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Sunday, 6 September 2020

Reclaim Her Name? George Eliot and Middlemarch

 




I had been meaning to re-read Middlemarch and promoted it to the top of the waiting list after reading that a well-known alcoholic drinks company, Baileys, had recently re-issued it - along with 24 other books. This is what the Baileys website currently says about its project:

 

Reclaim Her Name was created to mark the 25th year of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, who we have proudly supported for the last 7 years …. The campaign was about championing female writers, something that the Women’s Prize for Fiction do every day.

(If you are unhappy with the grammar, I assure you I have copied carefully from the website; I can see Microsoft’s squiggle on my copying).

The twenty five books were all written by women but were published originally under male or gender-neutral names. Middlemarch was among the books selected and its new cover attributes authorship to “Mary Ann Evans”; it was originally published in 1871 under the name of the by-then very well-known and successful writer, “George Eliot”, whose first novel Adam Bede had appeared in 1859.

In 1854, a translation The Essence of Christianity (still the standard one) of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums gave title-page credit to “Marian Evans”, a name which Mary Ann Evans began to use when she arrived in London determined to become a writer; by 1854 she had become prominent as an editor and contributor at The Westminster Review. But current paperback editions of the Feuerbach give jacket credit to “George Eliot”, a name she only adopted later and specifically for her fiction.

It seems that Mary Ann Evans can’t win: “Marian Evans” has been taken away and replaced by “George Eliot”; “George Eliot” is now taken away and replaced by “Mary Ann Evans”. It’s tough being a woman; you can be confident that no one is going to mess with “George Orwell”.

I am sure the late but very strong-minded writer is mistreated both ways, but I take consolation from the fact that in Middlemarch she treats her fate in a light-hearted manner. If you turn to the Finale in the respectful Penguin edition which credits Middlemarch to George Eliot,  at pages 832-33 (yes, it’s a very long novel and in small print, too) you will find surprising attention given to questions of authorship.

Fred Vincy wins congratulations from the agricultural fraternity for his Cultivation of Green Crops and the Economy of Cattle-Feeding but in Middlemarch “most persons there were inclined to believe that the merit of Fred’s authorship was due to his wife, since they had never expected Fred Vincy to write on turnips and mangel-wurzel” (832). She continues, “But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch… every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, ‘where the ancients were studied’ ….” (832).

She concludes, “In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book since it was always done by somebody else” (833).

*

I did read the novel cover to cover and enjoyed it despite its 800+ pages. There is a cast of characters of which at most one or two could be regarded as simple, black and white, souls who we can cheer for. The others have complex characters, merits and demerits, virtues and vices jostling or running in harness. Narrative tension is sustained through eighty six, mostly short, chapters. A few things grate (the over-used word "ardent", for example). Only in the final Book Eight - the novel was issued in serial form - titled "Sunset and Sunrise" was I a bit disappointed: the future lives of the main characters are packaged rather too neatly as tidy gifts to the loyal reader who has bought all the instalments. But, then, George Eliot did want to be a commercially successful novelist and was.That she was much more than that is the reason she has always been widely read ever since, by men and women alike, and surprisingly without much help from the manufacturing interest. 



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