First of all, you should know that I love Middlemarch. A lot. To the point where I resist re-reading it because I’m convinced that I won’t find the same magic in it again, even though I always do. It’s the book that keeps on giving, really, because you find something new in it at every age.
You should also know that Middlemarch has long been considered one of the best novels in English ever written. George Eliot does many things with this book that are nothing short of genius, and the people who spend their time thinking about these things (I always picture an oak-paneled board room full of old white men, though hopefully that demographic has changed significantly) have taken notice.
Even so, I think George Eliot should be pissed off.
First, because George Eliot was a woman who felt she had to write under a male pseudonym. Congratulations if you already knew about that little gender switcheroo. If you didn’t, now you have a fun fact for cocktail parties.
Eliot is not alone in the use of a male pseudonym. All of the Brontë sisters wrote under male pseudonyms. Even today, it’s not hard to find women writing under male or gender-neutral names (J.K. Rowling, anyone?).
Still, though, even though it was more or less her choice to write as George Eliot instead of her given name (which was Mary Ann or Marian Evans), and even though women writers were fairly widely published by the time Eliot lived and wrote (1819-1880), she still felt as though her books would be more successful if people didn’t know that she was a woman, and that had to have angered her.
I think she’d also be pretty ticked to know that many people still believe she was a man. Most don’t bother to check (and why would they?) the gender of the author, especially when the name is pretty gender-specific. Still, it’s frustrating to see people still falling for this slight of hand from such a well-known writer. (And yes, I know that it shouldn’t matter what gender a writer is, but it does when you live in a time when women are repressed for any number of reasons, in almost all areas.)
Eliot is different from other female writers, though, in that I think she was probably a little bit pissed off that she wasn’t actually a man. I don’t mean sexually or literally (we’ll cover her romantic life in a minute) but socially, mentally, and academically, she’d have liked to have had what men had. She came close in many ways, given her large number of male friends, her extensive education (though most of it informal), and the fact that sometimes in her writing she seems to stand with the patriarchy that condemned women.
Eliot’s friend, Margaret Fuller, perhaps best expressed what Eliot likely felt: “I have always thought… that I would not write like a woman, of love and hope and disappointment, but like a man, of the world of intellect and action.”1 This sentiment speaks more to the gender expectations and stereotypes of the time than it does to any condemnation of women and the way they supposedly wrote.
Eliot did, after all, also think that men should be more like women in some ways. She even thought that entire countries were losing some of the “female” traits that were crucial to humanity, like nurturing, commitment, community, and appreciation of nature.
My point is that she’s a bit of a paradox. She never gave birth but writes extensively about motherhood; she celebrates virtue even though she was herself a “fallen woman”; and she addresses religion although she was an agnostic.
Having said that, let me clarify that she is as entitled to write about motherhood as anyone because:
A. Plenty of men have done it and as far as I know none of them have actually given birth.
B. She had three stepsons with her partner, George Henry Lewes. I am a stepmother myself and there are step-relationships threaded throughout my family tree, and while the role may sometimes be different from a straightforward parenting role, you are parenting nonetheless. Eliot was close with her step-sons, who loved her dearly.
And as far as we in the 21st century are concerned, she can also write about virtue all she wants because our moral codes are more relaxed than those from Victorian England. George Eliot lived with a married man for 24 years. Now, before you gasp and clutch your pearls in dismay, hear me out.
George Henry Lewes (and isn’t it cute that they are both named George?) was married to a woman named Agnes. Lewes and Agnes had children together, and then Agnes had children with another man. Since Lewes’s name is on the birth certificate of one of those children, even though he knew the child wasn’t his, Agnes and Lewes could not be legally divorced. They decided instead to separate and both went on to have relationships with other people.
So. I guess this is one of those gray areas. Generally, I’d say it’s unwise to be in a relationship with someone who’s married to another person. Seems like their attention might be split. But I defy anyone to read about Eliot’s relationship with Lewes and not find one of the best literary love stories ever.
Eliot should also be pissed that people are often so scandalized by her personal life that they neglect to give her writing the attention it deserves. Such is the case with so many literary women. Lena Dunham even tweeted about this a few years ago, writing: “FYI George Eliot’s Wikipedia page is the soapiest most scandalous thing you’ll read this month. Thesis: she was ugly AND horny!”
Dunham’s not wrong, though I will list a couple of books at the end of this piece in hopes that your search into Eliot’s life and work goes beyond Wikipedia (as I’m sure Dunham’s did). As for Eliot’s personal life, I think she and Lewes had a very healthy relationship and I will leave it at that. And in terms of her looks, people over the years have often commented on her less-than-ideal beauty. Henry James went on and on about it, though you should look up pictures of him and tell me if you think he’s anything to write home about. But I don’t think Eliot would be pissed if people think she’s ugly. I don’t think she’d care at all. I hope not.
As irascible as I’m making Eliot sound, she had a life that was quite content and wonderful, and really only a couple of things to be pissed off about. She even had literary female friends, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller, and Christina Rossetti. I wish they’d hung out together more, though. I’d like to see them walking in slow motion à la Reservoir Dogs, armed with stacks of books or quills and ink pots. They would be a posse like Charlie’s Angels or Taylor Swift’s squad, only more fully clothed and intellectually badass, like they would dominate at Trivial Pursuit for Book Lovers or Bananagrams.
Please read George Eliot’s books!
And also the following gems:
Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic
Eliot would be proud (and less pissed off) if you did.
1 Taken from Fuller’s journal, dated 1835. (Also cited in Gilbert and Gubar, listed above.)