Image: Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Laurence, circa 1860
In both her professional and her personal life Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans, better known to us as George Eliot, stands as an impressive example of a woman challenging social expectations of femininity in the later nineteenth century: Mary Ann was an assuredly intelligent woman not afraid to defy the most dominant social conventions of the time, and under the pen name George Eliot she wrote some of the century’s most significant works that sharply engage with the issues of the world around her. Neither as Mary Ann Evans nor as George Eliot can she be straightforwardly positioned in a feminist framework, but her life and works raise indicative questions about the challenges faced and posed by ‘groundbreaking’ women, and the ways in which we retrospectively read women as such.
Born in Warwickshire in 1819, Mary Ann was an intensely intelligent child, receiving a good education that was further driven by her passion for knowledge and great enthusiasm for reading; her early tastes encompassed an array of literary texts, and later spanned across a wide range of scientific, philosophical, religious and artistic subjects, accompanied by a strong grasp of several languages. As a highly learned young woman she developed a confident independence of thought that provided the foundations for two defining moments of her life that represent important, radical breaks with social convention. The first of these came at the age of just 22 years old when her study of religious historical enquiries and discussions with religious free-thinkers led to her rejection of conventional Christianity and a refusal to attend church with her family. The move deeply shocked her father and caused a temporary rift in the family; Mary Ann eventually conceded to join the family at church for the sake of keeping the peace, but she did so on the understanding with her father that she would privately pursue her own religious views as she wished.
Her father’s death in 1849, when Mary Ann was 30 years old, marked the start of an active, independent life as a young single woman. She travelled across the Continent – including France, Switzerland, and Germany – both with friends and on her own, which allowed her to further expand upon her education, as well as to experience the differences of women’s position in European society. In one letter, she reflects on the comparative lack of freedom for unmarried women in Europe: “I dare not look or say or do half what one does in England. As long as people carry a Mademoiselle before their name, there is far less liberty for them on the Continent than in England”.
Back in England she entered into a circle of liberal intellectuals and began some of her most important literary projects, undertaking editorship of the Westminster Review with John Chapman, as well as writing her own reviews and translations of important works, all of which gave her the additional income (along with a small inheritance from her father) needed to support herself. It was at this time that she met and fell in love with George Henry Lewes, which would lead to her second significant break with social convention. Lewes was separated from his wife, who was involved in an affair with another man, but he was unable to divorce her as he had technically accepted the affair. This left Lewes unable to remarry Marian but, in a move that went radically against contemporary morality and propriety, the couple began to live together as husband and wife: Marian took Lewes as her surname, referred to herself as his “wife”, and was insistent that others should do the same. Throughout a wave of disapproval that saw her lose friends and family – her brother Isaac refused any further contact with her – Marian maintained a confident assurance of the integrity of her own moral certitude.
It was soon after this that the literary works for which she would become best known started to take shape, and in 1857 with the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life, ‘George Eliot’ emerged onto the literary scene. Best known for Middlemarch (1871-2), each of her works stands as a unique achievement in its own right: from her early rural works such as Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) to the weighty exploration of Jewish history in Daniel Deronda (1876), Eliot researched intensely whatever themes her fiction turned to, and each work is characterised by a depth and breadth of knowledge encompassing such subjects as religious philosophy, science, history, the visual and literary arts, languages and politics.
Eliot’s writing responds against what she saw as a proliferation of “silly novels by lady novelists”, the worst of which was the “mind-and-millinery species” of fiction concerned with wealthy heiresses, “frothy and pious” in equal measure. These novels, she felt, did a disservice to women’s capabilities: “women can produce novels not only fine, but among the very finest – novels, too, that have a precious speciality, lying quite apart from masculine aptitudes and experience” (“Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, Westminster Review, 1856). Her derision of women writers is problematic in reinforcing a stereotype of female frivolity in order to assert the higher status of a select few well-educated women writers and, although important in identifying the intellectual potential of women readers and writers, this comes only by upholding a rather fixed idea of how literary merit is judged and valued.
