An Un-Provincial Mind
By Gabriel Blanchard
Though she shocked her contemporaries, Eliot's work has become some of the most celebrated literature in British history.
The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a great flowering of female writers, who had hitherto been largely deprived of access to such work. Jane Austen is probably the most famous, closely followed by the Brontë sisters, all of whom at first wrote anonymously or under male pen names, but by the middle and later years of the reign of Queen Victoria, it was becoming more common for women to write publicly. One of these women, who entered the profession primarily as a translator, essayist, and editor, was named Mary Ann Evans, but when she began writing fiction as well, she chose to do so under the masculine nom de plume we know her by best: George Eliot.
Her first major work was hailed by the evangelical statesman Lord Shaftesbury as “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell; it was a translation of David Strauss’ The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, a German work that helped launch the “quest for the historical Jesus” on agnostic, non-supernatural lines. Not everyone felt the same way the Earl of Shaftesbury did, however, and even those who shared his sentiments did not necessarily refrain from reading such an electrifying book. Eliot went on to translate The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach, a Hegelian work that was ambiguously atheistic—it described God as a projection of the finest human qualities, and definitely rejected the externalia of religion, such as sacraments. Though she had been raised in an Anglican household, she had become increasingly doubtful about religion as she studied contemporary free-thinkers and radicals, and met several of them, including the philosopher Herbert Spencer, the anthropologist and fellow writer Harriet Martineau, and the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eliot herself seems ultimately to have felt ambivalent about Christianity; an agnostic and a critic of the church, especially for its tendency to reinforce institutions like class division and slavery, she respected its contributions to morality and social order, and recognized the ways in which alienation from religion also meant alienation from society.
Eliot made the move from translations and essays into literature with the short story The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton (later incorporated into a longer collection), which appeared in 1857. It was at this point that she adopted her pen name: both because she wanted her fiction to be evaluated independently of her critical work; and because she wished to disassociate herself from what was then regarded as the common fare of female authors, which Eliot herself had called sentimental, trivial, and clichéd in a review published just the previous year, straightforwardly titled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”
She may also have taken up the pseudonym out of a desire for some greater privacy, though if so the tactic was not successful: in 1854, Eliot had begun living with a married man (with his lawful wife’s knowledge and consent, no less), and did so until his death. This scandalized the Victorian public, but, as with Shaftesbury’s remarks, it did not dampen either her sales or her popularity. In fact, the queen herself, her own notorious moral rigor notwithstanding, was an ardent fan of Eliot’s work. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859—and has never been out of print since. This was followed by several others, including The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Romola.
But Eliot’s most celebrated novel was Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, named for its setting of Middlemarch, a fictitious town in the English midlands, possibly based on her family home of Coventry. Like many of her works, it employs a realistic style and incorporates several historical events, particularly the Reform Act of 1832 (which had vastly extended the franchise and abolished “rotten boroughs“). It follows multiple characters at once, with varying temperaments and social stations. The status of women in society is particularly examined by the novel, much of which centers around unhappy marriages, which they were in no social or legal position to leave. Dorothea Brooke, one of the story’s principal characters, is a woman possessed of great intelligence, piety, and energy, but she is stifled and ignored by her elderly husband and feels frustrated in her desire to imitate her great heroines like St. Teresa and Antigone. Critical reception for Middlemarch was mixed at the time, and as late as the 1920s, Virginia Woolf was exceptional for her high opinion of the novel; however, it experienced a revival in the mid-twentieth century, and has since come to be regarded not only as Eliot’s finest work, but one of the best novels ever written in the English language.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our profiles of St. Catherine of Siena, Louisa May Alcott, and Harper Lee, or this essay from one of our top students on Wuthering Heights. And don’t miss out on our podcast on education and culture, Anchored!
Published on 14th March, 2022.