The Invention of George Eliot
Birth of a Persona
George Eliot did not exist before 1857. The pseudonym appears first in a letter to John Blackwood dated 4 February, 1957, after the appearance of The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton in Blackwood’s Magazine, and its subsequent positive critical and public reception. Marian Evans writes (through George Henry Lewes):
…It will be well to give you my prospective name,
as a tub to throw to the whale in case of curious inquiries,
and accordingly I subscribe myself,
best and most sympathizing of editors,
Yours very truly, George Eliot
John Cross, the man Evans married at the end of her life, later wrote that she chose this name because “George was Mr. Lewes’s Christian name and Eliot was a good mouth-filling easily pronounced word”. It can be argued that it was through Lewes that a pseudonym came to be required at all, since it was “a consequence of [his] friendly urgency that she wrote the Scenes of Clerical Life“; and the fact that living openly with Lewes required a certain delicacy towards the audience to whom her work would most appeal.
That is not to suggest that Evans would not have written novels without Lewes’s “friendly urgency”, or that she would have felt comfortable publishing them under her own name if they had not been romantically involved. Undeniably, the name George Eliot and the fiction of a clergyman-turned-novelist somewhere in Coventry were part of a convenient cover for an unmarried woman concurrently living in sin and embarking on what might be seen as a somewhat risky career change after a successful stint as a translator and a journalist. But the social and literary environment was potentially far more hostile than suggested by the playfulness with which the newly created George Eliot writes to Blackwell.
As recounted earlier, Evans was indignant that her readers speculated that Adam Bede could only have been written by a country parson. When Joseph Liggins stepped forward, pretending to be the novel’s author, Evans revealed her identity. While this shocked many readers—because of her gender and her relationship with a married man—strangely, it didn’t affect her popularity as a novelist.
For the next twenty years, Evans lived quietly with Lewes writing novels under the name of George Eliot. The pseudonym served her well, providing a mask for those who did not know her situation and a nod to discretion for those who did. Her fame rose and times changed. In 1977, Evans and Lewes were even introduced to Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria.
George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876, around the time Lewes’s health began to fail. He died in 1878, leaving Evans bereft. Her career as a novelist was intimately connected to Lewes and his encouragement. Though her final work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), is fictional, and also her most experimental work, she was never again to write another one of her expansive social novels. She returned to non-fiction, editing Lewes’s last work, Life and Mind.
Her grief was overwhelming during this period; and, consequently, her health began to fail. It’s likely Evans anticipated her own death during the months she work on this final project. As she was working to honour and perpetuate the memory of her lover, it’s likely that throughout the process of editing Lewes’s work, she gave some thought to how she would be remembered and how her work would be thought of in generations to come.
Many, including Henry James, have said her marriage to John Cross in 1881, a year and a half after the death of Lewes and eight months before Evans’ own, was an act motivated by the wish to have her memory ‘administered’ by a sympathetic friend after she died.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot:
Stricken lately with an illness that kept me in bed for several days, I had many long hours in between stretches of sleep in which to meander through my stack of bedside books.
I’d just been to New York for a precious week and, after a visit to the iconic Strand Bookstore on lower Broadway, my suitcase was lined with an extra 10 kilos, the weight of literary indulgence. No sooner did I unpack, stacking the Strand loot next to my bed, than I rushed out to attend the Brisbane Writers Festival. And quite naturally, every writer I encountered there fascinated, inspired, challenged. It was impossible to resist buying their books. I ended up with another armload to add to my growing bedside tower. And then the flu.
When you’re ill, only certain books will do. Some books require a degree of attention impossible to summon through a fever. Others are too lighthearted for the seriousness of the occasion. A sickbed book should be neither so short that the listless patient needs to find a second or third volume before health is returned, nor so long as to be only partially read when a full recovery is made. Size, therefore, does matter. In my experience, it’s best to bring several into bed and try each—whimsically or systematically—until something captivates.
This is exactly how I found myself a week ago: propped up against pillows, sharing my bed with a delicious assortment of authors. At random, these were:
Milan Kundera’s Encounter
Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why
Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American
Lyndall Gordon’s TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life
Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden
Elif Batuman’s The Possessed
Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—A Marriage
I had started the Hughes biography in New York, but in the flurry of my return set it aside. I had a commissioned review to write, so in the intervening days, this took precedence. Plus, I’d gotten through the 1960s and 1970s. To my mind, Hughes’s most interesting years were behind him as he settled into middle age, placid domesticity, and literary stability as England’s poet laureate. I will eventually return to this very interesting book, but there in the sickbed, I had lost interest.
