The worlds of George and Marian
Calling her a great female writer—even the greatest—may be an insult to George Eliot. Eliot distanced her own work from that of other writers of her sex, deriding "silly novels by lady novelists", purportedly even criticizing the celebrated Jane Austen for dealing with trivialities.
It is often suggested Eliot took a man's name for her nom de plume in order to be taken seriously as a writer, but many women had already blazed that path by the mid-nineteenth century when the woman born Mary Anne Evans started producing fiction. Rather, she became George to dissociate herself from existing women's writing.
Nonetheless, she has continued often to be read as a writer with an insight into human intercourse that is distinctly feminine, despite her penning some of the hardest-hitting, rationalist critiques up to that time. And she has become a lightning rod for feminist criticism, on the positive side for creating strong women and on the negative side for having them yield to male characters.
Now, there may indeed be something different in Eliot's prose from the usual male perspective. Before the author of Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) was known to be a woman, Charles Dickens famously guessed the secret, writing to her:
I have observed what seemed to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions.... If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.
But this is evidence to me not that George Eliot wrote like a woman, but that she did not write as just a man. Most other readers and critics speculated about various male authors hiding behind the pen name. Eliot wrote with neither an exclusively male nor an exclusively female sensibility, but from a well-rounded human perspective—differently from what had previously been considered either gentlemanly or ladylike writing.
Scenes of Clerical Life was eventually revealed to be the debut effort of Marian Evans, to use the name by which she was already known in intellectual circles. She was a translator of philosophical works and had been editor of the left-leaning political and literary journal The Westminster Review.
As the quickly succeeding novels—Adam Bede (1959), The Mill on the Floss (1960) and Silas Marner (1961)—demonstrated, Eliot/Evans was what today we'd call the complete package. She was obviously extremely intelligent and and well versed in history, science, art and politics. But she could also understand and write about the daily life of people at all levels of English society with great empathy and passion. And, unlike the figures in the novels she had derided in the Review, her characters struggled to break from social strictures; they challenged narrow morality.
Of these early successes, the most conventional may be The Mill on the Floss, which disguises its critical insights with a flimsy romantic and, at times, melodramatic plot. But it's still highly readable and has proven an enduring favourite, as illustrated by repeated movie interpretations.
Her first—and arguably only—major misfire came with her historical novel Romola (1863). Eliot did voluminous research for the book, including six weeks in Florence studying the talk and manners of the people there. But the sheer weight of her learning, delivered in pages of exposition, crushes the operatic plot of personal and social betrayal amid political intrigue in Renaissance Italy. Romola was then and remains today her least regarded novel. However, it has had its defenders, some of whom have declared it her best work.
Her next, Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), was a partial comeback, returning to social relations in provincial England. The story takes place during elections and labour upheaval, but it soft-pedals the politics in favour of the love story. The "radical" advice of the novel turns out to be that of a moderate reform movement. Two years later Eliot restated it in an article, "Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt", for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine.
Throughout this period, apart from publishing five novels in an eight-year span, Eliot was also producing poetry and shorter fiction. But it was six years after Felix Holt before her next—and greatest—novel appeared. It's in Middlemarch that all sides of Eliot's intellect, literary skill and human understanding come together to mould a masterwork.
Subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, the novel focuses on a town in the English Midlands, mainly following the progress of its middle-class heroine Dorothea but ranging across all stratas of society, bringing the exterior and interior lives of a wide range of characters to life. Despite its unpromising setting, Middlemarch manages to address and challenge all the conventions and ideas of the day—regarding religion, marriage, the sexes, art, politics, medical practice, and education. Not in the lecturing tone of Romola nor with the speechifying of Felix Holt, but rather growing out of the life experience of her subjects.
For Middlemarch, as with many of her books, Eliot is both praised and—particularly in recent decades—criticized as a woman's writer. Her female protagonist are strong but usually find a subservient role to play in their relationships, rather than become the kind of independently brilliant woman George Eliot herself is perceived to be. But Eliot is not writing about herself. Nor about how she wishes other people to be.
Neither, as I've argued, is Eliot writing as a woman. She's using the complete, human arsenal of skill and sensibility to render the real world as she understands it, more fully than any merely male or merely female writer could.
After Middlemarch came her last great novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), which some consider her crowning work. The challenge it presented to Victorians—and perhaps still does to many readers today—is its sympathetic treatment of Jews and certain Jewish mystical beliefs. The latter may disappoint some who hold Eliot up as an exemplar of enlightened secularism. But it shouldn't. It's just another instance of Eliot's broad outlook being brought to bear on helping us understand, without necessarily agreeing with, this world and its people.