Outlaw: George Eliot
The “one marvel” that struck Henry James on arriving in England was George Eliot.
Once a self-proclaimed “outlaw,” by 1869 she reigned as pre-eminent novelist. Taking his turn at her side amongst a throng of visitors, James heard the voice of a “counselling angel.” Her low-toned confidence and the tender expression on her long, pale face was superior, he observed, to the run of women, too many of whom took on a fashion for female helplessness “like a species of feverish, highly-developed invalids.”
At her house, The Priory, opposite Lord’s cricket ground in the solid northern suburb of St. John’s Wood, George Eliot was at home each Sunday to the leading lights of London who came to pay homage. These included the evolutionist Thomas Huxley; the pioneering social psychologist Herbert Spencer; Gladstone, the Liberal leader; and the man of letters, Leslie Stephen, who later would tell his daughter Virginia (eventually Virginia Woolf) how, when it came to his turn with George Eliot, this one-time Cambridge don had found himself on his intellectual toes.
Virginia Woolf heard tell of the novelist from her father, from Aunt Anny (Lady Ritchie, the daughter of Thackeray), and from other Victorians like Edmund Gosse who were part of London’s intellectual elite. All pictured a grave celebrity, now in her fifties, dressed in black satin, with a green-shaded lamp on the table beside her, and German books and ivory paper cutters. These elders had seen a woman “who has been through her struggle and issued from it with a profound desire to be of use to others, but with no wish for intimacy.” At that pinnacle, her struggle dropped away.
How did it come about, this veneration of a woman once shunned for ignoring the legality of marriage? Wives had shunned her the more, in the way Mary Shelley had suffered nearly all her life. How then had George Eliot made her way back into society?
Her glory as wise angel was sealed in a monumental biography published by George Eliot’s financial adviser and, briefly, her spouse, John Cross, in 1885, four years after her death. Gladstone called it “a Reticence in three volumes,” while William Hale White protested that the angel of the biography was unrecognizable—fading out the “insurgent” journalist he’d known as Marian Evans. Just as the wild reputation of Mary Shelley was tamed after her death by her son and daughter-in-law and Emily Brontë’s by her sister, Charlotte, so was George Eliot—but like those earlier writers, that tamed story did not last.
Back in the early 1850s, as a fellow lodger in the Strand, she had told William Hale White that it was worth learning French in order to read one book, Rousseau’s Confessions. This, to White, fitted her “entire” unconventionality in her thirties. In a back room, with hair loose over her shoulders and proofs in one hand, she had sat with legs over the arm of her chair. To swing up her legs in that way, she could hardly have worn the stiffened petticoat of the crinoline—a dress that required toes-together decorum.
Among her London circle at that time was a new breed of emancipated young women intent on the vote, learning and an end to laws blocking the full development of human nature. The word “feminist” now entered the language. Bessie Parkes, aged twenty-two, was to become a prominent feminist and to found an “outsiders’ school” for both sexes and for the children of Jews, Catholics and freethinkers. At one soirée in the Strand, Bessie eyed Marian Evans. She detected a woman with the brain to overtake others of their sex.
“I think she will alter,” Bessie remarked to Barbara Leigh Smith, aged twenty-four (who would publish a book on The Laws in England concerning Women, propose votes for women and co-found Girton, the first Oxbridge college for women). It was 1852; evolution was in the air. As Bessie saw it, Miss Evans, in her early thirties, was on the cusp of a development that might reveal a creature of a higher order.
“Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings; but when they do, soar out of sight. Miss Evans either has no wings or, which I think is the case, they are coming, budding.”
This is a story of change. For Marian Evans to turn into George Eliot, she had to overcome obstacles of birth, setting and education. She did not find her novelist’s voice until her late thirties; she was thirty-seven when she wrote her first tale. Unlike Mary Shelley and the Brontës, she did not have the advantage of a bookish home. Her language was distorted by the rhetoric of her evangelical schooling, and for many years this blocked her voice. Her early letters are deadly.
As Mary Shelley’s outsider life gave birth to a great novel, George Eliot’s outsider existence in her late thirties led to her first two works. At the outset her authorial identity had to be disguised—because of disgrace and because she was a woman—and even though acclaim made it feasible to return to London, some men who visited her did not bring their wives.
Apart though George Eliot was, her transformation happened within a wider development of womanhood at a particular time. Though a backlash against woman’s rights had seemed to blot out Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughter Mary Shelley had re-generated her mother’s “new genus” through her own self-supporting independence. As it happened, Mary Ann Evans was born in November 1819, the very month Frankenstein was in press. Where Mary Shelley had the fame of her mother to fill her sails, as well as a radical, thinking father, nothing out of the ordinary was expected of an “unpromising woman-child” born to rural obscurity. Nothing, that is, but to do a woman’s duty, to marry and reproduce—if some man could be induced to take on a girl who was plain and disturbingly learned. To change, she had to detach herself from her girlhood prospect as “a failure of Nature.”
Often thought an oddity amongst her sex, she mulled over what new thing a woman might be. This self-shaping was taking place fifteen years before John Stuart Mill challenged norms of gender with his declaration in 1869: “What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.” Mary Ann was a second daughter in a second marriage. Her Evans grandfather in Staffordshire was a carpenter, and so at first was her father’s brother Samuel. Before she was born, her father Robert Evans had moved to Warwickshire, as agent to the owner of Arbury Hall, Francis Paget Newdigate. The Evans family lived at South Farm on the Arbury estate and then, when Mary Ann was four months old, moved to the substantial Griff House, near Nuneaton. There was an older sister, Christiana (Chrissey), and a brother, Isaac. Robert Evans was able in his practical way and proud of his forward “little wench.”
But from the age of five or six, Mary Ann was at boarding schools that narrowed what a girl could utter. One was at Nuneaton, only two miles from her home. Two miles only. Not too far to travel each day. Did her mother not want to have this girl at home? Mary Ann says little of her mother, who had been a Miss Pearson, and whose Pearson sister was to be the source for narrow-minded Aunt Glegg in The Mill on the Floss. Mary Ann’s sense of herself as “unpromising” reflects the conventional view of a brainy girl.
In the absence of a mother, she had a strong attachment—it would outlast her schooldays—to the chief teacher at Nuneaton, an evangelical called Maria Lewis, who spouted pious platitudes. Mary Ann gave herself to cant with all the fervor of her nature. The child’s ear was not yet tuned to language that dies on utterance; it came to her as education, and her eagerness to learn was great. And so it happened that a verbal prison closed around this girl for years to come—a far cry from the dash of the Brontës or the polish of Mary Godwin, educated in a home that was a publishing house.
Mary Ann learnt to utter high-toned sentiments enunciated with elaborate correctness. As the years passed, she cultivated this manner with an ever-grander vocabulary. Such an education would have warped a lesser girl, as George Eliot would demonstrate in Middlemarch in the figure of Rosamond Vincy, a mannered showpiece of a girls’ school. Doctrines dinning in their ears throughout their schooldays urged girls to subdue ambition as egotism, to cultivate proper modesty and to channel other gifts into obedience to God’s voice. But none of this could blunt the girl’s thirst for knowledge with a scope few women besides Mary Shelley had achieved.
When Virginia Woolf looked back at gifted women, she placed them as “the daughters of educated men”; Jane Austen, the Brontës and Virginia Woolf herself had that advantage, and Mary Shelley too of course, and across the Atlantic, Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson. From earliest childhood their ears were tuned to the language of books with its ease and verve. Jane Austen was always on course to write that crisp sentence: “Mr. Collins was not a sensible man.”
Mary Ann Evans lacked this ease throughout her schooling. And it was not only lack; there was damage. Although her doctrinal schooling might appear harmless, the unformed mind is shut down. It’s the reverse of the educational innovations of Wollstonecraft and Claire Clairmont. Mary Ann did not feel what she mouthed, and the poor girl blamed herself for not measuring up to the pious emotion that Miss Lewis expressed so readily.
Schools trained her further to clog a self-consciously stilted language with irreproachable quotations, mostly from the Bible. Ambition does lurk behind this display, but it’s awry. She could have become a female Casaubon, the pedant wound in laborious sentences, whom the mature George Eliot will find pitiful in her great novel of provincial life, Middlemarch. Once, when she was asked who was her model for Casaubon, she pointed to herself.
During adolescence and after, she went in for an austere Calvinism, exercising its dramas of giving up—in one instance, she rationalized giving up domestic novels. Unconvincing as this is—the saintly performance of a young girl trying out a role—she did have a point about some of these shallow books, which she would shove away later in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”
Mary Ann was called home from school in 1835 when her mother fell ill. In February 1836 her mother died. Soon after, when Mary Ann was about seventeen, she went with her father on a visit to his brother Samuel in Derbyshire. In those days of poor rural roads, there were few unnecessary journeys for country folk, as in Adam Bede (where the fictional Loamshire and Stonyshire adjoin one another but feel far apart to their inhabitants). Mary Ann had not met these members of her family before, and there, in a humble cottage, she encountered an aunt in whom she glimpsed the possibility of being a different sort of woman.
Her uncle’s wife Elizabeth Evans was said to be strange. She was a preacher, vehement and, according to Mary Ann’s father, failing in discretion. A woman should have yielded, he believed, to the Wesleyan Association (of Methodists), who had barred women from preaching in 1814. Elizabeth Evans had refused to stop. This meant that so long as she went on preaching she was outlawed by her Derby congregation. But Elizabeth Evans knew what she had to do. She had a calling. She had looked in a mirror and seen a face with a crown of thorns.
Born in 1776, she’d started out a lace mender in Nottingham. At the turn of the nineteenth century she had converted to Methodism, a movement for spiritual renewal that was not all that different from the Evangelical movement within the Established Church. Samuel Evans, himself a convert, first saw her as a pretty, black-haired young woman in a Quakerish dress, standing up to preach. The two married when Elizabeth was twenty-eight and moved to Derby. When women were forbidden to preach, she and Samuel moved to Wirksworth, also in Derbyshire, where they joined the Arminian Methodists, who gave Elizabeth “full liberty of prophesying.” While Samuel ran a silk mill, Elizabeth continued preaching until 1835, when she and her husband were in their sixties. This was the year before her niece came to visit.
She met a small woman with bright, dark eyes and grey hair, “very gentle and quiet in her manners—very loving.” It was her aunt’s “spirit of love” that struck Mary Ann, who saw her as “a truly religious soul, in whom the love of God and love of man were fused together.” No cant there.
Her aunt had been ill, and Robert Evans invited her to recuperate at their home, to Mary Ann’s keen delight. One sunny afternoon in the course of their “sittings” and walks, Elizabeth related how, when she had been twenty-six, she’d visited an unhappy girl in prison. In 1802 this girl, Mary Voce, had been convicted of murdering her baby. Elizabeth Evans stayed with the girl all night in Nottingham Gaol and rode with her to execution. Many years later, her niece recalled “the deep feeling I had under this recital.” The story was to be the germ of her first novel.
Elizabeth Evans did provoke one immediate change. Mary Ann felt “corrupted” by an obligatory religious drama. She burst out to her aunt, “I make the most humiliating and appalling confessions with little or no corresponding feeling.”
It was like trying to cleanse herself of false emotion by speaking with a directness to match her aunt’s. “I do not attach much value to the disclosure of religious feelings,” she said. The forced gush, pumped out for so long, had left her inert.
“My soul seems for weeks together completely benumbed and when I am aroused from this torpid state, the intervals of activity are comparatively short. I am ever finding excuses for this in the deprivation of outward excitement and the small scope I have. . . .”
She confessed further to an “insatiable desire” for praise, and “ambition” behind it—frustrated ambition.
“‘Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel’ [Genesis] seems to be my character instead of that progress from strength to strength.”
Yet even as she castigates herself to her aunt, her voice breaks free—casting off the tedious performance for the benefit of Miss Lewis. Vital to her development was her aunt’s candor and the slow-growing seed of sympathy.
In the same year that her sister Chrissey married, Mary Ann, at seventeen, became her father’s housekeeper. While she made butter and fed the hens, she taught herself Latin and persuaded her father to allow twice-weekly lessons in Italian and German.
At that date there was nowhere for an English girl to continue her education. In America, the first women’s college, Mount Holyoke, founded in 1836, had just then come into existence, attended by Emily Dickinson in 1847–48. But in England the first Oxbridge college for women was not founded until 1869, by which time George Eliot was fifty and well along her starry path as a novelist. Back in the 1830s, she’d had to devise a course of study for herself. All the while Mary Ann had the intelligence to see that learning is not an acquisition for show but a means to “truth,” and truth for her had to be tested by observation—an acumen she would introduce into the novel as “realism.”
The other catalyst for change was a decision to move in 1841. Mary Ann told her aunt how restless she felt in Griff. To Maria Lewis she had to present her restlessness as a failure of character: an inability to pray when her intelligence rebels against housekeeping. To stir currant jelly was enough to set this off.
Mr. Evans saw her problem as a need to marry. He resolved to do something for his daughter, now going on twenty-two, with no one eligible in the vicinity of Griff. His plan was to pass on his home and post to his son, Isaac, and move to Coventry. There was a family consensus that it would be well to put this discontented young woman in the way of a wider society where she might find a husband.
She was not pretty in the ordinary way. Later, in The Mill on the Floss, her most autobiographical novel, she would follow the effect of perceived plainness and freakishness on a girl, Maggie Tulliver, who is gifted with intelligence in an era before higher education was open to women. Mary Ann caricatures her own looks: witch, hag, a failure of femininity. Yet her portraits are not plain. They show a long sensitive face with abundant brown locks folded inwards towards her long, pale cheeks. Her lips are full, and unthreatening eyes look steadily at you. There’s no assertive charm, no performance, no attempt at an image: only the charm of discernment.
Her father went to some expense to rent a house at Foleshill on the edge of Coventry. They moved in March, and for more than six months Mary Ann felt the “indifference” of the town. How lonely it was when her father went away for a week. But then, by a stroke of fortune, their neighbor, Mrs. Pears, turned out to be another thinking woman, who put Mary Ann in touch with a group of Coventry intellectuals. Mrs. Pears’s brother, Charles Bray, was a ribbon manufacturer in a fine house, Rosehill, overlooking Coventry, and his wife, Cara, was the sister of Charles Christian Hennell, author of An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity. This book took a historical view of the scriptures and came to the conclusion that the Bible mingled a good deal of myth with what was valid. By the time the Brays invited Mary Ann to dine, in November, she already had a copy of the second edition of Hennell’s Inquiry. The effect was nothing short of conversion—a counter-conversion against doctrine, and not Christian doctrine alone but against the closed mind. Her counter-conversion was encouraged by friendship with the Brays, who as Unitarians were less concerned with the divine nature of Jesus as with his humanity. They worked for progressive causes: humane treatment for the insane, wider suffrage and education.
Mary Ann embraced the Brays as well as Mrs. Bray’s sister, Sara Hennell, with all her ardor. They became her adoptive family and more: her “guardian angels.” With them she felt free to express her nature—an openness similar to what Elizabeth Evans invited. In both relationships there’s a release from the rhetoric and a shift towards honest directness which, with the Brays and Sara Hennell, is lightened by rueful humor. Her ease with them is a measure of the security she came to feel in the fond way they took her in as one of their own.