Elif Batuman spoke engagingly at the Brisbane Writers Festival about Russian novels and the people who read them. She is a serious reader with a knack for hilarious observation. I settled in quite happily, at first, but I know little about Isaac Babel, the subject of the first chapter. It was hard work to follow the events of his life, peppered with numerous historical figures all with unpronounceable names. The Possessed is a book to be read sitting up at full attention, not one to snuggle up to when you might at any moment drift off into fevered sleep.
I then picked up one of the novels. I enjoyed What I Loved and have long wanted to read another of Siri Hustvedt’s books. But I tossed away The Sorrows of an American after the first page as not being exactly what I needed at that moment. The narrative is told in the first person. The “I” of the novel interfered with the “I” of my sick body.
Kundera’s book Encounter is a collection of essays on art and the artistic process. While it’s sure to be satisfying and thought provoking, it’s just too slim for what might be several days of bed rest. I felt the same way about Bloom’s How to Read and Why. He’s one of my favourite critics, and I fully intend to read this book, but it covers a lot of literary history in very few pages. I felt writers and works and periods and influences might become jumbled if I read the anecdotes all at once. Bloom is like good cognac, something to be sipped sparingly and with attention, not devoured in great gulps.
That left Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and Gordon’s life of Eliot. I turned to Morton first as the most likely option. I’m chagrined to say that I haven’t read any of her books, despite her wild popularity, but I have taken pleasure in her tremendous success: local girl makes good. Who wouldn’t be delighted? And with a new book coming out in November 2010, it was good timing. It seemed to have just the right mix of mystery, distance, intriguing characters. Just long enough. Not too demanding. Not too frivolous. Plus, it came highly recommended. The Forgotten Garden seemed to me to be the ideal sickbed material.
Just to be certain, though, I flipped through Gordon’s biography of Eliot. I turned first to the two sets of photos, then glanced at the table of contents. Gordon is one of the finest contemporary literary biographers, having completed works on Woolf, Bronte, and James. Her chapter headings reflect her creativity as a writer. This drew me in immediately. Then, there were the references to the Bloomsbury group. Although I knew they were contemporaries, I wasn’t aware that Eliot was so much a part of their world. I had missed the film Tom and Viv when it was in cinemas, but I was aware of it and knew Eliot’s marriage had been a troubled one. Vivienne was a muse of sorts, but insane—right? I was curious. And of course, last year I read Steven Carroll’s delicious novel The Lost Life, which summons Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale. Many pieces, but no coherent knowledge of who Eliot was as a man.
With The Forgotten Garden on standby, I dove into Eliot’s life. It was just the right length, kept me interested, allowed me to doze and pick up where I’d left off. When I first gathered the pile and brought these books to bed, I considered it to be the book least likely; through my illness it was exactly the right narrative.
I’m up and about now, but my mind is filled with this other world: life in England during the first half of the 20th Century, luminous literary figures, the art of one of the finest English language poets, who also happened to be tremendously flawed. It’s not just fragments of Eliot’s reputation I’m aware of; I now possess something of his life lived. Illness took me there along with Lyndall Gordon, allowing the time and space to enter.
What are the ways bridges figure in literature? Early on, they were linked to physical constructions; later, writers approached them more figuratively, as a place where one might gain insight or cross into other worlds. The examples that follow only skim the surface.
On the wrong side of a debate with Henry VIII regarding the authority of the Pope, Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia, was found guilty of treason on July 1, 1535. He was beheaded and his head was fixed on a pike over London Bridge for a month—the normal custom for traitors at the time.
The Bridge of Sighs in Venice passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace with the prison. The bridge was named by Lord Byron who imagined that prisoners would sigh at their final view of Venice—and freedom—before being taken into their cells.
In 19th Century novels in Britain, bridges appear as a motif in literature to represent the best fate for fallen women. It also reveals the Victorian ambivalence towards sex even when it occurs in marriage. In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), Mirah, on being forced into a loveless marriage, contemplates throwing herself into a river, reinforcing the Victorian prejudice that falling into death is preferable to falling through sex.
