​​Looking back at her famous predecessor in 1919, Virginia Woolf noted that 'To read George Eliot attentively, is to become aware of how little one knows about her.' Woolf was referring to her own prejudices about George Eliot: from the vantage point of the early twentieth century, she was no longer the impressive figure she had been to her contemporaries. While Jane Austen and the Brontës were steadily gaining in popularity and new biographies promised more and more insights into their private lives, Woolf recalls George Eliot as 'a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself.' In the course of her centenary essay, Woolf goes on to rediscover Eliot as a compelling novelist and author of Middlemarch, 'one of the few English books written for grown-up people', and finally celebrates her as one of the four great women writers in A Room of One's Own.[i] Yet Eliot always remains a more shadowy presence than other writers: while we can easily call up an image of the Brontës walking wild Yorkshire moors, or Jane Austen's serene smile, George Eliot remains a novelist whose private life was strictly separate from her extraordinary success as a writer.​

Although we are celebrating the centenary of 'George Eliot' this year, this persona was not invented until the late 1850s – it was Mary Anne Evans who was born two hundred years ago. For the first few decades of her life, her life did not differ too much from that of most conventional Victorian daughters: although she was educated at boarding schools, she returned to her family home in Nuneaton to act as housekeeper to her father when her mother died in 1836. However, her intellectual pursuits soon began to cause tension with her family: she formed close friendships with the freethinking, radical Bray family in Coventry; began to question her religious faith and translated theological texts questioning the literal truth of the Bible.

The death of her father in 1849 finally left Mary Anne Evans free to pursue her own ambitions of a literary career. She moved to London and joined the household of John Chapman, who was owner of the radical journal The Westminster Review, to become a reviewer and editor. This new position quickly taught her to mask her gender and work under a male guise: thus, Fionnuala Dillane argues that she asserted her editorial authority 'in strategic and clandestine ways, most often by using Chapman's nominal editorship as cover'.[ii] The creation of 'George Eliot' as the pseudonymous author of her first work of fiction, the Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), therefore allowed her to maintain this more authoritative male persona and dissociate her own writing from the 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' who she had attacked in a lengthy essay two years prior. Additionally, it meant that Eliot appeared on the literary scene as out of nowhere: her journalistic apprenticeship was unknown to her new readers, who largely assumed her to be a country parson. The creation of 'George Eliot' also helped protect Evans' private life from public censorship. Although she was openly living with fellow writer and critic George Henry Lewes and his three sons, her pseudonym allowed readers and reviewers to avoid the morally loaded choice between addressing her as either Miss Evans or Mrs. Lewes after her identity became known.

George Eliot therefore remained an unknowable figure at a time when Victorian readers were increasingly interested in the private lives of famous figures. Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë (1857) had famously suggested that successful women writers lived parallel lives, their literary careers coexisting with their domestic lives. Famous writers like the Brontës or Jane Austen were domesticated by their biographers: firmly embedded in a household routine and portrayed as devoted sisters, daughters, or aunts, their literary success became just one aspect of a life that largely adhered to Victorian ideals of femininity. But although Eliot considered herself married to Lewes and helped raise his sons, her home life was too immoral to bear public scrutiny – she was 'a name without a person', as Gillian Beer has aptly put it: she lacked the authenticity of a private existence and could not be pictured at home.[iii]

Eliot's ungendered existence allowed her to become a great Victorian sage, purely cerebral and celebrated for her intellect, but the opacity of her private life was also a point of contention with her female contemporaries. Margaret Oliphant, a prolific reviewer, novelist and biographer, was prompted to self-examination after reading John Cross' reverential The Life of George Eliot as Related in her Letters and Journals (1885):

I wonder if I am a little envious of her? […] How have I been handicapped in life! Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of? […]

I think she must have been a dull woman with a great genius distinct from herself, something like the gift of the old prophets, which they sometimes exercised with only a dim sort of perception what it meant.[iv]

Far from focussing on her unmarried status, it is Eliot's apparent lack of domestic obligations which most attracted Oliphant's attention: she contrasts Eliot's ability to rely on Lewes's unwavering support of her literary career is with her own life as a widowed working mother. Questioning Eliot's 'unnatural' success, Oliphant contradictorily portrays it at once as the result of an artificially sheltered environment as well as an innate (and implicitly male) drive outside her comprehension. Implicitly, her own, much less successful career emerges as the more natural path of a woman writer, with her writing inseparably tied to family life and all its interruptions.

Margaret Oliphant's hostility to George Eliot's unfeminine career suggests why, fifty years later, Virginia Woolf struggled to picture her as part of a female canon of English literature. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf emphatically argues that 'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction' and shows how household duties and domestic interruptions impeded even the greatest writers' careers. As a professional writer with great personal and financial independence, Eliot possessed the money as well as the room of her own to pursue her literary career without impediments – as Elizabeth Jay suggests, she embodies the myth that 'because a woman had been admitted to the pantheon, gender bias had been overcome'.[v] Woolf's treatment of Eliot suggests that she strongly felt this threat to her argument: in her brief sketch of Eliot's life, she tries to emphasize her suffering from social isolation and enforced domesticity to align her with Austen and the Brontës, who essentially remained amateur writers living in their parents' homes. However, as a public intellectual who help a position of eminence usually reserved for men, Eliot signalled the emergence of a new type of woman writer; and Woolf's malicious reference to the 'deluded woman' suggests how unusual this remained even half a century later. Although she still has the reputation of a serious and complex writer today, her novels are well worth reading – for as Woolf said, 'To read George Eliot attentively, is to become aware of how little one knows about her.'

Dr Anne Reus is an Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and a Leeds Trinity University alumna. Her PhD thesis investigated representations of Victorian women writers' lives in Virginia Woolf's journalism, and her research interests include Virginia Woolf, Victorian popular fiction and life writing. She was co-organizer of the 2016 conference on Virginia Woolf and HeritageWater, and New Work in Modernist Studies 2017. She is co-editor of Virginia Woolf and Heritage (Liverpool UP, 2017) and has published on Woolf and Margaret Oliphant.

Blog image credit: Alamy Stock Photo

[i] Woolf, Virginia, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, 1925-1928, ed. by Andrew McNeillie (London: Harcourt, 2008), p. 170 and 176.
[ii] Fionnuala Dillane, '"The Character of Editress": Marian Evans at the Westminster Review,
1851–54', Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 30.2 (2013), 269–90 (p. 271).
[iii] Gillian Beer, quoted in Fionnuala Dillane, Before George Eliot: Marian Evans and the Periodical
Press (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), p.17.
[iv] Oliphant, Margaret, The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant, ed. by Elisabeth Jay (Ormskirk: Broadview, 2002), pp. 50-51, 52.
[v] Jay, Elisabeth, 'Mrs. Oliphant: The Hero as Woman of Letters, or Autobiography, a Gendered Genre', Caliban, 31 (1994), 85–95, p. 87.

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