Why do we still refer to Marian Evans as George Eliot? After all, the Brontë sisters have long since ceased to be known as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and contemporaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau proved that being female was no impediment to literary success. The short answer is that Evans wanted it that way. But as Brenda Maddox points out in this lively biography, the irrationality of maintaining a male pseudonym was obvious even in her lifetime. So why did she and her common-law "husband" GH Lewes strive "to keep up the fiction of George Eliot's maleness"?
Because, as Maddox explains, around the time when she first chose the pseudonym (inspired by the example of George Sand), Marian was living with Lewes, a married man, and had been ostracised from society, losing all her female friends. It was not her gender that she worried might harm sales of her books, but her reputation as a "fallen" woman. "The word for such a woman was unprintable," Maddox says, and indeed gossiping letter writers described the notorious Marian Evans as "a -----". She has successfully effaced herself ever since.
And what about that face? "I have no photograph of myself, having always avoided having one taken," she lied to her many fans. She was famously unattractive, and people were openly cruel about her appearance, which contributed to her lack of self-confidence. As she observed in Middlemarch: "We are all apt to believe what the world believes about us." Henry James called her a "great horse-faced bluestocking", but he also noted that "in that vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind so that you end as I ended, falling in love with her". There was something about Marian. The man she finally married, John Cross, 20 years her junior, jumped into Venice's Grand Canal on their honeymoon to escape consummating their marriage. Yet he remained her most devoted disciple and, when the 61-year-old novelist died six months later, he became her first biographer.
Some will find Maddox's interest in Marian's sex life unseemly; others will be offended by her thesis that Marian was transformed into a great novelist through the love of a good man. Others will deprecate her interest throughout in just how much cash the George Eliot brand generated: in one year alone, The Mill on the Floss brought in £271,000 in today's money. Maddox's analysis of the novels is minimal. Instead, she focuses on Marian Evans, the great woman behind George Eliot, a woman who learned to relish the role society forced on her of, in her words, "heathen and outlaw". For not only was Marian Evans the "first great godless writer of fiction" in England (as one contemporary put it), but she was also "a -----".