This counter-conversion embedded Mary Ann in a new set of friends. A letter to Maria Lewis carries a warning amidst the shared sentimental language of flowers, Mary Ann as twining “Clematis” and Maria as “Veronica”: her unsuspecting teacher-friend may be “startled” by a soul-change that could cause a difference of “opinion.” This warning takes the moral high ground: if the friendship should end, it will be the teacher’s fault for “ex-communicating” her. The positioning is so deft, the moral ground so assured that Maria Lewis is left no ground for protest.
Mary Ann still invites this friend to stay during her Christmas holidays. But while she’s there, on Sunday, 2 January 1842, Mary Ann refuses to go to church.
This is a famous confrontation of daughter and father, but the presence of her old friend intensifies the drama. The tie with Maria unravelled. Mary Ann shed her, as a creature undergoing metamorphosis discards its former shape and habitat.
Robert Evans was shocked. After all, he’d moved to Coventry for her sake, and instead of entering into society in the way he’d hoped, here she was shaming him. For there was talk; eyes followed Mary Ann; and advice about conceit was not wanting.
An explanatory letter to her father in February again takes the moral high ground: she would obey him in everything, she says, except in this matter of conscience; she would “cheerfully” accept it if he cast her out and would find lodgings in Leamington where she would support herself as a teacher; and she was grateful for his love and would continue to love him as ever. Since his expense for her sake had proved unjustified, he was welcome to cut her from his will and to give her portion to her brother and sister.
Her tone of a patiently righteous victim did not heal the breach. Early in March the next year, her father spoke to their house agent about putting their Coventry home on the market; he intended to live on his own property in the country.
At this moment her brother Isaac came to Mary Ann’s rescue. He considered their father was treating her harshly and invited his sister to return to their childhood home at Griff. She stayed there for a month as an unhappy appendage to the household, and then in May returned to her father. Isaac’s wife brought about a compromise: Mary Ann would accompany her father to church, silencing her resistance, while he, for his part, went to the agents to countermand his plan to give up on her. Elizabeth Evans paid a visit, but this time Mary Ann was not receptive. In retrospect, she regretted it: she had been in “a crude state of free-thinking.”
Mary Ann expected to do something useful with her brains. Teaching held no appeal. She considered it only during the clash with her father. The “ambition” she’d owned in a shamefaced manner to her aunt is not explicit. If she thought of writing novels when she was young, she never mentions it. Her first efforts show an inclination for research and scholarship, feeling her way into a woman’s anteroom to a life of the mind. It was like the space that gentlemen’s clubs used to set aside for visiting ladies. Ladies were expected to be self-effacing; their voices should not obtrude. Only two years earlier in 1840, when a contingent of women delegates crossed the Atlantic to attend the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, their credentials were refused. The first day of the convention was taken up with what came to be known as the Woman Question, and this day came to mark the start of a renewed woman’s movement forty years after the branding of its founder, Mary Wollstonecraft, as wild and wanton. But women appeared defeated that day in 1840. Delegates from America including Lucretia Mott and Sarah Pugh were permitted to attend only in women’s traditional role as listeners. A painting in the National Portrait Gallery shows the silenced American delegates at the back and in the foreground the mathematician Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, and next to her Wollstonecraft’s contemporary, the novelist and abolitionist Amelia Opie in a tall hat.
So it was that a gifted young woman coming to adulthood in the early 1840s had to ask herself not only what can I do, but also what will a woman be allowed to do? While Mary Ann had been her father’s housekeeper at Griff, she had undertaken a Chart of ecclesiastical history. A religious task was an acceptable occupation, and the dowager of the Newdigate estate gave this her blessing with a view to a publication that would contribute funds to the local church.
Another venture, starting in 1843, takes up what had been an unpublished venture of the Shelleys: to translate the Latin text of Spinoza, the Dutch precursor of the Enlightenment. An outsider of independent mind, Spinoza was congenial to Mary Ann, following her father’s threats. Spinoza found himself cast out of his own close-knit Sephardi community in Holland for questioning the nature of divinity and the provenance of the five books of Moses (the opening books of the Hebrew Bible). He was excommunicated with formal curses for his unorthodox opinions: Jews were forbidden to speak to him or to read his writings.
Mary Ann’s intellect was quickening through books that broke the paradigms of their day, Spinoza in the seventeenth century and Rousseau in the run-up to the French Revolution. These outsider-insurgents, along with her outspoken aunt, were her models. Her determination to defy her Christian community, her father, her one-time teacher and her own constructed voice as a schoolgirl, was the first test of her courage to take a stand.
Mary Ann had the security of an alternative family in the Brays. Through them she met an educated young feminist, Rufa Brabant, a translator and the daughter of a biblical scholar. When Rufa married Charles Hennell, Mary Ann was her bridesmaid, and there at the church in London, Mary Ann, aged twenty-two, met Rufa’s father, Dr. Brabant.
He was embarked on a massive study of scriptural myths. Mary Ann felt honored when he took to her at once and invited her to take the place of his daughter. No more than a few days later, she was on her way south to his home in the Wiltshire town of Devizes. There she found herself in “a little heaven” with “Dr. Brabant being its archangel,” as she put it to the Brays. The great doctor, as she saw him, asked her to make herself at home in his library, and compliments lapped about her all day long.
Each day they read Greek and German together, and there were daily walks and talks. She was never tired of his company, and she asked her father for permission to extend her stay. In her enthusiasm, reinforced by a clear conscience as to the purity of her motives, she overlooked her effect on Dr. Brabant’s wife.
Mrs. Brabant, who was blind, had received their guest kindly and laid on all manner of comfort, but she was not deaf to her sister’s suspicions of Miss Evans. Even though there was no affair, her husband’s admiration for this younger woman and his liking for her company were hurtful—(“there are worse things than adultery,” the wife of a faithful husband once remarked). Mrs. Brabant became jealous and declared that if Miss Evans did not leave the house, she would go. So it was that Mary Ann found herself hustled out of heaven.
Dr. Brabant, wanting a quiet life, let his guest take the blame—the Brays and Sara Hennell thought he behaved badly. Mary Ann had nothing good to say of him from then on; when their paths crossed, her voice was ironic. And he never completed that great book, a failure George Eliot would explore with scrupulous justice in Middlemarch: the eager young woman and the older scholar. The ardently willing Dorothea, who longs to learn Latin, Hebrew and Greek, looks past the scholar’s unappealing exterior to the intellectual treasures her imagination conjures up. But for Mary Ann, the Shelley idyll of learning was not to be.
In Middlemarch, it turns out that what the scholar, Mr. Casaubon, wants from marriage is no more than an able but uncritical woman to prop his self-esteem and make herself useful as an unpaid secretary. The reader learns not to reject Mr. Casaubon for the white moles on his face and the noise he makes drinking his soup, but for his blinkered egotism.
If Mary Ann was shaken by expulsion from the Brabant household, she resolved not to show it. Her silence was rewarded when Rufa Brabant, now Rufa Hennell, passed on to her the task of translating The Life of Jesus by a German Higher Critic (as questioners of the Bible were known), David Friedrich Strauss.
“I am sure,” Mary Ann remarked to Cara, “he must have some twinges of alarm to think he was dependent on the most contemptible specimen of the human being for his English reputation.”
A year later she had ceased to sit down to Strauss with any relish. Six pages a day, inching sentence by sentence across 1,500 pages, with a statue of the risen Jesus in front of her. Her face was pale and sickly, as she pressed on with dreadful headaches. It took two and a half years of “soul-stupefying” toil, blocking any other initiative. The frustration remained in her memory for the next twenty-five years until she channelled it into fiction: Dorothea Casaubon’s tormented obligation to subject her intelligence to working on her husband’s “Key to All Mythologies.”
During the years that Mary Ann toiled over Strauss, nothing fertile was possible. But she had the grit to keep going. She longed to cross the gender barrier and join with thinking men. A traditional route was translating—women were permitted entrée to intellectual life in their handmaid capacity. Mary Wollstonecraft, for one, did masses of translating before she crossed the barrier to the male territory of political writing, and even then, she brought out her Vindication of the Rights of Man and the more famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman anonymously. She had exceptional support from her publisher, Joseph Johnson, “the father of the book trade” in the later eighteenth century. Even the boldest of women did need the help of a well-placed man, whether it be a publisher or in Jane Austen’s case, an enlightened father.
For the time being, Mary Ann Evans had the help of Sara Hennell, whose German was good enough to check the wording as the translation went along. Sara praised its accurate delicacy. The book was published (without the translator’s name) in June 1846 and became one of the influential books on religious thinking in England. Chief backer and chair of the committee to raise funds for the translation was Joseph Parkes, father of the feminist Bessie Parkes, primed to detect Mary Ann’s promise of wings at one of her publisher’s soirées.
The book’s publisher was the entrepreneurial John Chapman, operating at the heart of literary London. He was sufficiently impressed with Mary Ann Evans to welcome her for a stay in his London house.
After her father died in 1849, Mary Ann was ready to make a move. There was a stint in Geneva, birthplace of her hero, Rousseau; then, on her return to England in 1850, a disconcerting visit to her brother at her old home in Griff. This visit confirmed for her that she no longer belonged with her family—she doesn’t specify her brother, but that’s whom she means when she says that Griff was disappointing, the country “dismal” and the people “dismal.” Feeling unwanted, she came to a decision to leave the Midlands for good.
She told Sara, “I am determined to sell everything I possess except a portmanteau and a carpet bag and the necessary contents and be a stranger and a foreigner on the earth for ever more.”
The plan was to try her hand as a reviewer in London, encouraged in this venture by the success of her immensely learned review of The Progress of the Intellect by R. W. Mackay and published by Chapman. The review is really an essay soaring and diving around the book’s philosophic reach.
Lodgings in Chapman’s house at 142 The Strand (in a prime position ten doors from Somerset House, with back rooms overlooking the Thames) cost £2.10s a week for one of the better bedrooms with an additional 3/6 for fires and a further 3/6 for boot cleaning and “attendance.” Mary Ann had now the means with a modest income from the £2,000 she inherited from her father (a good deal less, even taking inflation into account, than the £500 a year that in 1929 Virginia Woolf considered a minimum for a woman writer already equipped with a room of her own).
The Strand room was comfortable, and Chapman made her more than welcome. He was a good-looking man (actually called “Byron” in his youth) with an air of intellectual refinement. At twenty-two he’d married a stout, well-off woman called Susanna, who was fourteen years older. This took place against the wishes of her family. Chapman was a charmer. He liked women’s company—along with his eye to their attractions. After a trial stay of two weeks in London, Mary Ann resolved to return for an indefinite time.
She set out from Coventry in high spirits on 8 January 1851, this independent woman just turned thirty-one, who meant to enter the intellectual life of the capital. The journey by rail went smoothly until the train reached Weedon, when “a coated animal” climbed into her compartment. As Mary Ann described it, “I thought of all horrible stories of madmen in railways, but his white neck-cloth and thin, mincing voice soon convinced me that he was one of those exceedingly tame brutes, the clergy.”
Chapman met her at Euston, and at once took her to hear Michael Faraday lecture on the magnetism of oxygen at the Royal Society. It made her long to attend a course of lectures on geometry given by Professor Francis William Newman at the Ladies’ College (later Bedford College). When she mentioned this to Chapman, he promptly bought her a ticket. She would not allow him to pay—and though the cost was beyond her budget, she didn’t regret it. It was worth stinting on white gloves and even clean collars for the sake of up-to-the-moment scientific knowledge. As with Mary Shelley, science was part of an appetite for learning and knowledge beyond the scope of their sex.
Mary Ann was drawn to the alert Chapman in somewhat the way that Charlotte Brontë had been drawn to her married teacher, Constantin Heger, when she’d lived in the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels. As Charlotte Brontë puts this in one of her Brussels poems, unvoiced ambition—the laurel descending on a favorite’s head—prompts an emotional attraction. It’s heady for such a woman to be seen for what she feels herself to be.
Mary Ann’s attention, fixed on Chapman, had little left for Susanna Chapman, aged forty-two, her two children and their nominal governess, pretty, temperamental Elisabeth Tilley, aged thirty, who was Chapman’s mistress. Too little, it turned out. Once more, as with Mrs. Brabant, jealousy reared its head and there were ructions in the household. Chapman was often in Mary Ann’s room, taking lessons in German and Latin, and they were spied holding hands. Mrs. Chapman and Miss Tilley, who together ran the lodging house, joined forces to turn Miss Evans out.
So, a second humiliating eviction: on 24 March 1851, Mr. Chapman escorted a tearful Mary Ann to Euston to catch her train back to Coventry.
What did he feel for her? She ventured to air this before the train left.
He was not put out by the question. He held her in affection, he said, but his emotional commitments were to his wife and Miss Tilley, whom he loved in different ways. His diary suggests how taken he was with deploying his considerable charm in the presence of a heaving breast. He was in his element in emotional scenes.
Did a ménage à trois disturb Mary Ann? We don’t know, but my guess is that it did not—or no more than it took to adjust her tie to Chapman. George Eliot’s later embrace of marital fidelity should not obliterate two facts that tell us how, in earlier days, she’d tolerated infringements of fidelity on the part of both sexes. Nowhere in her correspondence with the Brays does she mention the unmentionable: that Mr. Bray fathered two illegitimate children during his marriage to Cara. There was “Baby” who had stayed with the Brays for a few weeks in 1845 before being returned to her mother. Baby had granted Mary Ann “a most gracious reception.” She had carried Baby about, inviting Baby’s smiles, and took her “to pay our respects to the Cow.” And then there was Nelly (Elinor), born in about 1846 to a nameless mother and adopted by the Brays with Mrs. Bray’s consent. They had no child of their own.
Mary Ann was again unconventional in 1848 when she took a dim view of Jane Eyre’s refusal to live with Mr. Rochester, tied to a mad wife.
“All sacrifice is good,” Mary Ann said, but the law was absurd to tie a man to “a putrefying carcass.”
Where Jane finds it in her to pity Mrs. Rochester, Mary Ann’s “putrefying carcass” is deliberately over-the-top, as though some defiance seethed under the surface. This voice tells us how strong she could be in person, how sharp and adamant at times, and confirms how easy it was for some women to think her threatening.
Soon after her retreat to Rosehill, Chapman sent her a packet of letters from his wife, berating him for his intimacy with Miss Evans. Mrs. Chapman was now suspicious of a continued correspondence with her husband about a catalogue of Chapman’s publications, with summaries of each book, which he’d asked Mary Ann to put together. She instructed Chapman to tell his wife—or, she hoped, re-tell Mrs. Chapman—that she was doing an unwanted task solely because Mr. Chapman had requested it. Her point is that, this time, the husband should take his share of responsibility. She would have Mrs. Chapman know that Miss Evans would go on doing what Mr. Chapman asked of her, but “with the utmost repugnance” and from the moral high ground of refusing payment. Though men found her low voice appealing, she could be adamant, as here in a lofty letter intended really for Mrs. Chapman (interspersed with confidential notes to Chapman), and we can see once again why the womenfolk of men she favored found her threatening. The letter is signed Marian Evans, her new version of her name.
It’s typical of Marian that she then regretted taking an injured tone. “Pray be candid,” she wrote to Chapman, “that is the first, second and third thing I require, though I am a woman and seem pettish.” Such unprofessional behavior would not do if she was to find a place in a man’s world.
