The Invention of George Eliot, Part II: Silly Lady Novelists
The Invention of George Eliot
Silly Lady Novelists
Realism demands authority, and authority in the mid-Victorian period was not generally considered the domain of women. Eliot’s choice to employ realism dovetailed with contemporary social and literary conventions, and may be credited with the strong, wise, masculine narrative voices that have always been associated with the name George Eliot.
In “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, an essay Evans finished only days before she began writing The Sad Misfortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, she writes: “If, as the world has long agreed, a very great amount of instruction will not make a wise man, still less will a very mediocre amount of instruction make a wise woman. And the most mischievous form of feminine silliness is the literary form, because it tends to confirm popular prejudice against the more solid education of women.” This essay can be read as a form of ‘negative manifesto’ in the sense that, while she doesn’t outline what she intends to do in her first attempt at fiction, she elaborately discusses what she believes ought not to be done.
Describing the circumstances under which she has observed lady novelists to write, Evans exclaims:
The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working classes except as ‘dependents’; they think five hundred a-year a miserable pittance… and they have no idea of feeling interest in any man who is not at least a great landed proprietor, if not a prime minister…. It is true that we are constantly struck with their want of verisimilitude in their representations of the high society in which they seem to live; but they betray no closer acquaintance with any other form of life.
Not wanting to become another lady novelist reproducing “what [she has] seen and heard, and what [she has] not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness”, Evans embarks on her new career, reacting against the “want of verisimilitude”, attempting something new, something to be distinguished from the usual literary production of women.
While the association of realism with masculine authority underlies the craft of George Eliot, her personal circumstances also drove the construction of an authorial persona. In 1951, Evans, who was then 32, met and fell in love with the married George Henry Lewes. The two embarked on an unconventional relationship that would last until his death in 1878.
There can be no doubt that Evans would have anticipated a shrill public outcry should the details of their relationship become known. She might also have been concerned about how their unusual personal relationship might affect critical reception of her work. But it was also not uncommon for female authors to adopt a male pseudonym during this period. The Bronte sisters each published a novel in 1847 under the names, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The social reformer and feminist Caroline Norton published her pamphlets under a male pseudonym, as did many others. These women writers adopted male personas for a simple reason: greater credibility.
The uproar around the early reception of her work enhanced this self-conscious construction of a masculine persona; two decades of loyalty and devotion to Lewes, whom she never married, refined it; many Sunday afternoons of visitors (for those fortunate enough to be invited) monumentalised it; her well-regarded novels assured it.
But the persona was not constructed overnight. Evans, with the help of Lewes and her publisher John Blackwood, continued to craft the identity of George Eliot over the course of her career with all the care of a modern day public relations firm. Over her 25-year career as a novelist, she carefully constructed ways for the public to view the author ‘George Eliot’, along with ways to read her life and her works. Even at the end of her life, she was concerned with how she would be remembered, marrying John Cross, a man many years her junior, entrusting him with her letters and documents, and charging him with writing her ‘official’ biography.
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