Becoming George Eliot (part 2): the progress of Mary Anne Evans

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

When Mary Anne Evans published her first work under the pen name of George Eliot in 1856, there is no evidence that she ever planned to reveal her identity. She was successfully hiding behind the general rumor that George Eliot must be some country parson because the next of her writings, Scenes from a Clerical Life, captured the community life of the villages of England so well.

She had adopted the name of George Eliot because

— she didn’t want the reception of her writing to have to deal with the prejudices against women writers;

— she was living with a man who was married and not her husband;

— the essay where she first used George Eliot as a nom-de-plume was titled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”

If no one ever knew that George Eliot was really Mary Anne Evans, that was fine with Mary Anne. Her work would be judged on its merits, not on the gender of the authors. Anonymity and obscurity were preferable to fame and recognition.

But the outcome was predictable. Her work was well-received, and the reading public became curious about this “country parson.” Some who read it closely began to guess that it might not have been written by a man after all. Some of the speculation spilled into Mary Anne Evans’ lap. She was well known in London intellectual circles, and her writing style distinct.

Then, the unpredictable happened. A man, unknown to everyone, claimed to be George Eliot. After the publication of the novel Adam Bede in 1859 and its generally glowing reviews (which brought on more speculation about the author’s identity), Liggins announced that he was the author. To Evans’ consternation, he developed a following and even advocates among London’s literary elite. Word was seeping out from people who knew who the real author was, but Evans continued to issue denials for a time.

But the denials, in some sense, were just confirmation that Liggins was the real George Eliot, and Mary Anne (or Marian, as she preferred) could not have that. She finally admitted her identity and provided proof that she was who she said she was.

That admission caused some embarrassment and some hurt feelings on the part of friends to whom she had lied. All that was mitigated by the fact that in addition to her works being well reviewed, the books were selling well, and she was making money — more than she expected. The income over the next few years provided her and George Lewes, whom she referred to as her husband, the freedom to live where they wanted to live and to travel at will.

Eliot went on to produce an impressive body of work (Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda), and to emerge as one of England leading writers of the 19th century. About Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf famously said that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-ups.”

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