The challenge was to use her emotional energy in a controlled way, neither damping it down nor allowing it to consume the mind. It’s similar to the challenge—how far can a respected female go—teased out by the young Emily Dickinson in her playful, highly gendered “Master letters” to a bearded man, whom she casts as something of a Brontë “master,” combining the erotic tug of Rochester with the sadistic edge of Heathcliff. One model for “Master” was the editor Sam Bowles, to whom Dickinson dared to say, “You have the most triumphant face out of paradise.” With intent eyes and black beard, Bowles was immensely attractive to women, and all the more because he was well disposed to those with intelligence. An additional attraction for a writer was his work as publisher. In the early 1860s, Bowles published a few of Dickinson’s best poems in his newspaper. A decade earlier, Chapman was proud to have published Marian’s influential translation. All the same, she knew when to pull back from emotional license, as Dickinson was to do, detaching herself and reading Bowles correctly. For in private he disliked the touchiness of a solitary woman writing in her bedroom.
Marian was sensitive enough to be touchy to a painful level; she had to cope with feelings close to the surface. That struggle pants through her letters, as swells of outrage or frustration or self-despair divert her into gloom. This internal struggle may be one reason why she delayed writing fiction for so long—with veiled glances at “work” unattempted. What is work? She conveys to Bray without saying it that editing, for her, was a distraction. The delay was associated with recurring despair over her long, expressive, undoll-ish face (her host in Geneva had tried to heal her depression there by painting a prettified portrait with criss-cross lacing over the bodice). Inevitably, given her gifts, there was contempt for women’s exaggerated passivity—their helplessness cultivated as an appeal to male protection.
In the face of all this, Marian’s reason always held the reins. Thanks to her command of reason, the potential break between her and Chapman in the spring of 1851 was no more than a blip.
Mr. Chapman kept her in mind for a new venture. In May 1851 he bought the Westminster Review and persuaded Marian to write a prospectus: the Review was to question religious dogma and promote national education, universal suffrage and judicial reform.
This was the period immediately after 1848 when revolts swept through France and other monarchies in Europe, demanding liberalization. Marian’s response had put her heart and mind behind this. She admired the animation of the French who, she believed, really did want social reform. The English, by contrast, were “slow crawlers,” and their military would never sympathize with workers. Monarchs, including Victoria, were museum pieces. Yet, thankfully, the British constitution would not obstruct liberty.
Chapman’s renewed sense of Marian’s distinction and his accord with her ideas led him to a step no man had ever taken: he offered her, a woman, the editorship of what was to be a leading London quarterly. Up front, Chapman was to be the editor, but he didn’t have the intellectual edge needed to restore the Westminster Review to its prestige under John Stuart Mill as editor in the late 1830s. Marian Evans was to take this on anonymously, her gender unmentioned, in the official role of assistant editor.
Chapman’s next move, in August, was to talk his womenfolk into taking Miss Evans back in a professional capacity. For her part, she accepted a relationship as helpmeet and never wavered in the full-on support she gave to Chapman in good times and bad. His finances were shaky, and sometimes there would be nothing left to pay the top contributors of the day whom Marian commissioned: the feminist Harriet Martineau (who corresponded with Charlotte Brontë), John Forster (friend and eventually biographer of Dickens) and James Anthony Froude (friend and eventually biographer of Carlyle). Passionate though she was, Marian had her capacity for calm. Returning to the Strand on 29 September 1851, she told Sara: “I am training myself up to say adieu to all delights. I care for nothing but doing my work and doing it well.”
Soon her table was “groaning with books.” The first issue was due in January, and she would edit nine more issues over the next two and a half years. By the third issue, the summer issue of 1852, which was to be the best yet, she was gratified to hear it said that the Westminster Review was now truly preeminent, outdoing even the prestigious Edinburgh Review.
In lieu of payment, Chapman offered her a life. His weekly Monday nights gathered together the progressive intellectuals of the capital, including the philosopher John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, the Italian liberator Mazzini, George Henry Lewes, who was co-editor of a weekly newspaper called The Leader, and Harriet Martineau. While Marian was at work, Carlyle dropped by to suggest the poet Browning as a contributor.
Within a month of her arrival, she met the philosopher Herbert Spencer, her exact contemporary, whose first book, Social Statics, Chapman had just then published. It predicted that humans would become so adapted to living in society that the state would fade away. Spencer’s office was across the Strand. As sub-editor of The Economist, he reviewed music, theatre and opera. This meant free tickets to performances, and one of the first of many invitations to Miss Evans was to see The Merry Wives of Windsor. George Henry Lewes, who was reviewing that night for The Leader, joined them in the box, and his withering comments jollied them through a tedious performance. He made bold to say the play should be compressed into one act and better still not produced at all.
When Marian turned to hear him, she saw “a miniature Mirabeau” (an intellectual who had been a moderate leader of the French Revolution). He was short, with untidy chin-length hair, light brown in color, and a jet of sarcastic words spurted from his lips. His wide nostrils and red, full lips, half-covered by a straggling moustache, led Jane Carlyle to dub him “Ape,” and the image stuck. He was scarred by smallpox. His contemporaries call him ugly, yet his verve made this attractive. Marian later said that a laideur divinée (divine ugliness) appealed to her. Photographs show a rather worn face with no trace of hardness, though the stiffness of early photography did not allow for the mobility of his facial expressiveness—more French perhaps than English (for he’d lived in France in his youth). His unrelenting vivacity made him seem to Marian rather skimmingly light.
She was more impressed by the distinguished appearance and seriousness of Mr. Spencer, his brain heaving with enormous thoughts. A residue of her Brabantian leanings fixed her attention on the grand scheme, a thinker opening up the physiological basis of psychology in his second book, Principles of Psychology—this is what he talked about when Marian met him. He saw development not in terms of the individual but the species. Specific strands of brain tissue, an association of ideas, he argued, could be passed from one generation to the next. Spencer applied a pre-Darwinian idea of evolution to psychology and sociology.
Soon after, Marian accompanied him to Kew Gardens on what she called a “proof-hunting” expedition. She comments humorously on his insistent theories. “Of course, if the flowers didn’t correspond to the theories, we said, too bad, ‘tant pis pour les fleurs.’”
The company of men seemed preferable at first. Soon, however, Marian began to meet women who were to make transforming contributions to society. There was the young Florence Nightingale, just returned from her investigation of nursing at Kaiserswerth, who came to call. Marian liked her loftiness of mind, reflected in her form and manners. She had with her a staunch aunt, Julia Smith (known affectionately as Aunt Ju), who backed her nursing intentions and was to visit her at Scutari during the Crimean War. And Marian was “agreeably impressed” with Florence Nightingale’s first cousin, the Barbara Leigh Smith whom Marian had met already at Chapman’s salon, who was to become a leading figure in women’s higher education.
Yet despite these promising contacts, and despite achieving what she’d hoped to do, Marian was often low. These moods were linked with headaches and bursts of weeping she calls “hysterics” —the sexist medical term reserved for women’s mental sufferings. Parted now from the Brays, she feared loneliness as a single woman in her thirties. Her new friends, though also single, were for the most part younger, blither, more self-confident as the daughters of educated and wealthy men, securely placed in the upper middle class.
Marian distrusted her ability to make friends. In March 1852, she burst out in gratitude to a women’s rights activist called Mrs. Taylor, who’d suggested a visit and appeared to Marian one of those “life-preservers—which relenting destiny sends me now and then to buoy me up. For you must know,” she went on confidingly, “that I am not a little desponding now and then, and think that old friends will die off, while I shall be left without the power to make new ones. You know how sad one feels when a great procession has swept by one, and the last notes of the music have died away, leaving one alone with the fields and sky. I feel so about life sometimes. It is a help to read such a life as Margaret Fuller’s.”
Margaret Fuller, a New Englander, had been the first woman ever to enter public life as a literary journalist.
Fuller had been encouraged by Emerson, whom Marian had in fact met. They had breakfasted together at the Brays’ in 1848. Emerson had seen Marian as “a young woman with a calm, serious soul,” and Marian had looked up to Emerson as “the first man I have ever met.”
Margaret Fuller, who had died just two years later, had worked for the Dial, the journal of the New England Transcendentalists, led by Emerson. After the Dial folded, she had earned her living as a journalist in New York; then moved to Italy. There she’d lived with an Italian, Ossoli, and borne a son. Tragically, in 1850 she, together with her child and Ossoli, were shipwrecked en route back to America—all were drowned off the coast of Long Island.
Reading Fuller’s memoirs, Marian looked into the mirror of a woman who in youth had lived for work alone, too brainy to be more than a friend to men. One entry in Fuller’s journal touched her to the quick: “I shall always reign through the intellect, but the life! the life! O my God! Shall that never be sweet?”
A sweet prospect of her own was continuing to emerge in the figure of Herbert Spencer. Like Marian, Spencer was a self-taught intellectual from a Midlands town (Derby). He favored votes for women and deplored militarism and imperialism—he would oppose the Anglo-Boer War at the end of the century. He’s barely remembered today, but in the 1850s he was on his way to becoming an eminent Victorian whose weighty philosophical-science sold a million copies.
This well-looking bachelor enjoyed Marian’s gifts of mind combined with womanly gentleness. She proved a discerning companion for a reviewer’s evenings at concert halls and theatres. He had only to step across the Strand with tickets in hand—it might be Donizetti’s opera I Martiri at Covent Garden—and she was ready to go, two unattached people free of domestic obligations.
But by April 1852 they were meeting so often that Spencer began to worry. It occurred to him to clarify the situation in case of misunderstanding.
Marian apparently reassured him that it had never been her habit to imagine that a man was in love with her.
Had he insulted her by suggesting that she might be in love when he was not?
To his relief, Marian took this “smilingly.” The more truthful he was, she said, the more she liked him—rather more than she was allowing.
With nothing now to deter them, they began to be together every day. Marian reported to the Brays that he was “a good, delightful creature,” and she always felt better for seeing him. As family might, the Brays invited Spencer for a stay in Coventry; he and Marian agreed that he should come when she was already there. They could not travel together, Marian explained to the Brays, because of gossip circulating in London that she and Spencer were engaged.
The hospitable Brays also invited George Henry Lewes to visit, but Marian did not want him. She asked the Brays to find a time when she would not be there because, she said, much as she liked Lewes, he was too “Londonish.” His fizzing mots would disrupt their conversation.
Marian didn’t especially take to London society. She had always ridiculed herself as ugly—a freak creature, who shrank from exposure in a ballroom where other women waltzed round and round in swaying crinolines. She could not afford to freshen her wardrobe and refused Bessie Parkes’s invitations to balls saying she might look like “a wilted cabbage.” It was all right to be a “dowdy” at dinners where the focus was on conversation—there, she was in her element. In fact, she was striking rather than dowdy. Her dinner dress was black velvet, and she was the sole woman guest amongst politicians and authors in the Parkes’ Savile Row house. “She would talk and laugh softly, and look up into my father’s face respectfully, while the light of the great hall-lamp shone on the waving masses of her hair and the black velvet fell in folds about her feet.”
Yet the more Spencer sought her out, and the more she liked him, the deeper she plunged into wells of self-despair. She felt she looked “haggard as an old witch” or like one of those hags by the wayside in Italy; only worse, she said, for want of dark eyes and black hair to offset skin like parchment.
At some point between May and July 1852, it came to her that if Spencer took up with someone else, she must die. It was a joke, yet not quite a joke, when she told Sara that she might have to commit suicide once the revises for the summer issue were safely delivered. Continuous companionship now made the prospect of loneliness all the more acute, and two past evictions by wives had made her painfully aware that if Spencer married, she would again be frozen out, bereft of that intimacy even if sadly it were innocent.
Attentive as Spencer was, he volunteered no sign of attraction. Did the problem lie with her looks, or did the problem lie in Spencer? Maybe she was going about with a man whose temperament was cool verging on chill. During a heat wave early in July, she teased him with gratitude for “that tremendous glacier of yours” providing her with “lumps of ice.”
Since they were so well suited as companions, she wondered if it might it be possible to devise a permanent tie based on rational companionship? In July she mulled over this while on holiday at Broadstairs on the coast. And so it happened when Spencer came to visit her (twice) at Chandos Cottage that she ventured to put her proposal on paper. She knew how startling a proposal from a woman would be. Unusually, there’s no date, no signature. Shedding formalities and hot with purpose, she plunges into the cold without her customary address to “Dear Friend.”
I know this letter will make you very angry with me, but wait a little, and don’t say anything to me while you are angry. I promise not to sin any more in the same way.
My ill health is caused by the hopeless wretchedness which weighs upon me. I do not say this to pain you, but because it is the simple truth which you must know in order to understand why I am obliged to seek relief.
I want to know if you can assure me that you will not forsake me, that you will always be with me as much as you can and share your thoughts and feelings with me. If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything—I would be very good and cheerful and never annoy you. But I find it impossible to contemplate life under any other conditions. If I had your assurance I could trust that and live upon it. I have struggled—indeed I have—to renounce everything and be entirely unselfish, but find myself utterly unequal to it. Those who have known me best have always said that if I loved any one thoroughly my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly. You curse the destiny which has made the feeling concentrate itself upon you—but if you will only have patience with me you shall not curse it long. You will find that I can be satisfied with very little, if I am delivered from the dread of losing it.
I suppose no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this—but I am not ashamed of it, for I am conscious that in the light of reason and true refinement I am worthy of your respect and tenderness, whatever gross men or vulgar-minded women might think of me.
This is curiously like Jane Eyre’s defiant proposal to Rochester with an eloquence that breaks through the self-silencing expected of a lady. Both Jane and the real-life Marian are unlike other women in their candor, unable to go on waiting for a man to speak. Refusing to falsify their nature, both rebel against submissiveness to a gender code based on female passivity.
Spencer thought of their tie as “intimate,” but he did not mean physical intimacy. Marian did not fail to understand this in so cool a character with a mind to his health, and she found a way around it. It’s often assumed that she asked Spencer to marry her, but she doesn’t mention marriage; instead she lays out a partnership of comfort and continuity.
Spencer did respect this overture. He said nothing, not even in his Autobiography published when George Eliot was famous; nothing until after her death when he confided to a friend what he’d felt.
“Just what I had feared might take place, did take place. Her feelings became involved and mine did not. The lack of physical attraction was fatal. Strongly as my judgment prompted, my instincts would not respond.”
He gave her a similar response at the time. She was devastated, but her next letter to Spencer is even more extraordinary. She had the maturity to turn humiliation into sympathy for the man who hurt her. She’s astonishingly calm and resolute. Her formality in addressing Spencer by his surname is not detached; it’s designed to retrieve the relationship on a different footing.
Broadstairs Thursday Evening [29? July].
Dear Mr. Spencer
It would be ungenerous in me to allow you to suffer even a slight uneasiness on my account which I am able to remove. I ought at once to tell you, since I can do so with truth, that I am not unhappy. The fact is, all sorrows sink into insignificance before the one great sorrow—my own miserable imperfections, and any outward hap is welcome if it will only serve to rouse my energies and make me less unworthy of my better self. I have good hope that it will be so now, and I wish you to share this hope if it will give you any satisfaction.
If, as you intimated in your last letter, you feel that my friendship is of value to you for its own sake—mind on no other ground—it is yours. Let us, if you will, forget the past, except in so far as it may have brought us to trust in and feel for each other, and let us help to make life beautiful to each other as far as fate and the world will permit us. Whenever you like to come to me again, to see the golden corn before it is reaped, I can promise you such companionship as there is in me, untroubled by painful emotions . . .