In The Ambassadors (Henry James, 1903), Lambert Strether has been duped into believing that what exists between his soon-to-be stepson, Chad Newsome, and the French woman Marie de Vionnet is entirely pure. On a small tour to the French countryside before his return to America, he walks across a footbridge and sees Chad and Marie drifting in a small boat on the river. In a moment of shock, he recognises the true nature of their involvement.
One of my favourite novels and one that influences my current work is The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) by Thornton Wilder. It’s the story of a Jesuit friar who witnesses the collapse of a rope bridge in the mountains of Peru, plunging five travellers into the gorge below.The shaken friar investigates the lives of each of the victims, questioning ideas of fate and chance. Wilder was motivated by the stubborn Puritan view of “God as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, [while overlooking] God’s Caritas’ which is more all-encompassing and powerful“. The novel, which leaves this question unanswered, won a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
“The Bridge” (1930), Hart Crane’s only attempt at a long poem, celebrates the Brooklyn Bridge as a marvel of engineering and a symbol of American innovation. Poorly received at the time of publication, the poem has been rehabilitated in recent years, partly due to the championship of Harold Bloom. The Brooklyn Bridge has appeared in the works of so many poets that poets.orgnamed it a “poetry landmark”.
The Bridge over the River Kwai by the French writer Pierre Boulle (1952) is a fictional account of the building of a railway bridge over the Khwae Yai in the Thai province of Kanchanaburi, a project to create a route from Bangkok, Thailand to Rangoon, Burma. Over 100,000 conscripted Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war died constructing the bridge. While Boulle based his story on the experiences of French officers, he changed them to British in the book.
Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Bridge of Dreams (1959) is a haunting retelling of the Oedipal myth. The bridge in this instance isn’t a physical construction, but the pathway across an intangible line between truth and fiction. The narrator says: “Of course, all that I record here is true: I do not allow myself the slightest falsehood or distortion. But there are limits even to telling the truth; there is a line one ought not to cross. And so, although I certainly never write anything untrue, neither do I write the whole of the truth.”
Closer to home and a good one with which to conclude is Simon Cleary’s The Comfort of Figs (2008), which uses the construction of the Story Bridge in Brisbane to create a narrative about family and forgiveness. It’s also a lovely evocation of place.
Collected thoughts on the life and death of Emma Bovary
“One way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy,” Flaubert wrote in 1858.
Consider this passage from Madame Bovary: “You forget everything. The hours slip by. You travel in your chair through centuries you seem to see before you, your thoughts are caught up in the story, dallying with the details or following the course of the plot, you enter into characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their costumes.”
It is not lovelessness or adultery or debt that destroys poor Emma, but this way of living her life as though it were literature. Her dissatisfaction with life emerges because the activities of the daily world don’t in any way match the wild ecstasy promised in novels. Emma enters into her first adulterous relationship with the shallow and unworthy Rodolphe and immediately recalls “the heroines of novels she had read, and the lyrical legend of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. It was as though she were becoming part of that imaginary world, as though she were making the long dream of her youth come true by placing herself in the category of those amorous women she had envied so much.”
Emma’s transports in Rodolphe’s arms are attempts to replicate the transgressive experience of reading novels—forbidden in the convent where she was educated. It’s not sexual fulfilment that drives Emma but the idea of becoming the heroine of a romance in her own right.
Long before Emma Bovary was born in Flaubert’s imagination, Chaucer’s plucky Wife of Bath observed that women in literature influence the attitudes of readers, which is why she tore the pages from her husband’s book (an anti-marriage manual cautioning against ‘worthless wives’).
More recently, Erica Jong weighed in: “Emma Bovary is deluded by literature. We identify with her because we too look to fantasy for salvation. If Emma Bovary, with all her self-delusion, still stirs our hearts, it is because she wants something authentic and important: for her life to have meaning, for her life to bring transcendence.” “Emma’s drama is the gap between illusion and reality, the distance between desire and its fulfilment. On two occasions she is persuaded that adultery can give her the splendid life that her imagination strains toward, and both times she is left feeling ‘bitterly disappointed,’” wrote Mario Vargas Llosa.
Edmund Wilson said that what made Flaubert a social critic was his “grim realisation of the futility of dreaming of splendours that can never be achieved. Emma Bovary did not face her situation as it was, and the result was that she was undone by the realities she had tried to ignore.” Henry James asserted that the reality and beauty in which Emma’s consciousness and play of mind are invested does not represent this state of romanticism as only her state, but as the state of all people who are romantically determined.