Yet Eliot’s novels handle these contradictions rather more successfully. By adopting a male pseudonym she recognised, like those before her such as Charlotte Brontë, that this was the only way to give herself the chance to be judged on her own literary merits rather than “as a woman” – it was not long before her identity was discovered, but by this time her literary credibility had been well established. Her fiction engages deeply and thoughtfully with crucial contemporary questions about women – their nature, social position, education, and the effects of moral codes upon women – but her novels do not isolate female experience as their focus of study and are never solely about these questions, incorporating attention to the issues of women’s lives within a wider exploration of humanity. Far from reaching a compromised handling of female experience, this achieves a much deeper exploration of human society that interrogates the multiple and intersecting complexities of women’s (and men’s) lives.
When set against the independence represented by Eliot’s own life, however, her female characters can seem dissatisfactory from a feminist perspective: the literary model of an intelligent, independent woman that we might want to find is never fully achieved, always compromised or restrained in some way. Her female characters – among them Dorothea Casaubon (Middlemarch), Gwendolen Harleth (Daniel Deronda), and Maggie Tulliver (The Mill on the Floss) – are often deeply flawed in the decisions they make and attitudes they possess, and lack the ability to free themselves from social conventions. While this curtailment more effectively demonstrates the extent of social forces acting upon women, it also means that many of her characters seem to fail to live up to their initial promise and potential, entrapping themselves in the frustrations of their own lives.
Yet her representation of women also challenges many commonly-held beliefs about women’s position and opens up new perspectives on the realities of female experience. Her first novel Adam Bede, for example, was criticised for its overt portrayal of the pregnancy of Hetty Sorrel – a young unmarried woman who is courted by the young master of the estate. Although by modern standards the pregnancy appears deeply concealed in the text, some contemporary reviewers were outraged by Eliot’s stark portrayal, claiming that
“we seem to be threatened with a literature of pregnancy […]the account of her misfortunes read like the rough notes of a man-midwife’s conversations with a bride. This is intolerable. Let is copy the old masters of the art, who, if they gave us a baby, gave it us all at once.” (Anonymous review, 1859)
That Eliot didn’t copy the “old masters” is crucial to her achieving a much more complex representation of a “fallen woman”, preventing her readers from a straightforward dismissal of her plight and calling instead for a more complex understanding – a potentially risky move for Eliot who was already, of course, in a morally dubious social position through her relationship with Lewes.
Her fiction is at its most effective in recognising the multiple problems of women’s lives that cannot be saved by one course of action alone. The necessity of women’s education, for example, is frequently a topic of concern, yet in women such as Maggie Tulliver we encounter the problematic double-bind that a good education can affect. Maggie reads widely of worlds far beyond her own experience but this breeds intense dissatisfaction: reading, she says, “has made me restless – it has made me think a great deal about the world; and I have impatient thoughts again – I get weary of my home”. Her weary realisation of the confines of her limited sphere becomes so much for her that she decides to deny herself the pleasure of reading: “being benumbed was better”, and “blinding and deafening” herself to the world beyond her own is the only way to resign herself to the boundaries of her own experience (The Mill on the Floss, Book 5 chapter 4). Education alone, Eliot recognises here, is not enough without freedom of movement or independence over one’s life – freedoms that remain largely impossible for these women – and the very modes that offer the promise of a better life may bring little more than pain until other social structures also change for the better.
While Eliot’s fictional heroines don’t always break the mould of conventional womanhood as fully as Marian herself did, they push at the boundaries of social expectations and offer important responses to many of the key questions about women of the time. Marian Lewes stands as a rare example of defiance of deeply-set conventions of moral propriety; and as George Eliot, she left a legacy that not only expanded the idea of what women writers were capable of, but that had a profound influence on many writers, both men and women, in her own time and beyond. Her life and writing is not straightforward in its articulation of feminist themes and perspectives, but perhaps all the more interesting for the ways in which this encourages us to engage with the nuanced complexities of women’s position in the nineteenth century.
Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, where she researches Victorian literature and culture. She blogs at http://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/ and is on Twitter @cemathieson