Ever yours faithfully
Only five months after Bessie Parkes discerned Marian’s potential “wings,” we glimpse, for the first time, the quality of feeling that was to make her novels fly: no longer that “crude state of free thinking,” instead a renewal of empathy, an ideal for human conduct, yet beyond the reach of most.
It’s tempting to pity Marian’s attachments—Dr. Brabant, Chapman and now Spencer—and to put them down to feminine clinginess. Certainly, she owned to a need for someone to lean on, but that in itself is not peculiar. I think her need had to do with her originality rather than weakness. Like other original women, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Charlotte Brontë, she sought an established mentor (equivalent to patrons of old) who would affirm the possibilities surging in her. Was she naïve to the effect of her sexuality? Was she naïve to her own needs, even? Maybe not. But Spencer was not for her.
Work once more brought calm, as she conferred—colleague to colleague—with Chapman about missed opportunities for the Review: rival quarterlies had got in first with the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art and with a subject that continued to attract Marian: the plucky life of the American feminist Margaret Fuller.
This was how she saw she too had to be, “plucky” as a substitute for happiness. No one, she resolved, was to know what she suffered. That she did suffer is plain from stray remarks: an apology to Cara Bray for being “irritable and out of sorts” when Cara came to stay in August, and a confession to Sara that she was “in a croaking mood” early in September—she has to “wait and wait” for it to pass.
It occurred to her how cut off she was from her family, and she ventured to write to her much older half-sister, Mrs. Henry Houghton, with an appeal to be in touch. “I live in a world . . . so remote from the one in which we used to sympathise with each other, that I find positive communication with you difficult. But I am not unfaithful to old loves—they were sincere, and they are lasting.”
Throughout the late summer and into the autumn of 1852, she was making deliberate efforts to restore her “better self.” One of her first efforts was to defend George Henry Lewes against an attack by Harriet Martineau (as rival commentator on the sociologist Comte). Lewes pops up no less than four times in a letter Marian writes on her return to London at the start of September.
Marian had been repeatedly dismissive of Lewes. In 1852 she’d accompanied Spencer to a set of tableaux devised by Lewes, which she found far too long. She had taken the first two volumes of Lewes’s new novel Rose, Blanche and Violet to Broadstairs and left the third volume behind: “I don’t care to have it,” she’d remarked to Spencer. Though Lewes contributed to every number she edited (starting with a piece she commissioned on lady novelists), she considered his articles “defective.” The lightness of his manner made him appear superficial.
Spencer’s articles, on the other hand, were rather too heavy. His subject was evolution, and he promised to lighten his next, for the October issue, by introducing more quotes to break up his page. Marian awaited it with the resignation of a child opening her mouth for a “stone” sweet. That’s all that crosses her lips in the aftermath of Spencer’s rejection. No one was to know. All she reveals to Sara is that, back in her Strand room, she feels like a mad person with four walls closing in on her; her hands are wet with perspiration. But she doesn’t die; she takes herself away, to Edinburgh and then to Ambleside in the Lake District, to stay with Harriet Martineau at her home, The Knoll, where Charlotte Brontë had stayed two years before. Martineau gives Marian a smiling welcome—a model of a contented single woman. And then Marian moves on to Rosehill. There with the Brays she is sure to be loved, and this restores her: she feels “brave” and ready again for work.
On her return to London, in October, Lewes handed her a critic’s bouquet. In his own journal, The Leader, he included two and a half columns in praise of the Westminster Review under new hands. It was once again what it had been under John Stuart Mill, he said. “It is now a Review that people talk about, ask for at the clubs and read with respect. The variety and general excellence of its articles are not surpassed by any Review.”
Lewes had founded The Leader in 1850 together with his best friend Thornton Hunt, the son of Shelley’s friend Leigh Hunt. Thornton as a child had stayed with the Shelleys at Albion House and remembered Mary as untidy, distracted and cross, as well she may have been while trying to complete and sell Frankenstein and having, at the same time, to contend with a houseful of guests, including the Hunts’ numerous, unruly offspring.
George was married to the beautiful and well-born Agnes Jervis. In 1850 the youngest of the Lewes’ four sons died in infancy, and a month later Mrs. Lewes bore a boy, Edmund—by his friend Thornton. Lewes gave the newborn his name. The decision upheld a code of sexual freedom, which Lewes shared with Agnes.
When two years later Agnes gave birth to another child by Hunt, Lewes came to accept that his marriage was in name only. All the same he was a father and still the supporter of his wife and her mixed brood, for the law did not permit divorce once a husband condoned adultery. Lewes did not talk about his situation—it was not generally known.
He had advantages neither Marian nor Spencer had enjoyed: a classical education at Dr. Burney’s school in Greenwich; a period at medical school which woke his taste for science; and a polymath alacrity that led him into a variety of literary fields: playwriting, fiction, criticism. In a keen review of Jane Eyre, he’d recognized elements of autobiography fuelling the novel from well below the surface, and Charlotte Brontë had been glad to correspond with him—until they fell out over his preference for Jane Austen and his criticism of her next and more overtly feminist novel Shirley as the flawed work of a woman. Later, when Mrs. Gaskell documented this clash in her Life of Charlotte Brontë, Lewes was tactless enough to tell Mrs. Gaskell that when it came to the highest achievements, women could not match men. It was part of the armory against women who encroached on male territory, and such a man will make exceptions for a few individuals. In an unsigned review of Villette in The Leader, he did continue to recognize the power of Charlotte’s writing.
Soon after Lewes published the admiring review, in March 1853 they met at a gathering. Charlotte asked Mrs. Gaskell not to point him out; she wished to identify him herself and did so as soon as he came into the room. On seeing his face, her anger dissolved almost in tears because he looked “wonderfully” like her dead sister Emily, “her eyes, her very nose, the somewhat prominent mouth, the forehead, even at moments, the expression.” He sat with her most of the evening, taking in her conversation, but then put her down to Marian as “a little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid,” which is to say he did not elicit, as others did, the glow of her eyes and the full charm of her tartness.
Marian waved “plain” and “provincial” away, for she was overcome by Villette, “a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power.” Here was Lucy Snowe, who goes beyond what a plain, provincial woman is deemed to be. When she’s asked, “Who are you?,” she answers truly, “I am a rising character.”
Here is an alternative model to the feminist imitation of the dominant order. Charlotte Brontë imagines a rare woman who can rise on her own terms, developing slowly from within so as to release a different kind of agency and passion, and a moral being distinct from convention. What are women to be? Even the novelist is not prepared to say. “Pause. Pause,” the novel ends, leaving the question open for a time to come. It’s a question George Eliot would take up.
Marian approached Lewes to review Villette and was disappointed by his “unsatisfactory” bias towards Mrs. Gaskell’s Ruth (where an unmarried mother must die if she is to be forgiven). In Marian’s view, Mrs. Gaskell could agitate the reader for a while but could not engage our lasting sympathy, nor could she do “the half tints” of real life.
Marian was herself a creature of half tints. That astute observer, Bessie Parkes, was touched by the way Marian would sit close, look straight into her eyes and detect a hint of arrogance. At the same time love for a friend, Marian said, blinded her to any fault.
She had indeed been selfless in her unpaid support for Chapman and in the consideration she’d offered Spencer when she’d forced herself to back away. “Egotism”—understandable if we call it ambition—had been the inward enemy she had tried to subdue all through her youth, and then it happened that ambition won out during a family crisis. In December 1852 her sister Chrissey’s husband, Charles Clark, a doctor, had suddenly died in his early forties, leaving her with six children. Marian went back to the Midlands to help, and there she decided that Chrissey wasn’t so badly off with the rent-free use of a house their brother owned. Marian’s quick return to London upset her brother Isaac. This is how she presents their quarrel:
I had agreed with Chrissey that, all things considered, it was wiser for me to return to town—that I could do her no substantial good by staying another week, while I should be losing time as to other matters. Isaac, however, was very indignant to find that I had arranged to leave without consulting him and thereupon flew into a violent passion with me . . . , winding up by saying that he desired I would “never apply to him for anything whatever”—which, seeing that I have never done so, was almost as superfluous as if I had said that I would never receive a kindness from him.
Marian turns Isaac into a Victorian caricature of paternalistic authority, an image that has stuck ever since (reinforced by their later differences), but the fact remains that he was left with the day-to-day impact of Chrissey’s blow.
One other fact left Marian guilty. It was the age-old custom that an unmarried sister—having no life of her own—would lend a hand. This obligation was in the air in April 1853 when Chrissey told Marian she was “rent” by a suggestion that her children be removed from her to an Infant Orphan Asylum. Marian toyed with an idea that “we” should send Chrissey’s eldest son, who couldn’t have been more than fourteen, to Adelaide, Australia. Obviously, Marian meant to fund this or help to do so. Or should she go with Chrissey and all her family, to settle them, and then come back?
The facts were these: Chrissey had about £100 a year (from the sale of her husband’s medical practice) and six dependants; Marian had £200 a year and no dependants. Should Marian join Chrissey and pool resources, in which case there would be enough for everyone? But this would mean an end to all that Marian had achieved so far. The impossibility of this hit her, releasing an outburst directed against the provincial life she’d managed to leave. She uttered, in confidence to Cara, words she normally silenced: “hideous” provincials, “ignorant bigots.” Later, George Eliot was to dramatize this through the slowly accumulating scenes of Middlemarch, a fictional town in the Midlands with its small-minded stagnation, its obstruction of Dorothea, the idealistic wife of a landowner, and its resistance to Dr. Lydgate, the idealistic medical man, who try in their different ways to bring in reform.
. . . To live with her [Chrissey] in that hideous neighbourhood amongst ignorant bigots is impossible to me. It would be moral asphyxia . . . Then I dare not incur the material responsibility of taking her away from Isaac’s house and its attendant pecuniary advantages.
And then, characteristically, she calms down and sees that her brother is better than he appears when angry. She can tick off herself:
Yet how odious it seems that I, who preach self-devotion, should make myself comfortable here while there is a whole family to whom, by renunciation of my egotism, I could give almost everything they want. And the work I can do in other directions is so trivial!
Having examined this contradiction, there comes, swift on its heels, yet another confidence to Cara that is drawing her back to London. It’s that she’s taking “doses of agreeable follies,” mainly with Mr. Lewes. The word “unsatisfactory” about his review of Villette, on 18 March 1853, was the last adverse comment she would ever make about him. From 28 March her tone changes markedly. There was a pleasant evening, with “Lewes, as always, genial and amusing. He has quite won my liking, in spite of myself.”
At a time when Spencer had withdrawn into mildly steady friendship and when she could not please her family without destroying herself, here was an enthusiast who favored her—and not the superior, learned sort she usually admired. After falling successively for men who could not love her, here was someone ready to do so. These days when Spencer came to call, he sometimes brought “your excellent friend” Mr. Lewes along, and then, once, when Spencer got up to go, Lewes said he’d stay.
“Mr. Lewes is especially kind and attentive and has quite won my regard after having a good deal of my vituperation,” she comments to Sara. He was “much better than he seems—a man of heart and conscience wearing a mask of flippancy.”
Heart and conscience. Clearly, by now she knew. My guess is that this was the time—between the French theatre that April and a performance of Rossini’s William Tell—that Lewes revealed his situation, locked by law to Agnes and the children born to her and her lover. There was now a third child by Hunt on the way, and while these births were taking place, Hunt’s wife was also giving birth almost simultaneously. Marian was singled out for this confidence. From now on her “vituperations” against Lewes melted into gratitude for the kindness of this scarred man.
As a playwright and reviewer, Lewes could take her behind the scenes at the theatre, and behind the scenes too in his personal life. In a sense, behind the scenes is exactly where George Eliot would take the novel, away from the grotesque melodrama of Dickens and into the drama of interior life—that in many ways was opened up by Villette. There, amidst the mundane doings of an English schoolmistress in a foreign city, is a woman’s passion, acute but concealed. Passion of this sort was on her mind when she went with Lewes to see the French actress Rachel perform in Adrienne Lecouvreur. Rachel is called Vashti in Villette, and Lucy Snowe is both gripped and appalled to see desire as she understands it exposed on the stage. It opens up that question of a woman’s desire: how far can a modest woman express the quality of her feeling?
It’s not desire itself that’s in question, for Villette makes it plain that desire exists in a woman’s nature; it’s a question of what a partner will encourage. In the novel, the princely gentleman, seated beside Lucy Snowe at the theatre, would be put off by any sign of unladylike alacrity.
All that’s certain is that Lewes sat beside Marian on a Saturday night in June 1853 when she expected to see—and disappointingly did not—the torrential feeling that Charlotte Brontë had witnessed in Rachel. Was un-acted desire in the air?
From the start of 1853, Marian wanted to leave the setup at the Strand. When she declared her work to be “trivial,” what did she mean? She was acting both as commissioning editor and copy editor. She also wanted more privacy and less dependency on Chapman. He begged Marian to stay until the April issue of the Review came out. Her commitment to Chapman was hard to break; the Review would suffer if she left.
Until then, a busy editor had to protect her time, and in the course of 1853 she was too busy for the social duties. Marian could joke about social calls. “I sometimes wonder if you expect me to return calls and repay civilities like a Christian,” she teased Bessie, “or whether it is sufficiently understood between us that I am a heathen and an outlaw.”
In the end it took until November 1853 for Marian to move from the Strand to independent lodgings at 21 Cambridge Street, Hyde Park. There, at last, she was free of Chapman’s financial and domestic tensions and free too of unpaid toil, though it’s conceivable that Chapman had let her stay rent-free in return for her work. She now had to pay £9 a month for her room. Chapman paid her £50 for a translation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity—two shillings a page—which she thought pathetic, but she needed the income. She toiled over this, complaining of headaches, for the next eight months. All the while, though, she found herself “exceedingly comfortable” in a room of her own and glad to discover that she no longer had to find a social life through Chapman. She had frequent guests, including Chapman himself, the steady Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau and of course Lewes.
Her regard for Lewes rose that November when he visited Cambridge and found that students had taken up his book, A Biographical History of Philosophy (newly issued in a second edition). Over the next few months, he was overworking to pay Agnes’ bills—Hunt made no financial contribution to the care of his three children—and Lewes too was prey to headaches and ringing in the ears. There was no knowing how many more children Agnes would have with Hunt, with the prospect of Lewes having to support them for the rest of his life. Carlyle spotted the difference between the two groups of offspring, and he didn’t keep this to himself: Hunt’s children were dark; the Lewes boys fair. There appears to have been no chance that Agnes’ father, Swynfen Jervis (a high-society MP with an estate on the border of Wales), would help. The burden fell entirely on Lewes, who had no money apart from his earnings as a writer. Conceivably, the pressure—with no end in sight—intensified his symptoms to the point of collapse. This would explain his doctor’s order to take two months off, starting in mid-April 1854. While he was away, staying with a friend in the country, Marian wrote his columns and reviews for the Leader.
Idleness didn’t suit Lewes—he was no better for it. What did appeal to him was the prospect of writing a biography of Goethe (going back to an essay he’d done on Goethe and science for the Review). The biography required research in Weimar, and Marian thought to travel with him and to translate the German passages he wished to quote. In July 1854, at the time her translation of Feuerbach came out (the only one of her books to carry her given name, Marian Evans, on the title page), she and Lewes made a decision that was to shape the rest of their lives: they would take off for Weimar together.
