George Eliot

In 1885 in the Mikado, women novelists are on the list of the Lord High Executioner to be put away with. Marian Evans, better known as George Eliot, was dead by then. She was born into a time when open adultery was frowned upon unlike to today. Under her pen name of George Eliot, she was to become one of the most read, most mocked, and best earning authors of the 19th century.

In 1854, Miss Marian Evans set sail for the continent accompanied by a gentleman by name of George Henry Lewes. He was a fellow journalist of Marian Evans', not related to her, and already married to another woman. Scandal broke immediately. It was an inauspicious start to what would become a literary power couple.

The Victorian age is wrongly remembered and hailed as an era of righteousness and moral standards. It was the most hypocritical of ages. Bigots made the rules and double standards were the norm. The travel arrangements made by Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes were a way to commit social suicide. The twisted morals of the Victorian hypocrites made only women social outcasts, though.

When Marian Evans returned from the continent, she found that she had become a social leper. She was cut out from her social circle and an outcast of society in general. She was excluded from going to public places like the theatre or opera and she didn't receive invitations to dinners or soirées anymore. What she had called friends dissipated in the hot blast of social outrage made the more public for being feigned and false. She was left in a desert of total isolation.

She retired to Coventry. There she found time and quiet to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist. The first manuscript she finished was 'Scenes Of Clerical Life.' It was published under her chosen pen name. Coventry saw the birth of George Eliot.

Her later books ‘Adam Bede’, ‘The Mill On The Floss’, and ‘Middlemarch’ assured her of millions of readers. They made her almost as rich as J. K. Rowling. ‘Romola’, a historical novel set in Florence, made her £7,000. In today's money that would be about a half a million pounds. The novels transformed the farmer’s daughter with an aborted career as a journalist into one of the most read novelists of the 19th century. The two faced Victorians praised her work while reviling her person and private life.

Brenda Maddox’ book ‘George Eliot’ was published by Harper Press. While there are more than enough plodding, boring biographies on George Eliot on the market, Maddox takes a quirky and slanted look at the life of Marian Evans. She concentrates on her private persona. From that angle, she shows the influence George Henry Lewes had on her writing.

The result is a short but eminently readable book. It gives readers insights into the times and circumstances of George Eliot's writing career. It paints a picture of a specific time that gave birth to a specific type of novel. If you don’t like prim and prosy biographies or want to complement the boring picture they paint of George Eliot, this book is definitely worth reading.

Further reading