yet also a woman who did not stand up for women's suffrage, even argued against women getting the vote. A woman who shunned almost all of the women reformers of her own day. And a woman who insisted on being called "Mrs. Lewes" among her friends, as if craving the conventions while in an unconventional relationship.

Suffice it to say, she was no martyr. She got married at the end of her life to John Cross, a man she barely knew. She did it for many reasons, not the least of which was to make her family take her back into its fold, to reconcile with her brother Isaac.

In other words, Eliot did and did not. She was and was not. That deep ambiguity (or is it complexity?) informs every novel she ever wrote--but particularly MIDDLEMARCH.

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