“I am preparing to go to ‘Labassecour’” (Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels in Villette), was all she told Sara. As she prepares for departure, she slips into the guise of solitary Lucy Snowe sailing abroad. Only Bray (who lent her £100) and Chapman are aware that she will not travel on her own.
As the late summer darkness fell on 20 July 1854, she closed the door for good on her lodging at 21 Cambridge Street. She carried a travelling bag, and with her other hand she signalled to a hansom cab. The coachman set her down at St. Katherine’s Wharf, and she climbed aboard the Ravensbourne, a new fast steamer bound for Antwerp. By then it was after 11:00 at night. She stood alone—no other passenger in sight.
Twenty minutes passed. Fear mounted. Could something have prevented Lewes from joining her?
Then she saw his face looming through the dark, as she put it in her journal, “looking for me over the porter’s shoulder.” Soon they were gliding down the Thames. They spent all night on deck, pacing arm in arm until they saw dawn break between two and three in the morning as the steamer passed up the Scheldt. She marked the “first faint blush of the dawn reflected in the glassy river,” and then the sun rose “and lighted up the sleepy shores of Belgium.”
As with Mary Godwin landing at Calais that July morning forty years before, this was the dawn of a new existence. To have crossed the Channel was a crossing from a single to a paired life.
Each day of their slow movement towards Weimar was like a wedding tour with a companion to share the sights and pleasure in returning “home.” Home from their first day in Antwerp was to be together in their room, to open a window and gaze out on the “evening red melting away over the Scheldt and its shipping,” and in Brussels on the fifth and sixth day, Tuesday and Wednesday, “melting” again in the noon heat: “lying melting in our beds through the middle of the day.” On the seventh day Marian gazed at the amphitheater of wooded hills around the river valley at Liège “in a state of rapture.”
Chapman did not expect Lewes to be faithful. With his “Londonish” air of cynical vivacity, Lewes was not regarded as a safe prospect for a woman. Marian’s feminist friends thought him a “sensual” man—not a compliment. To them it meant careless roving. Without the legal protection of marriage, a woman was more liable to be abandoned, and then too there was the danger of unwanted pregnancy—most wives had a baby every year or two. All this is in the air when Jane Eyre refuses to live with married Mr. Rochester.
You’re an orphan, he reminds Jane. “Who cares what you do?”
“I care for myself,” is Jane’s retort. Mr. Rochester’s history of French mistresses is hardly reassuring.
Marian rejected Jane’s view from the start. She was prepared to trust Lewes, and she wrote from the Continent to assure Chapman she was not mistaken. It was a mature, considered reading of a man’s character; different from Mary Godwin’s departure with Shelley, with the unhesitating abandonment of the young. Two years later Marian confided to Barbara Leigh Smith—a young woman played on by Chapman’s seductive repertoire—how happy Lewes made her. Barbara, reporting to Bessie Parkes, said they would have to revise their opinion of Lewes.
“Marian tells me that in their marital relationship he is unsensual, extremely considerate.” Barbara adds that they practiced birth control and intended to have no children.
When it came to birth control, this couple was half a century in advance of common practice. We recall that back in 1815 Byron owned “cundums,” and that only aristocrats could afford them, mainly to protect a man from venereal disease. If Byron had only his own protection in mind, he didn’t have to waste a cundum on Claire Clairmont if she was a virgin. There was no notion of offering reciprocal protection, and not the remotest idea of birth control, in contrast to the responsible forethought of Lewes and Marian as they began to live together.
Books sealed their bond. Each day it was their habit to read aloud to each other, sometimes for hours. Like Mary Godwin and Shelley setting out for France in 1814, they carried a load of books.
Trains took them to Antwerp, Brussels, Namur, Liège. En route to Cologne, Dr. Brabant joined them in their railway carriage and arranged for David Strauss to come to their hotel at breakfast next day. With these encounters, all charm of rapport vanished. Cologne was the only place Marian found “dismal.”
“Strauss looks so strange and cast-down,” she reports to Bray, “and my deficient German prevented us from learning more of each other than our exterior which in the case of both would have been better left to the imagination.”
Her German was not deficient. It did not occur to her that the strange manner of Strauss could have been a foretaste of what a single woman living with a married man must expect.
It didn’t take long for gossip to circulate. When Marian and Lewes had strolled on deck as they crossed the Channel, they had chanced on someone they knew, a man called Noel, who was part of the Bray-Hennell circle. The news soon reached Thomas Woolner, a sculptor who was part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was scathing to the Scottish poet William Bell Scott, one of Lewes’s oldest friends: “. . . blackguard Lewes has bolted with a – – – -.” “Slut” is it, or worse? He calls the couple “stink pots of humanity.” George Combe, a phrenologist, regretted introducing Marian to friends. For her to have acted as she did led Combe to enquire if there might be insanity in her family. Carlyle spoke reprovingly of a “strong-minded woman” who lures a husband away from his wife and children.
Stung by degrading reports of their “running away,” Marian took the high ground. For herself, she was “entirely indifferent,” she declared to Chapman, but since this did not apply to Lewes, she was hot in his defense.
62a Kaufgasse, Weimar
[15 October 1854]
. . . This [running away from his wife and family] is so far from being true that he is in constant correspondence with his wife and is providing for her to the best of his power, while no man can be more nervously anxious than he about the future welfare of his children. . . .
The phrase “run away” as applied to me is simply amusing—I wonder what I had to run away from. But as applied to Mr. Lewes it is more serious . . . He has written to Carlyle and to Robert Chambers, stating as much of the truth as he can without too severely inculpating others . . .
I have nothing to deny or to conceal. I have done nothing with which any person has a right to interfere. I have surely full liberty to travel in Germany, and to travel with Mr. Lewes. No one here seems to find it at all scandalous that we should be together . . . But I do not wish to take the ground of ignoring what is unconventional in my position. I have counted the cost of the step that I have taken and am prepared to bear, without irritation or bitterness, renunciation of all my friends . . .
Your obliged friend
Lewes considered returning to London to refute the “run-away” report but feared the worry might undermine his precari- ous health. Instead he made two decisions in Weimar. When he learnt that Agnes Lewes was soon to give birth to a fourth child by Hunt, he resolved on a separation. It means that Marian gave herself to Lewes before he planned to separate from Agnes, and this suggests how entire her trust in him had been—or the risk she’d dared to take.
Lewes’s other decision was to give up the Leader. From now on he would rely on writing books for his main income. Marian was at hand to encourage this. In effect he had a first-class editor at his side. And further, she pledged her independent earning power to share Lewes’s burden of responsibility.
A new family crisis touched her more than scandal did. Chrissey’s second son, aged about fourteen, had been removed from school and put to work. He was “naughty” and lost his job; then sent to sea, and within a few months he drowned. While this was going on Marian and Lewes were in Weimar, hard at work to support Agnes. Marian was troubled not only for Chrissey’s sake but because she could not afford—in every sense—to involve herself. She had chosen to support Lewes and his dependants. Perhaps she reasoned that Chrissey had Isaac.
Tucked away in the bag she’d packed to leave on 20 July was a chapter of a novel. It was like the box that Mary Godwin had packed when she left with Shelley, intending to show him the “productions” of her mind. Marian’s novel opened in a rural village in Staffordshire, the setting of her Evans family a generation or two back. She had yet to bring out the dramatic possibilities of obscure lives and unheard voices. This manuscript lay silent amongst her things during their three months in Weimar.
They expected the precinct of a court and were surprised to find themselves in a “dull, lifeless village” with “rough, straggling” houses, skinny sheep and only one small bookshop. But to their joy they discovered the composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt in residence as Director of the Court Theatre and Kapellmeister (a position once held by Bach). Liszt had a mistress with him, a Polish princess, Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who had persuaded him to give up performing to delirious audiences and concentrate on composing. She was plump with blackish teeth and arrayed for breakfast in a white gown lined with orange and a violet-trimmed cap.
Marian sat where she could see Liszt’s hands on the piano as he entranced his guests with one of his religious fantasies. “For the first time in my life I beheld real inspiration,” Marian wrote in her journal, “for the first time I heard the true tones of the piano.” As he played he looked as grand as a Michelangelo prophet, she thought, but in repose his face had a tenderness that might serve as a model for a St. John. She described his looks to Bessie as the divine ugliness when “the soul gleams through it, which is my favourite kind of physique.” Twenty years later, Liszt would be a source for the musician Klesmer in her novel, Daniel Deronda. After her initial awe, she found herself able to tell Liszt her ideas and feelings.
Lewes’s chief purpose in Weimar was to interview everyone he could find who had seen Goethe. There was Gustav Schöll, Director of the Art Institute, who had edited the letters and essays of Goethe and was full of accurate information, and Kräuter, Goethe’s last secretary. Goethe’s daughter-in-law Ottilie gave Lewes entrée to the poet’s study and bedroom, which were not open to the public.
Meanwhile, they had to support Agnes Lewes and six children. Lewes sent them the £20 he still earned each month for his columns in the Leader, and Marian was grateful to Chapman for his offer of paid work. For his October issue of the Westminster Review, she prepared the first of an extraordinary run of essays between 1854 and 1856. The best response to slander is to be happy, and for her to be happy was to fill the mind.
What’s going on in her mental cocoon is not visible in her Journal. It records mainly her daily doings: the sights she sees and the people she meets. Nor is it visible in the Letters, where she’s absorbing and defying her outcast position. The transformation lies in the shadow of certain essays, not only her adaptation to realism, picking up on advances in art, but also in the way she’s stretching herself against the model of advanced women in the past and shedding what’s silly in her sex.
It can’t be entirely irrelevant that before Marian left her post at the Westminster Review, Thomas Huxley, the evolutionist who was shoulder-to-shoulder with Darwin, appeared at Chapman’s Monday gatherings, on his return from his own exploratory voyaging. As editor, Marian Evans sent Huxley biological publications for review. It was a historic moment when these intellectuals stood on the cusp of the world-changing idea that humans had not been placed on earth by a divine being but had developed from lower species across aeons of geological time. Here was scientific underpinning for Marian Evans to develop further the possibilities she sensed inside her.
It struck her that French women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had advanced beyond women anywhere else. The essay, “Woman in France: Mme. de Sablé,” looks at the way men from all walks of life came to women’s salons for the quality of understanding they offered. Mme. de Sablé was “a woman whom men could more than love—whom they could make their friend, confidante, and counsellor, the sharer not of their joys and sorrows only, but of their ideas and aims.”
Through such a woman, Marian Evans can explore what she herself had been for Spencer and was now all the more for Lewes. She has in mind a marriage of true minds, and in Weimar, in August 1854, writing from the test ground of her own experience, she conjures up an image of female empowerment. She singles out French women for their confident centrality in their culture, their influence on a language that can unite an extreme of sensibility with an extreme of conciseness; and as she admires above all their rapid vivacity of mind, we glimpse a variant creature moving below the surface whose habitat will not be the shallows: a solider, deep-sea creature, slower, more patient in her judgement and with an encompassing breadth of mind.
For such a creature to surface, she must swim away from the shoals. Most women’s books are fit to be discarded, Marian Evans makes bold to declare in “Mme. de Sablé.” She’s even more dismissive in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Their pious, high-society nonsense comes about because “ladies” don’t express their own nature and desires. In literature, where “every fibre of nature” is involved, a woman has something specific to contribute. A developed woman will distil her subtlest essence: “sympathy.” Here she finds her watchword. The rising author haunts this essay.
Chapman was not encouraging about the far-reaching feminism of “Mme. de Sablé.” He did publish it in his October issue, but he said nothing, and for a while did not offer Marian more work. To earn a much-needed income, she turned once more to translating. When they moved to Berlin in November, she began to translate Spinoza’s Ethics, taking over this formidable task from Lewes, who had accepted a commission to do it.
Was a buried wish to write fiction part of her attraction to Lewes as an established critic of the genre? In her bag there still lurked that scene for a novel, and one night she let drop to Lewes that she just so happened to have it with her. She read it aloud to him, and from then on he urged her to try her hand at fiction. Here was the vital response, not blocking or withering. It was what Shelley had done for Mary Godwin and Charlotte for Emily Brontë.
When the time came to return to England, Marian had no illusions about what to expect. So long as the pair remained on the Continent, they felt welcome in society. Lewes had numerous contacts, and no one cut them for living openly together. But back home, women with reputations to consider would not be free to call.
As they crossed the Channel on 14 March 1855, Marian joked that a friendly bout of seasickness made her glad to see the cliffs of Dover. She found lodgings at 1 Sydney Place in Dover, intending to stay there as “Miss Evans” while Lewes went on ahead to London. Marian’s condition for joining him was that he had to obtain from Agnes Lewes a promise that she would never again wish to live with him as his wife.
“No, never,” Agnes agreed. She added that she “would be happy if her husband could marry Miss Evans.”
In fact a marriage, though barred by law, is exactly what Marian had to pretend to have. To present herself as another “Mrs. Lewes” meant that she didn’t see herself as a mistress; it had to be a permanent tie. All the same, we have only to picture the constantly pregnant Agnes going about London as the legitimate Mrs. Lewes. Ostensibly she was pregnant by her husband. Her own liaison with Hunt was kept under wraps, and she remained outwardly respectable. Not so Miss Evans living with Mr. Lewes.
She was aware that women who’d been her friends could not write to her and arranged for her correspondence to go via Chapman or Lewes. All the while, she made statements about accepting her outcast status, affirming her resolve not to blame former friends for shunning her. “I wish it to be understood,” she wrote in 1857, “that I should never invite anyone to come and see me who did not ask for the invitation.” She was steeling herself against the loss of friends, but in this very act she provoked those closest to her, Cara Bray and Sara Hennell.
Cara accused her of taking the marriage laws lightly. Marian denied it. Her commitment was so grave that she refused the cover-ups practiced in high society. Had she continued to live as “Miss Evans” and conducted a discreet liaison, she would not have been ostracized. The paired life she was bent on took immense courage. In Victorian stories a “fallen woman” could regain sympathy only if she died and did so repenting. Marian Evans, though, meant to thrive as “Mrs. Lewes.” That’s what she felt herself to be and what she insisted others call her.
On their return to London, the new “Mrs. Lewes” and her husband took lodgings on the periphery of the city near Kew, and there she lived unvisited. Lewes came up to town once a week, but over the next few years, Marian went but twice: once for work, to see Chapman, and the other time to the Zoological Gardens with a view to Lewes’s explorations of marine biology. She said, “I have no calls to make,” and joked about resorting to a call on the Molluscs. She was now, as she’d put it later, “cut off from what is called the world.”
Where Marian could brush off George Combe as absurd and ignore Chapman’s fears for the fidelity she expected from Lewes, she was upset by the shock to Cara and Sara. Her very fear of this had led her to ward off a rebuff by writing defensively via Charles Bray: she was braced to lose her friends.
Cara and Sara, who had loved her like a sister, accused her of not confiding in them, only in Mr. Bray. Marian was unable to explain this to their satisfaction. What she offered made things worse because she said that what she’d told Mr. Bray (about the extramarital children born to Agnes Lewes) was not for women’s ears. She tried to put it over that she’d intended to protect them. Naturally, Cara (bringing up her husband’s extramarital child) and Sara (an active feminist) were astonished and offended. They thought, mistakenly, that Marian cared more for Bray than for them, and that she was “boasting” of her control over bitterness and too willing to give up her oldest and closest friends. Marian adopted the same patiently forbearing voice as when her father had been about to cast her out. The more she went on in this voice, the more at odds both sides became. It didn’t help for Marian to declare her love and gratitude. After one letter of protest, Cara did not write again for a year. Sara did write, and they struggled to put their correspondence back on its confidential track, but Sara felt that she was writing to “someone in a book, and not the Marian we have known and loved so many years.”
