Becoming George Eliot (part 1): The progress of Mary Anne Evans

January 5, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Mary Anne Evans was one of the sharpest and most wide-ranging minds of the 1800s in London’s ground-breaking intellectual ferment of the mid-century. She mixed with the most radical and forwarding thinkers of the day and was the driving force behind the resurgence of the Westminster Review between late 1851 and 1853.

Her title was assistant editor. In reality she was the one who put together the monthly publication — selecting the subjects, gathering the authors, and writing much of the content herself. The breadth of her knowledge and understanding was wide-ranging.

But Mary Anne Evans had a big problem. She was a woman.

It was a man’s world — this world of Big New Ideas — and in it women were relegated to domesticity and, if they chose to become writers, to the genre of light and romantic literature.

Evans did not want that role. She believed she was destined to be something else.

Maybe so, but she had an even bigger problem, She was a Fallen Woman. Evans was living with George Lewes, a man who was married to another woman, who was the mother of his children. They had run off together in 1854 to Europe and when they returned, they lived openly together in a suburb of London.

The scandal had isolated Evans from society and even from her close friends. Alone, except for Lewes, she did what she had always dreamed of doing: writing fiction. The well-connected Evans got a publisher interested in her work, but she feared that publication would just exacerbate her two big problems.

So she solved her problems literally at the stroke of a pen. She became George Eliot.

She used that pen name first in 1857 when she published the first of three stories in Blackwood’s Magazine. George Eliot was a publicity-shy country parson (or maybe his wife), it was said, and the stories were very well received. Two years later, the novel Adam Bede was published, and that received rave reviews. Curiosity about this “George Eliot” person heightened.

Then things got complicated. That’s next week — so stay turned.

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