In my previous life, I was a Victorianist.
For those who have no idea what that means, it’s simply my area of specialization in English studies. I very much liked the big 800-page door blockers that the Victorians enjoyed writing so much.
And among all the 3-decker, long brick writers of the last two thirds of the 1800s, my favourite one is George Eliot.
If George Eliot (otherwise known as Mary-Ann Evans) had been born in this century, she would have been an influential academic, or an astronaut, or a best-selling novelist (which is what she actually was), or the most successful business woman in the world.
Unfortunately, she was born in a century where even very, very smart women (at the end of her life, she spoke several languages other than English including French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew) needed to adopt a masculine pen name in order to be taken seriously. However, she never let that stop her. In the most simple terms I can put it: she didn’t take shit from anyone.
In the middle of her life, Eliot met the journalist and philosopher George Henry Lewes. Lewes was married but lived separately from his wife; she even had children from another man. She never agreed to a divorce to Lewes. Unphased by this… issue, Eliot and Lewes moved in together and started living as man and wife without being legally married.
If you know anything about the Victorians, this was extremely scandalous. Eliot’s family broke all contacts with her and she became a social pariah, outside of her close circle of humanist friends. She stayed with Lewes until his death and became a second mother to his children, as well.
During my research for my thesis, I had to read several pages of her journals and letters and realized just how much of an intellectual powerhouse this woman actually was. While she was writing Romola at a pace of several pages a day, she read something like one or two books every days AND kept house.
But what has always fascinated me about her is her thorough understanding of the nature and power of religion in society. Born in a very religious family, she eventually went through an apostasy and gave up organized religion. However, she often portrayed religious people (Dinah, Farebrother, Mordecai, among others) as generous, moral, loyal, and ultimately, so very human. The more conservative Victorians tended to idealize their priests and religious figures, but George Eliot gave them a human quality that has always stuck with me. They have their ethical qualms, their issues and their disappointments, like everyone else.
I couldn’t exactly explain to you why I like her so much. Some people call her preachy, others can’t stand the length of her sentences. A lot of people admit that they find her stories slow and impossible to finish. It might just be my predilection for deep characterization and a philosophical turn. Her stories mean something greater than themselves, and I think that’s what keeps me going back to Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
Have you ever read anything by George Eliot? What did you think?