George Eliot 200 Years On: A Scandalous Life And A Huge Literary Legacy


Mary Ann Evans took the pseudonym “George Eliot” because she wanted to be taken seriously as a writer.

Other female authors had penned work under their own names, but Evans feared that if her identity was discovered her books would be dismissed as “light” and “sentimental”.

Astonishingly, in an age of patriarchy, this was not the case.

Eliot’s reputation has grown steadily in the 200 years since her birth. And her Middlemarch (1871-2) is often claimed to be the greatest novel in the English language.

Eliot’s “incognito” was shattered shortly after her first bestselling novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859. Critics were left marvelling not only that the author they collectively imagined to be a kindly country clergyman was a woman, but also that she was an atheist living openly with another woman’s husband.

She lived a scandalous life by Victorian standards. But she was one of Queen Victoria’s favourite writers.

And in the thousands of words that were to spill across the pages of the literary quarterlies about Eliot’s books, there was far less interest in salacious gossip than in the question of whether she had drawn a picture of the world as it “really” was.

No matter how much these 19th century – mostly male – critics attacked Eliot’s novels for their political and cultural heresies, it was obvious – indeed, astonishing – that they took them seriously as fundamentally important works.