The new Mrs. Lewes saw little of these old friends and never visited Rosehill again. It was a place to revisit only in memory. At Christmas 1855, when she went to Nuneaton to stay with her sister, Bray asked her to come by. She replied with the stiffness of hurt that she could not come when the invitation was issued only by the master of the house.
At first she kept her position from her brother and sister. It was not until 1857, three years after she went away with Lewes, that she wrote to inform Isaac Evans. The immediate need was for Isaac, who handled her inheritance, to deposit the income in Lewes’s account (reinforcing her identity as his wife). Despite her plea that she had done Isaac no harm, he cast her off without a word. Sadly, Isaac exercised his authority over Chrissey (as a widow dependent on him) to forbid further contact with their wicked sister.
Three women stood by her. Rufa Hennell was quick to call at 8 Victoria Grove Terrace, Bayswater, when Marian joined Lewes in May 1855 for a brief transit in London. Bessie Parkes was next. She came all the way to East Sheen (a suburb of Richmond) and left Marian in “a glow of joy,” so glad was she to see this friend. Unfortunately, Bessie had enquired for “Miss Evans,” and Marian wrote afterwards to remind her that she was not known in their lodgings by her real name, for to use it would risk eviction. In fact at the end of that same month, she and Lewes did leave. It’s probable that the landlady had caught a whiff of irregularity. In October 1855 they moved to lodgings at 8 Park Shot, Richmond. Marian was anxious not to jar their friendly landlady. She warned any potential caller never to ask for “Miss Evans.”
Later, Barbara Leigh Smith came to stay for a week when Lewes and Marian were at Tenby in Wales during the summer of 1856. The intimacy of the way Marian spoke to Barbara about “considerate” sex took place after she had been cut off from almost all contact with women.
Feminists alone stood by Marian during the years she lived outside society. George Eliot has not been regarded as a feminist, largely because she was honest enough to criticize women. Yet in 1856 she supported the English feminists who put together a petition to Parliament for the Married Women’s Property Act, permitting wives to retain their earnings instead of handing the money over to husbands. Marian remarked to Sara that it would raise the position and character of women. “It is one round [rung] of a long ladder stretching far beyond our lives.”
Marian had intended to write on the feminist Margaret Fuller ever since reading her memoirs in 1852. She admired a “loving woman’s heart” that does not undervalue small acts of domestic care. In this period as an outcast, she picked up an earlier book by Fuller, her Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which had made its first appearance in 1843.
She saw in Fuller a “strong and truthful nature, refusing to exaggerate women’s moral and intellectual qualities as she makes calm pleas for removing artificial restrictions so that the possibilities of woman’s nature may have room for full development.”
At the same time she read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Copies were scarce in Victorian England, she observed. She read it with surprise to find Wollstonecraft “eminently serious, severely moral” in her impatience with silly women.
Where Mary Shelley had looked back to Wollstonecraft as a daughter-disciple, Marian Evans looks back to the Wollstonecraft who was critical of female frivolity and cunning intrigues dictated by vanity. As Marian sums it up, Wollstonecraft wished women to assimilate knowledge thoroughly so as to bring about the growth of character. She held to this tough line in her discussions with Mrs. Taylor. “‘Enfranchisement of women’ only makes creeping progress and that is best, for woman does not yet deserve a much better lot than man gives her.”
It’s harsh, but both Wollstonecraft and Fuller had observed men in subjection to unreasoning wives. Marian too regrets this kind of ignorant narrowness, as she puts it in her essay “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft”: “so far as obstinacy is concerned, your unreasoning animal is the most unmanageable of creatures.” George Eliot was to flesh this out in Middlemarch in her portrait of the blinkered wife, Rosamond Vincy, who undermines her husband and helps to make it impossible for him to exercise his medical far-sightedness. As the essay puts it, where her weakness is not controlled by a woman herself it will govern. The precious meridian years of many a gifted man are wasted in routine toil so as to keep up an “establishment” for a wife “who is fit for nothing but to sit in her drawing-room like a doll-Madonna in her shrine.”
Unlike Marian, many Victorian feminists distanced their politics from Wollstonecraft because they wished to dissociate the Woman Question from slurs on her private life, designed to discredit her revolutionary ideas. In fact she had been a woman of natural dignity who impressed men like Dr. Johnson and William Godwin, but William Pitt’s propaganda machine branded her a slut. Women, including writers, backed away. Respectability was crucial to the political agendas of nineteenth-century feminism (with its focus on legal obstacles to gender equality: voting rights, property rights).
Hardly conducive to an image of respectability was the matter of passion. It was off the map for first-wave feminists, and many remained single. One such, Harriet Martineau, broke with Charlotte Brontë over Lucy Snowe’s fiery nature. But Marian Evans did not forget her own sense that she must “die” if Spencer were not loyal to her. George Eliot was to recall this level of despair in Deronda, when the singer Mirah dips her cloak in the river. In this scene, she looks back to Mary Wollstonecraft one rainy night in October 1795, soaking her clothes on the brink of the Thames, hoping to sink quicker after her partner Gilbert Imlay left her. Mirah, like Mary, is restored to life; each lives to know a good man and to unfold what she has to offer.
Marian’s isolation from October 1855 until February 1859 proved fertile for work. There was a daily pattern: breakfast at 8.30; reading alone till 10; writing till 1.30; walking till 4; dining at 5 and then reading aloud for three hours each evening. As with Mary Shelley, this expansion of the mind through reading fuelled the writer.
All the while she continued to help Lewes. His writing career took a lift from the time they joined forces. Goethe was well received, and at the time that Marian finally completed her translation of Spinoza (on his behalf) in February 1856, Lewes moved on to marine biology. He went in for hands-on research in response to a stinging comment from Huxley that he was merely a “book scientist.” There, curious to behold, is Marian dangling her feet in the rock pools of Ilfracombe (on the North Devon shore) in the spring of 1856. Holding her dress out of the water, she collects specimens with Lewes, molluscs, annelids, and zoophytes, which they place in glass jars and phials in every corner of their room. These Lewes examines under the microscope they’d acquired, and each morning they jump up to check for overnight developments (or deaths). In this way, she said, “we seem to have gained a large influx of new ideas.”
On an inland walk in the Devon woods, her eyes fix on a caterpillar that is “spending its transitional life, happily knowing nothing of transitions,” on a bush.
Her absorption in zoology interrupted her work, Marian told Barbara Leigh Smith. But wasn’t zoology part of it—an evolutionary narrative coexisting with her own transitional life? Later that summer at Tenby, Lewes urged her again to write fiction, and then, on 22 September, she tried her wings. Swiftly and with extraordinary command of a new medium, she took flight and soared into her first story, “The Sad Fortunes of the Revd. Amos Barton.”
This story stakes out a territory she would make her own: she would look at country clergymen not from a theological point of view but in their everyday lives, as Jane Austen had done. She would apply the domestic subjects of Flemish art to a series of Scenes of Clerical Life. She defies the expectations of “madam,” the reader of silly lady novelists: no high-society romance, no melodrama, no false piety, and no extreme poverty. Instead her focus is on family life: the well-intentioned but mediocre clergyman (closely based on the fortunes of John Gwyther in her native Chilvers Coton), the caring mother whose health is failing in the course of a seventh pregnancy, and the realistic portraits of children, from the anxious eldest daughter Patty to Dickey and Chubby, the youngest boys who respond to the soft touch of Milly’s hand but can’t take in their mother’s ordeal and the red, seven-month baby who breathes for a few hours. Its death is followed by Milly’s death and burial. The reader is brought to feel in Milly a natural kindness beyond the docile angel in the house.
This may be what Marian had kept in mind since her time in Berlin, early in 1855, when she’d proposed an essay for the Westminster Review, “Ideals of Womankind,” a topic, she told Chapman, she wished to treat. The portrait of Milly Barton offers a domestic parallel with active feminists and in line with Wollstonecraft’s insistence on domestic affections. The reader is left haunted by the pain of the dull man who has lost Milly.
Lewes as well as Marian were unsure whether she could manage the emotional demands of a deathbed. When she reached this point in the story, Lewes took himself off to London, leaving her alone to see what she could do. On his return, late that night, she read the scene aloud. They both cried; then he came across and kissed her saying, “Your pathos is even better than your fun.”
Their relationship was more than a marriage. To her, Lewes was a mentor: his scientific acumen was a stimulus to the realism she wished to achieve. Even more so was his enthusiastic reciprocity: his embrace of her emotional attunement that opened her ear as a writer to “the roar from the other side of silence.”
Lewes offered the story to the distinguished Edinburgh publisher John Blackwood, whose father, William Blackwood, had founded Blackwood’s Magazine (the periodical the Brontës had read avidly while they were growing up in the 1820s and early 1830s). Lewes was already a contributor to “Maga,” which had recently brought out the first part of his Seaside Studies. Lewes did not divulge Marian’s name nor the fact that she was a woman. He made out that he was representing a diffident friend and spoke of the friend as “he.”
Blackwood was a cautious Scot. It was his way to say a manuscript “will do” and that he would read it a second time so as not to be carried away by a first reading. Rather stiffly he congratulated the author “on being worthy of the honours of print and pay”; at the same time he thought it a “defect” to end with the fates of the children in the story. A “lame” finale, he called it, not perceiving how each child’s loss and ongoing life carries the heartbeat of a mother’s unregarded work into futurity.
The author’s confidence was shaken. Lewes advised Blackwood that his friend was “unusually sensitive, and unlike most writers is more anxious about excellence than about appearing in print—as his waiting so long before taking the venture proves. He is consequently afraid of failure though not afraid of obscurity.” Blackwood’s coolness had not encouraged the author enough to press on. Lewes found it necessary to explain “the sort of shy, shrinking, ambitious nature you have to deal with.”
Blackwood was big enough to take the hint. His tone warmed. His wife, he conceded, had endorsed the roles of the children. Others were critical. One of Blackwood’s trusted advisers thought the author might be a scientific man, “not a practised writer,” and that there was too much sniffing and dirty noses.
Though stung, Marian defended her realism. Her knowledge of science was as superficial as that of most “practised writers,” she said, yet she could not agree that scientific exactness should be incompatible with art. People who disliked the homely truthfulness of Dutch painting would not like any particular work of that school.
The first part of “Amos” appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in January 1857. Lewes crowed over his “hatched chick.” She was published anonymously (as were all writers for “Maga”), and readers assumed the author was a man, almost certainly a clergyman. Signing a letter to Blackwood as “the Author of Amos Barton,” she promised the second of the Scenes shortly. In the meantime, on 4 February 1857, she chose a pseudonym, and “George Eliot” came into being. “George” was the twin hatched with George Henry Lewes (while “Eliot” was a random choice). This masculine cover freed her to open up an issue she had never before broached in writing: a woman’s secret desires.
A question about the untested possibilities of woman’s nature again slides out from under the cover of a man’s story in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story.” Readers in the region at once recognized the Revd. Bernard Gilpin Ebdell, also of Chilvers Coton. His middle name is an obvious source for “Gilfil.” But Ebdell had married a collier’s daughter. The story invents an Italian wife, Caterina Sarti, and her story—encased in her husband’s love story—comes out thirty years after her early death. We encounter first an aged clergyman, living like a bachelor but with a shut chamber upstairs, a woman’s room with leavings from the past century—a cherry bow and faded black lace. The old man sipping his gin and water and scattering the ash from his pipe, and the relics upstairs, tell us too little. The comedy of parish folk surrounds him, the gossip and fragmented memories of a foreigner with large black eyes that had a blank look of someone who’s not present in the life she’s leading.
Gilfil has closed off his past. It’s left to the narrator to take us thirty years back into the full-on heat of a girl’s unrequited longing for another man. The tale could appear a warning against the consuming effect of desire, but George Eliot, like Claire Clairmont, expects readers to enter into what the social code repressed.
Her control of empathy—channelling a woman’s silenced drama through the old man’s silenced memory of his own tenacious love—makes this tale a masterpiece of unfolding intimacy. She stakes out the ground for the interior drama of Henry James—the tension of what does not come out.
Caterina has been taken on as a child by landed English gentry, Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel (based on Sir Roger and Lady Newdigate, whose nephew and heir had appointed George Eliot’s father as his agent). Cheverel Manor is an exact picture of the grand Arbury Hall, which of course George Eliot knew from her youth.
A fictional nephew and heir, the studiedly elegant and effete Captain Wybrow, makes up to Caterina (Tina as she’s called) and awakens an attachment. When he’s expected to marry a highborn and moneyed lady, he wants Tina to forget the tenderness between them. But her attachment holds. What makes this all the harder is that she has to keep it under wraps. Wybrow’s fiancée, dominating Miss Assher, and her small-minded mother have come to stay, and for Tina to witness every gesture of betrayal is a torture she must contrive not to show. Alone in her room she tears a handkerchief to pieces and sets her teeth against a windowpane.
George Eliot reveals how destructive it can be when a creature is forced to be unnatural. The pressure of Tina’s silenced feeling is as convincing as Charlotte Brontë’s for Monsieur Heger, re-created in her fictions (most painfully in Shirley when well-conducted Caroline Helstone feels as though she’s closing her fist on a scorpion). George Eliot’s exposure of Tina’s moment-by-moment agony reveals what no Victorian lady could utter in person.
Tina’s gift as a singer is a glorious mode of expression, but it lasts only so long as the aria, and it counts for nothing beside her rival’s class and wealth. To her patrons, Tina’s voice qualifies as drawing-room entertainment—no more. Affectionately, Sir Christopher calls her “little monkey”; in effect, she’s a performing monkey. She’s no freer than a pet—a possession. Her owner, Sir Christopher, is entitled to hand her over to Mr. Gilfil. She knows how good Gilfil is, but her attachment to Wybrow is permanent. In this setup, there’s no inkling a girl might have leanings of her own. If she did, it must be female caprice. Reflection about what is due to her benefactor will surely restore her to obedience.
This code has shaped Tina’s tame, grateful manners. Since she has internalized the code, it devastates her to find herself unable to contain her rage with Wybrow. He fences his fragile self with a commonplace: females are light creatures who can shift from man to man according to where their bread is buttered.
When Tina can’t play out this convenient narrative, Wybrow forces it on her when he prompts Sir Christopher to marry Tina to Gilfil. Forced marriage is the final betrayal of her feelings. It’s in fact the prospective bridegroom, Gilfil, who tries to protect her.
Gilfil’s empathy is the cue for the reader to enter into the effect of force on a girl disempowered to the point of madness and murderous fury. John Blackwood missed this cue when he read and suggested that Gilfil’s devotion was too “abject” for “a man of character.” George Eliot refused to alter this. She explained to Blackwood the psychological inevitability of each character’s moves in this tragedy where Gilfil’s devotion has no reward, and tension between Tina and Wybrow rises to a level fatal to both.
