Float through any social event with M’s fast facts. This week Helena Frith Powell tells us more about George Eliot, the English feminist author who died on December 22, 1880
WHO IS HE? Er, I think you mean, who is she? George Eliot is the pen name of the English Victorian novelist Mary Anne Evans. She wrote under a male pseudonym to ensure that her work would be taken seriously. At the time, women wrote mainly romantic fiction, and writing anything else was viewed as the domain of men.
WHY WOULD I HAVE HEARD OF HER? She wrote seven novels, among them Middlemarch, which has been described by Martin Amis as the “greatest novel in the English language”. Virginia Woolf called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Eliot also wrote The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Adam Bede and DanielDeronda; all have been made into films or adapted for television.
SO WAS IT ALL ROMANTIC DRIVEL? Not at all. Eliot was famous for exploring themes such as small-town persecution and social ostracism. Eliot drew much inspiration from the mundane details of country living and her characters’ internal lives. “Adventure is not outside man; it is within,” she said. DH Lawrence once said of modern literature: “It was really George Eliot who started it all. It was she who started putting action inside.”
WHAT WAS HER BACKGROUND? She was the daughter of a carpenter turned estate manager, the third of five children, born in Warwickshire on November 22, 1819. Because she was extremely clever and not beautiful (and therefore had a slim chance of getting married) her parents invested in her education, which was unusual for a girl of the era. She was also allowed access to the library of Arbury Hall (the estate her father managed) and read voraciously. Her career began at the Westminster Review in London, which many viewed as nothing short of scandalous, and she joined a literary circle where she met the love of her life, George Henry Lewes.
WAS SHE A FEMINIST? Very much so. This is one of her most famous quotes, taken from Middlemarch: “And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.”
NO, THANK YOU In her essay Silly Novels by Lady Novelists (1856), Eliot bemoaned one-dimensional heroines for whom “we have the satisfaction of knowing that her sorrows are wept into embroidered pocket-handkerchiefs, that her fainting form reclines on the very best upholstery, and that whatever vicissitudes she may undergo, from being dashed out of her carriage to having her head shaved in a fever, she comes out of them all with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever”.
HER BOOKS SEEM VERY LONG Middlemarch is a doorstopper (but a great read). If you want to start with something a little more accessible go for Silas Marner; evocative, tragic and Eliot at her best.
I’LL NEVER HAVE THE TIME TO READ THEM You can do it. Take inspiration from Eliot’s words: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”