George Eliot Born From Scandal and Gossip

At a time when open adultery was severely frowned upon, George Eliot was born. He was to become one of the most read, most mocked, and best earning writers of the 19th century. His birth was one of necessity induced by the most unforgiving force on earth: The English middle class.

In 1854, Miss Marian Evans set sail for the continent. Accompanying her was no maid, chaperone, or destitute relative bullied into it.  She was traveling with a male companion by name of George Henry Lewes. He was a fellow journalist of hers, unrelated to her, and married to another woman. Middle class gossip started working overtime and a trip abroad was blown up to scandal size.

In this most hypocritical of all ages called the Victorian era when bigots made rules and dominated politics, double standards where the norm.  The trip taken by Evans and Lewes was social suicide. In keeping with the twisted morals of the time, becoming a social outcast was reserved exclusively for women. The Bible ruled supreme and it's ten commandments were cut down to one: Don't get caught.

Upon her return from the continent, Marian Evans was ostracized by her socialite peers; she became a society pariah, unclean, a person you didn’t want to know for fear that her sin might rub off on you like a visible sickness. It excluded her from going to public places like theatres, she wouldn't receive any invitations anymore, nor could she visit any friends anymore should she have retained any at all. It meant total isolation.

Consequently, she retired from London to Coventry. There she found time and quiet to pursue her favourite dream: She wanted to write a novel. Her first finished manuscript was ‘Scenes Of Clerical Life’ and was published under her chosen pen name. It was the birth of George Eliot. His birth was a necessity; her name was mud, and women didn't write novels.

Later books such as ‘Adam Bede’, ‘The Mill On The Floss’, and ‘Middlemarch’ assured her of millions of readers and made her very, very rich. ‘Romola’, the historical novel set in Florence, made her £7,000, which translates into half a million pounds in today’s money. Her novels transformed a farmer’s daughter into one of the most read novelists in the 19th century. In typical Victorian duplicity, her work was praised in the highest terms while her person was reviled and ridiculed at the same time.

Brenda Maddox’s ‘George Eliot’ was published by Harper Press. There are enough plodding and frankly boring biographies on George Eliot on the market. Maddox on the other hand takes a quirky and slanted look at the life of Evans. She concentrates on the private person and works out the influence Lewes had on her writing while keeping the influence of the public picture painted in her novels to a minimum.

The end result is a rather short but very readable book that gives readers insights into the times and circumstances of George Eliot. It paints a picture of a time that gave birth to a type of novel equally time bound by its writing convention. If you don’t like the too prosy biographies or want to complement the rather dry picture they paint, this book is definitely worth reading.

Further reading
Choosing a Writing Pen Name
Literary Trolls
The White Sex Slaves of 1874
The Transvestite Surgeon