It adds to the tension that Wybrow is no villain. He’s too languid for sexual exertion. Tina continues to be drawn to him because of his vein of tenderness—she’d like to call it back because it’s still there, though not strong enough to stand up to the social expectations that pressure him as much as her. He’s genuinely fond of Tina but too self-protective to love fully.
As Wybrow’s affronts to Tina build up, rage takes her to the point of breakdown. She fears that she can hardly contain the politely grateful façade her dependent position requires. It makes me think of the rage of the adopted orphan, Tattycoram, in a novel of that time, Little Dorrit (serialized 1855–57). Dickens made it clear that rage is not an acceptable emotion. He can see that Tattycoram has feelings beyond her control, but he invites us to shake our heads. He doesn’t look into these feelings in the way George Eliot sees into Tina’s soul.
After Wybrow dies of heart failure, Tina goes through the motions of moving on. She marries good Mr. Gilfil—he’s offering her a life—but it’s a false narrative. Bruised, without the will to live, she dies in childbirth, and we are brought to understand the inevitability of this end.
The temperate John Blackwood balked at Tina’s murderous fury. In particular he objected to the scene in which Tina seizes a “dadger” [dagger] from Cheverel Manor’s collection of old weaponry. Blackwood wanted Tina to dream this instead and so retain some shred of “dignity.”
George Eliot couldn’t resist mocking the “dadger” in her reply. “It would be the death of my story to substitute a dream for a real scene,” she wrote. She wished to grant the inconsistencies in real people and refused to alter Tina’s frame of mind. “So many of us have reason to know that criminal impulses may be felt by a nature which is nevertheless guarded by its entire constitution from the commission of crime, that I can’t help hoping my Caterina will not forfeit the sympathy of all my readers.”
My Caterina: “my” says something about her closeness to this character. Later, she would say that she had done things in Scenes of Clerical Life that she would never attempt again. If she was opening up a woman’s desire, and if we wonder why she never does this again in so maddened a way, the answer must lie in what she’d surrendered between 1852 and 1854 in order to go on: her thwarted desire for Spencer. In “Gilfil,” George Eliot both revived this pain and distanced it from her own history by making Caterina un-English, at least by birth. All the same, Tina’s emotional heat is fuelled by an Englishwoman’s rising temperature during the heat wave in July 1852 when Spencer met her feelers with “lumps of ice.”
Both Spencer and Wybrow are preoccupied with their health: Wybrow has a weak heart and Spencer a nervous complaint. And their temperature is similar: tepid to cold. Marian Evans had marked Spencer’s “tremendous glacier.” The fact that he remained single bears out her sense of a chill that had more to do with him than with her supposed lack of attraction. Of course, it would have had entirely to do with him if he was too wrapped up in fear of ill-health to find sexual energy.
The word “die” exploding out of her rational plea to Spencer is telling. Her experience of a to-die-for attachment took her into Tina’s fatal love. But then, unlike Tina, she’d saved herself, first through work and then by slowly feeling her way into a tie with another man who did not initially attract or impress her. It was no light flit; it was no less than an emotional feat.
She was able to lend her sense to the goodness and loyalty in Lewes. A less mature and rational woman could have been undone, as Tina is. What she eventually found in Lewes, a well-connected mentor, was extraordinarily fortunate—it was the ground from which her flight into fiction could take off—but it was not that wild ardor she had to leave behind.
In the wake of Tina, George Eliot owned her affinity for wildness—that character so unlike the wise woman she became. At this point she was overcome by the portrait of Emily Brontë in the newly published Life of Charlotte Brontë. “Emily has a singular fascination for me,” George Eliot confided to the author, Mrs. Gaskell, “probably because I have a passion for lions and savage animals, and she was une bête fauve in power, splendour, and wildness.” I see it as the last, backward look of a transformed creature at what she had been.
The price of transformation was family. Isaac Evans has always had a bad press for cutting his sister out of his life. It appeared an act of self-righteous conformity once he ascertained through his lawyer that she was not legally married. His bad press was sealed by the pathos of Maggie Tulliver’s longing for her philistine brother in The Mill on the Floss. Yet the real-life tension between brother and sister had been building up well before Isaac cast her off.
The first sign of this, we recall, happened when Marian Evans returned from Geneva in 1850 and did not feel right in her brother’s home. There followed a series of family crises on which she closed the door. The first was when Chrissey’s husband died, and Marian infuriated Isaac by scooting back to London. Then, when Chrissey’s second son drowned in 1854, Marian was in Weimar, giving her all—including earnings—to Lewes, yet with a guilt over divided loyalties that made her more troubled over Chrissey’s distress than by the scandal building up against her in London. While Marian was reaching the crisis of Tina’s passion, a different but equally pressing family crisis tugged at her in March–April 1857.
She heard from Isaac of typhus ravaging Chrissey’s household. Pretty, fair-haired Frances (Fanny), aged eight, died on 26 March 1857. A younger child, Kate, Chrissey herself and their servant were all dangerously ill. At this time, Marian was writing the finale to “Gilfil,” which was due to be delivered to her publisher. This professional commitment seemed to her “more important,” yet even after she finished “Gilfil” on 8 April, it did not occur to her to leave off helping Lewes with marine research at St. Mary’s, the largest of the Scilly Isles off Cornwall—too far away, she thought, to go to her sister. All the while the sun literally shone on Marian, Chrissey’s crisis was, she said, a “shadow to me.”
On 16th April, on hearing from Isaac that Chrissey and Kate were better but not out of danger, she asked Isaac to advance £15 of her next half-year’s income to Chrissey so that her sister could take herself and Kate away “from that hotbed of fever.” She enclosed a note for Chrissey, signing herself “Marian Evans.”
The name matters. Nearly three years after she began to live with Lewes, she still wished to keep it from her family. But secrecy about her situation exposed her once again to the expectation that a maiden aunt would take on the duty of nursing the sick. This time Marian had no reply from her brother.
So their estrangement was already in place when she finally wrote on 26 May 1857, from Gorey in Jersey (yet another seaside locale for Lewes) to explain her changed situation to Isaac: “You will be surprised, I dare say, but I hope not sorry to learn that I have changed my name, and have someone to take care of me in the world.” One reason she gives for not coming to Chrissey is her own “very frail” health, which benefits from sea air. And she now claims to have been “in ignorance of [Chrissey’s] extreme illness.”
These excuses sound oddly lame. For a compassionate woman, her withdrawal from her brother and sister appears out of character. One possible clue is her need for what she mildly calls “approbation,” though she means something much stronger: a family’s heartfelt approval. Could it be that with kin she lost the effective self who had defied her family image as “a failure of Nature”? If so, she had to keep away. Fear, perhaps, was part of it: an outlaw’s fear of being drawn back into the net of kinship.
Even with her one-time rescuers, the Brays, the distance yawned in 1857 when Cara wondered how her friend’s face had changed in the course of their separation over the last three years.
“Doubtless it is older and uglier,” Marian replied, “but it ought not to have a bad expression, for I never have anything to call out my ill-humour or discontent—which you know were always ready enough to come on slight call—I have everything to call out love and gratitude.”
At length, Cara did invite her to visit Ivy Cottage, the home of Mrs. Hennell and Sara, where the Brays had moved in hard times. Again, Marian made an excuse. Instead she sent a photograph (taken on 26 February 1858) inscribed “To my sisters Cara and Sara.” And so she let go her ties with the Midlands, to be visited only in memory.
Victorian men had no inhibitions about tears. Lewes cried over Milly Barton, and George Eliot let this be known. Proud of his tears, she took it as her breakthrough: a sign confirming her power to move her reader. A London lecturer called Alfred Smith told Blackwood that he’d “blubbed” over “Amos Barton.” At forty, he too was proud of having that many tears to shed. George Eliot herself liked to cry. She had cried with Lewes over the deathbed of Mrs. Barton. She cried again, “hot tears,” as the inspired words of a woman preacher, Dinah Morris, came surging up in Adam Bede.
She thought of this as “My Aunt’s Story.” At seventeen she had been “deeply affected” when Elizabeth Evans told her story of a condemned girl who had murdered her baby and refused to confess. Her aunt had stayed with the girl, praying through the night, until the “poor creature” burst into tears and confessed her crime.
Her niece never spoke of this execution in 1802 till December 1856 when she relayed the story to Lewes, and he suggested a novel building up to the pre-execution scene in the prison. Where her aunt had spoken of a coarse, ignorant girl, George Eliot recasts her as Hetty Sorrel, niece of a farmer, vain in her prettiness and happily placed in the dairy of a respected family, until she succumbs to the idle lovemaking of Squire Donnithorne. Pregnant, she runs off with nowhere to go, and when she gives birth, her outcast situation is too much to bear. A tempting solution is to be rid of the baby. She doesn’t want to kill the child; she simply lays down a bundle in the woods and shuts off to its cry.
By way of contrast, Hester Prynne, an unmarried mother in The Scarlet Letter (1851), holds onto her baby even as she’s shunned by her Puritan community. Hetty’s name is too close to Hester’s to be an accident (as her lover Arthur Donnithorne’s name is close to that of Hester’s lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, who too stands at the apex of local society as its minister), and George Eliot did hugely admire Hawthorne’s novel. For Hester, in America, there’s the frontier, close to seventeenth-century Boston, offering a chance of escape from her outcast plight. For Hetty, in England, there’s no escape from society; all roads lead back to Hayslope and enduring shame.
In October 1857, twenty years after Mary Ann encountered Elizabeth Evans, she began Adam Bede with a scene inspired by her aunt: a young woman preaching outdoors to country folk. When she read the scene aloud to Lewes, he was so moved that he urged her to make Dinah central to the story. In the end, when Hetty is in prison, Dinah will help her to find her soul before she dies.
This book’s extraordinary effect on readers was not unlike the touch of soul on soul, as Dinah, in her plain black dress and net Quaker cap, mounts a cart to preach. “There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations; they had the liquid look which tells that the mind is full of what it has to give out, rather than impressed with external objects . . . She was not preaching as she heard others preach, but speaking directly from her own emotions. . . .”
The “feminine delicacy” of Dinah’s expressiveness blending with fellow feeling for her fallible listeners was as though the living pulse of her aunt’s “spirit of love” had been channelled through the author—as though in Dinah’s voice she found her vocation as a writer.
When it came to publication early in 1859, George Eliot discovered how little fame mattered; what mattered was to find readers touched enough to feel transformed. Many felt as “ardent” as Jane Carlyle did, “in charity with the whole human race.” The same feeling welled in Dickens, who let George Eliot know that Adam Bede had marked “an epoch” in his life. And then unexpectedly, Herbert Spencer, whom the author had teased long ago for his “tremendous glacier,” declared himself unusually affected. When, later, he had a say in the London Library and wished to ban novels, he exempted George Eliot’s—their emotional healing outdid the genre itself.
Adam Bede was a bestseller. The name George Eliot came to be known everywhere, and yet a mystery remained as to who George Eliot was. She guarded the nom de plume even more firmly than Charlotte Brontë had guarded her identity as Currer Bell. Where certain of Currer Bell’s titles point to portraits of women at the center of her novels—Jane Eyre, Shirley—George Eliot extends her male identity to her titles. “Amos Barton,” “Mr. Gilfil,” Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda, are to some extent covers for portraits of women: Milly Barton, Caterina Sarti, Dinah Morris, Hetty Sorrel and Gwendolen Harleth, the spoilt beauty of George Eliot’s last novel, who suffers in secret from marital abuse. “Sister Maggie,” the working title of The Mill on the Floss, remained the focus, but disappears from the final title. The strategy gained George Eliot a huge readership. At the start of 1859, Adam Bede was widely acclaimed, even by Queen Victoria. The scandal around Miss Evans, had readers known who the author was, might have precluded such acceptance. Then in the course of that year her male image was broken.
Herbert Spencer was the only one to whom George Eliot had confided her identity as the author of Clerical Life and Adam Bede. But Spencer succumbed to a prod from Chapman—not one to keep a secret. Once George Eliot was known to be a woman there was an attack by William Hepworth Dixon, editor of the Athenaeum, declaring Adam Bede to be a tale “such as a clever woman with . . . an unschooled moral nature might have written . . . a rather strong-minded lady, blessed with abundance of showy sentiment and a profusion of pious words.” She was merely copying her aunt in Dinah, some said; others, that she was merely copying the pithy sayings of the farmer’s wife, Mrs. Poyser. Lewes repeatedly warned Blackwood that George Eliot was so sensitive to slights that they could stop this author from writing.
All the same, “a vocation to speak to one’s fellow-men” was born, never to leave her so long as she lived. Filled with “deep, silent joy,” she sang to herself a quiet Magnificat. And for the public, the balm of her moral voice, the emotion it generated, made it unthinkable to regard her as an outcast. It was a book to reclaim her reputation. The large sums that Lewes secured for her, and the prospect of a larger income from future books, allowed the author and Lewes to move back to London, to a home of their own, Holly Lodge, in Wandsworth. This was a time to feel fulfilled and secure, but once more a family trouble raised its head.
Though Chrissey did recover from typhus, she sank into consumption. Two months before her death in March 1859, Chrissey regretted the silence on her side—a silence dictated by their brother Isaac Evans. A loving apology from her dying sister “ploughed up” Marian’s heart. Even so, she did not visit Chrissey, though the train from London to Coventry took only two and a half hours. Her excuse this time was wifely duty. She and Lewes could not find a servant who would relieve them of household cares. Mr. Lewes, she claimed, was “stoutly” resisting the prospect of her leaving him for two days with their present servant.
“It is a terrible sacrifice to leave home at all,” she told Bray, and she could not entertain an idea of coming to them en route. The need to return after two days, she explains, “will forbid that pleasant renewal of the past. People who have been inseparable and found all their happiness in each other for five years are in a sort of Siamese-twin condition that other people are not likely to regard with tolerance or even with belief.”
After Chrissey died, her sister paid for Chrissey’s two daughters to go to boarding school in Lichfield. She did not adopt them, and these orphans remained at a distance. To visit them once at school was as much as she could manage. It relieved her to receive “nice” letters from Chrissey’s elder daughter, Emily, whom George Eliot thought old enough at fourteen to take care of her younger sister Kate. Having been at boarding school throughout her own childhood, it may not have occurred to her what children need.
It’s usual to commend her generosity to the three Lewes sons, but she speaks of the youngest, Bertie, as “stupid” as well as sickly. She does not extend her sympathy to a boy who’s not thriving in a broken home and whose mother is rearing a second family. What does not happen could be as telling as what does happen: the stepmother does not intervene with Lewes to offer Bertie a space to gain health in his father’s home; he’s to go straight from his broken home to join his older brothers in a Swiss boarding school. George Eliot’s growing income as a writer would have helped to pay for that school. But the children were not to return to England for most school holidays. She was gratified that they wrote to “Mutter” (as they called her) good-naturedly, and they behaved as cheerfully as their father could wish when he visited Switzerland about once a year. If they were homesick, if they were deprived of nurture, we can’t know. Manliness (associated with imperialism on the Roman model) forbad complaint.
She was now writing at high tide, and to do this, she had to protect her time and privacy. There were many ways that a sense of duty could divert the private purpose of a Victorian woman. When Florence Nightingale returned from the Crimea and meant to set up nursing as a profession, her sickbed protected her from social obligations (returning calls and three-hour meals) as effectively as an outlaw position had protected the rising tide of George Eliot.
To achieve what she did, given her headaches and depressions, her emotional energy had to be reserved for her work and for Lewes who was vital to her work, acting as her agent and giving her, as she put it, “the perfect love and sympathy of a nature that stimulates my own to healthful activity.”
The public’s embrace of Adam Bede made her glad for her birth. Success gave her courage to explore her own experience as that “unpromising woman-child” she had appeared to be. She was now confident enough to relive what she’d called the “terrible pain” of her past through the medium of fiction. The Mill on the Floss (1860) is filled with personal memory. It relays the story of a clever girl as misfit, at odds with her small-minded mother, her mother’s clannish family and the provincial society of St. Ogg’s. This is the Midlands as it had been a generation before in the time of George Eliot’s Pearson aunt, “Aunt Glegg” in the novel, who holds up a diminishing mirror to a girl who can’t conform. Much like George Eliot herself, Maggie Tulliver is tugged by the backward-yearning of those who move on and, at the same time, “are tied by the strongest fibres of their hearts” to kin who had presided in childhood and who jar them with every movement.
Maggie’s father, Mr. Tulliver, calls her his “little wench,” the same pet phrase Robert Evans had for Mary Ann. Though proud of Maggie’s brains in contrast with those of her “slowish” brother, Mr. Tulliver knows brains will be useless in a grown-up woman. “It’s no mischief much while she’s a little un, but an over-cute woman’s no better nor a long-tailed sheep—she’ll fetch none the bigger price for that.”
Mrs. Tulliver disagrees. “Yes it is a mischief while she’s a little un, Mr. Tulliver, for it all runs to naughtiness . . . wanderin’ up an down by the water, like a wild thing.”
This wayward girl is told that she looks like a gypsy, and so, lonely for like-minded beings, she runs away to join the gypsies, hoping naively to find an alternative milieu to admire her for what she is. What the gypsies in fact see is Maggie’s otherness: a clueless middle-class girl ripe for pickings.
Maggie is unkempt. She’s often infuriated by the passivity forced on girls who are expected to sit still with their hair in curls. Nagged by her mother’s pleas to tidy her wild locks, she cuts them off—a short cut literally to having to brush and primp.
When Maggie visits her “slowish” brother at his expensive tutor’s, her quickness can’t be denied, but the tutor contrives to belittle brainy girls—their quickness is said to be shallow.
George Eliot is defining Maggie’s situation nine years before the first Oxbridge college opened its doors to women. What was Maggie to do—a question the author herself had been forced to face. Here is another potential crosser of the female frontier: restless, intermittently defiant and eloquent.
Maggie Tulliver became something of a cult figure for aspiring women with no prospects outside the home in the 1860s. Among them were Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, next door. Brainy, curtailed Maggie reads avidly, and Sue’s wants were Maggie’s wants: books with “more” in them. When Sue set up a salon at her home in Amherst, one member refused to read Adam Bede on hearing of its author’s ungodliness. Defiantly, Sue bought the novel for Emily in 1860, and then both bought copies of The Mill on the Floss. Their friend, the newspaperman Sam Bowles (who published a few of Emily’s poems in the early 1860s), read aloud a favorite passage: “The great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it.” Emily Dickinson put a picture of George Eliot on the wall of her room (along with Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Privately, she called her father’s intrusive sister Elizabeth “Aunt Glegg” after Maggie’s carping aunt.
Another follower of Maggie was James’s vibrant cousin Minny Temple. Here was another untamed, honest creature hungry for life, who urged, “Let us fearlessly trust our whole nature.” I’ve wondered if Minny was actually imitating Maggie when, at the age of sixteen in 1861, she cut off her hair with “a vandal hand,” as Henry’s brother William put it. William James, Mrs. James, Alice James and Minny’s teachers all disapproved of her singularity, but Henry observed her as “an experiment of nature.” She was to be the source for James’s American girl who “affronts her destiny.” Following George Eliot, he was drawn to the possibilities of “a grande nature.”
When Henry James was leaving for England in 1869, Minny asked him to kiss George Eliot for her. Confined to bed with consumption, she picked up The Mill on the Floss. It left her with “an overpowering admiration and affection” for George Eliot. “I see that she understands the character of a generous woman, that is, of a woman who believes in generosity, & who must be that or nothing, & who feels keenly, notwithstanding, how hard it is practically to carry it out.”
As an adult, Maggie is unable to return the love of a disabled man, Philip Wakem, a potential mentor who does see her for the “large-souled” creature she is. Instead she takes off with Stephen Guest, who’s her cousin’s suitor. They haven’t gone far when Maggie, conscience-stricken, turns back. This moral act is not appreciated by the people of St. Ogg’s, who cast her out.
Both Mary Shelley and George Eliot found women were more obstinate and barbed than men when they cast out a member of their sex. Where Mary Shelley could speak only in the privacy of her Journals, George Eliot released uncontained sarcasm against “the world’s wife” in her newly confident public voice: a chapter entitled “St. Ogg’s Passes Judgement.” In contrast to the calm letters Marian Evans had written from her outposts in Dover and Richmond, saying in measured tones that she accepts what’s coming to her, George Eliot speaking from behind the screen of fiction could lash out at the stupidity of scandal. To the small-minded it’s not what Maggie does that counts in the end; it’s whether she is married or not. “Maggie had returned . . . without a husband, in that degraded and outcast condition to which error is well known to lead; and the world’s wife, with that fine instinct which is given her for the preservation of society, saw at once that Miss Tulliver’s conduct had been . . . detestable.”
Maggie’s most persistent critic is her brother, the companion of her earliest years. Tom tells her she no longer belongs to him. In the end sister and brother are reunited when the river floods and they drown holding to each other: “In their death they were not divided,” it says on their tomb. For some, this finale is too cataclysmic; for others, Maggie had to go down because there was no future for her gifts of mind and character in that place and time. But those who lend themselves to the sister-brother tie will be moved by the counter-story resonating in George Eliot’s past—what might have been: the unbroken bond with scenes of childhood and a sister who did not leave her native place.
George Eliot’s great power to move readers comes from the emotions of her past: the silenced passion she had known; the spirit of love in her aunt; and the pain of the social outcast.
Her miser character in Silas Marner (1861) is another who lives at the margins. This novel is like a biblical parable. As a miser, Marner hoards his gold, but selfish greed cuts him off from his community. Then a different sort of gold comes to him in the shape of a baby, Eppie, with golden hair. She is left on his doorstep, and his growing love for this child acts like a miracle: it transforms his being. The biblical reading of George Eliot’s youth came to infuse her new religion of humanism: “an ideal of goodness entirely human.”
Humanism was one of the two leading ideas of her time. Shelley had annexed new authority for the poet when he echoed Mary Wollstonecraft’s elder daughter, Fanny, who claimed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. George Eliot transfers this to the novel: a profound spiritual revival. Imagination—imaginative sympathy—is to replace ill-feeling, scoring, greed, all base forms of aggression.
The other leading idea was evolution. The Origin of Species came out in 1859. It’s long known that Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution; it goes back beyond Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, as far back as Aristotle, who defined nature as change as distinct from stasis. Yet a creature that undergoes metamorphosis does retain the givens of its makeup. If we translate this into human terms—call it biography—it makes sense that when Marian Evans entered her outcast chrysalis and Sara Hennell felt she was writing to a stranger, Marian protested that she was what she’d always been.
If we follow the nature of the “insurgent” she had appeared to be as a young woman in Chapman’s house and, consistent with that, the rebel against society who had cast her lot with a married man, then why does she change her name to “Mrs. Lewes” and then “George Eliot”? Simply, I think, her need for acceptance. In her journal and letters she repeatedly owns to that longing for “approbation,” a longing understandable in an outsider—though she blames herself for “egotism.” Her novels send out a message of selflessness, a counter to egotism, most profoundly in her portrait of Dorothea in Middlemarch.
George Eliot draws us into the silent struggles of a disappointed wife, Dorothea Casaubon, as she strives against fits of repulsion for her husband. And as she does so, she hones and perfects the fellow feeling of a potential St. Theresa born in the wrong time and place. As an intellectually eager young woman locked in a static provincial life, Dorothea finds it in her to pity her stultified husband. He is dimly aware of his wife’s evolving mind and character and stretches out his “dead hand” to block her even from beyond the grave.
Virginia Woolf said famously that Middlemarch is a novel for grown-up people; the power games of mediocrities—the blinkered scholar Casaubon; the wastrel son Fred Vincy; his sister, Rosamond, the spoilt wife; the landowner, Mr. Brooke, who does nothing for his tenants but has a notion to go into politics; and the rich, manipulative elder—all show up against the caliber of the elder’s caregiver, able Mary Garth, and the ardently willing Dorothea, who are moral beings on the margins. Without a vote and education reserved for well-born men, they have no access to power—self-perpetuating public power. As outsiders they present an alternative power that does not care to show its face; they persuade us that this could be, that in fact it already exists. When George Eliot tells us of Dorothea’s unmarked acts of goodness, the lost voice of Elizabeth Evans continues to reach an all-time audience. The outsider ethos led George Eliot to resist “the man of maxims.” To live by doctrine, to lace oneself up in ready-made formulae, she said, is “to repress the inspirations that spring from growing insight.”
Through the insight of Dinah and Dorothea, the author herself came to be regarded as a counselling angel, but naturally her own effort to measure up was imperfect, as in her relations with Isaac, Chrissey and the bereft children who looked to her and to whom she was dutiful only up to a point.
Given the support of Lewes and her own wealth—the publisher George Smith paid her no less than £7,000 for her least readable novel, Romola—she went on helping her three stepsons at a convenient distance. They accepted her help and wrote cordially to “Mutter.” Charlie, the eldest, was placed to his apparent satisfaction in the Post Office, and it must be said that the continued distance of the two younger sons fitted ideas of manhood at the height of the Empire. But the fact remains that both of them died young. The sickly Bertie and his elder brother Thornie went out to Natal, and there Bertie died. Thornie came home to die over the course of six months in 1869. It was the only period when he lived in this home. And George Eliot found it difficult. She was put out when Thornie came downstairs. At this time she was starting Middlemarch with the usual self-doubt and depression.
Her attachment to Lewes as her Siamese twin meant that she was all but broken when he developed bowel cancer in October–November 1878. Just then, Henry James called to leave a copy of his new novel The Europeans, and Lewes tossed it back, saying “away, away”—he was driven to protect George Eliot from the need to respond to a book whilst they endured the pain together. After Lewes died two weeks later, she howled for days on end and shut herself away; it was a trial to see people apart from her long-trusted friend and financial adviser, John Walter Cross, whom she’d called her “nephew.”
So long as she’d lived with Lewes, her brother Isaac did not communicate with her. For Isaac Evans, his sister’s fame did not blot out her transgression. He maintained silence from 1857 until 1880, twenty-three years, until, at the age of sixty, she married the devoted John Cross, a bachelor in his forties.
Understandably, a proposal from a good-looking supporter came to her as comfort in her state of loss. Yet there is something odd, unreal, less in the age gap than in the conventionality of this marriage, starting with a wedding in the fashionable St. George’s, Hanover Square. It was like a romance with respectability, after not quite passing as a married woman for a quarter of a century. It mattered hugely to George Eliot to set herself right with her brother, and, given this legal and highly public marriage, Isaac Evans consented to wish her well. George Eliot’s voice is very, very careful, and Isaac’s stiffly formal. It’s as though brother and sister sing an aria of reconciliation, trying to bridge their divide, yet remain divided. The stiltedness of their exchange cannot measure up to the throbbing finale to the wishful fiction of The Mill on the Floss.
There followed George Eliot’s honeymoon in Venice and the inexplicable incident on 16 June 1880 when Mr. Cross jumped or fell from a window and had to be fished from the Grand Canal. He was said to be ill. “Delirium,” Mrs. Cross said. A “nightmare,” said Mr. Cross. Those who saw them in Venice preserved a respectful silence.
George Eliot continued to refer to Cross as “my dear husband,” but it’s my impression—in the absence of facts it can be no more—she was shaken by the honeymoon. We know her ardent nature, and her confidence to Barbara Leigh Smith back in 1856 had made it clear that Lewes as a lover had proved confident enough to be “considerate.” It’s worth decoding the decorous language of the 1850s. My guess would be that Lewes, for all his extrovert exuberance, was sensitive when it came to sex, ready to encourage a woman to express a desire not necessarily the same as his own and to pace himself with her. “Unsensual” conjoined with “considerate” did not imply sexless; on the contrary. Sexual assurance seems to me to generate her image of a pale stag in the tapestry of the room assigned to the ardent Dorothea in Casaubon’s home where she is to find herself his less than satisfied wife.
From the time of George Eliot’s return from the near-disaster in Venice, she was never quite well again. The couple moved into a large, beautiful house at 4 Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames. And then, soon after, the marriage was cut short when George Eliot caught a chill and died in December 1880.
We know what awaits Promethean provincial girls. Craving knowledge or art or a chance to voice their desires, they run into obstruction. George Eliot mined this plot—it might have been her own—in Caterina Sarti with her soaring songs and suppressed utterance; in the reader Maggie Tulliver, bound to her “slowish” brother; in Dorothea Casaubon, that St. Theresa of the Midland Flats, who comes to be “a foundress of nothing”; and finally in the proud-spirited Gwendolen Harleth, who is turned into a victim of marriage by the sadistic Grandcourt. The Victorians don’t speak overtly of marital rape, but it’s implied in the domestic humiliation of Gwendolyn and that of Isabella by Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.
George Eliot was writing from the perspective of her rare liberation. Maggie was the provincial self she’d left behind, a young woman with eyes “full of unsatisfied intelligence and unsatisfied, beseeching affection,” who longed “for something that would give her soul a sense of a home.” There is a private counterpoint, as with the unseen endurance of Claire Clairmont’s life, running parallel to Mary Shelley’s public achievements. George Eliot’s thwarted women are versions of what might have been had she not turned into “George Eliot,” the counselling angel. It’s tempting to tell a fairy tale: humble girl wins fame and fortune. Bray liked to play this up, calling her an untaught farmer’s daughter, an image she rejected for her father’s sake. It’s truer to ask: what story did she tell herself? The test, as she saw it, was whether her nature could unfold from within.
Unlike the Brontë children, it took her a long time to venture into fiction. Unlike Mary Shelley, she did not grow up in a home filled with books, nor, in her youth, did she have always before her eyes a high-flying model, the portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft in Godwin’s study and now in the National Portrait Gallery. George Eliot picked up the Vindication of the Rights of Woman in her mid-thirties when her flight into fiction was about to take off. It was then that she seized on Wollstonecraft’s challenge: women had to stretch themselves to deserve rights. No one understood better just how far she had to stretch. She was not born a genius; she became one.
 From Lyndall Gordon’s recent book Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World [Virginia Woolf, Olive Schreiner, George Eliot, Emily Brontë, Mary Shelley]. Virago.
 When Emily Dickinson was a student at Mount Holyoke, she too was subject to an obligatory religious drama. With great moral courage she resisted this forcing, but it probably led to her leaving the college after only a year. She too cleansed herself of false emotion by speaking with directness in her poems—an explosive directness.
 The Professor (originally “The Master”), her first novel, is an exception. Claire Harmon points out that when Charlotte Brontë grafted onto the opening, scenes from her brother Branwell’s story about fraternal enemies (“The Wool Is Rising”), she was “trying to establish a more vigorous, masculine tone” so that the novel would not look like woman’s work, and to distract attention from the autobiographical core.