“You may try, but you cannot imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” These words are spoken by a character in Daniel Deronda, a novel written by George Eliot in 1876. “Slavery” is a strong word – but it captures clearly the way many women felt about their position in Victorian times. It must be remembered this was 30 years before the Suffragettes started their fight for women’s right to vote, and 50 years before it was achieved. At that time it was almost impossible for women to get their writings published. Marian Evans therefore took the same course as the Bronte sisters had done and used a male pen-name, George Eliot, in order to get her work before the public.
She already knew the power of male domination from her family experience. Her father held very strong religious views and great tensions arose when, as a young woman, she started to question his narrow, dogmatic beliefs and refused to attend church every Sunday. She was influenced by learning about Unitarianism, and went on to read widely in science, philosophy and literature, and to translate some influential writings on religion, including David Friedrich Strauss’s critical Life of Jesus and Ludwig Feurbach’s Essence of Christianity. Darwin’s writings immediately attracted her and she found his explanations of evolution convincing. She became a journalist and met many of the leading thinkers of the day such as John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. She thought deeply about morality and ethics, and about the claims of religion to help people in this respect. This led her to follow for a time ‘The Religion of Humanity’, an ethical way of life that was not based on supernatural belief, developed by Augustus Comte.
“The old religion said ‘Heaven help us!’ Our new one, from its very lack of that faith in a heaven, will teach us all the more to help one another.”
In conversation she once exclaimed:
“God, Immortality, Duty … how inconceivable the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.”
She always remained interested in religion, but she rejected its more dogmatic and rigid elements and her writings explore the possibility of goodness without god in an essentially humanist way. People from all walks of life wrote to her for guidance on how “to live a good life in a godless universe.” A typical piece of her advice was: “Wear a smile and make friends; wear a scowl and make wrinkles. What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other.”
She said of her books: “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies it does nothing morally,” and she hoped her readers “would be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and joy of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.”
Understanding and helping one another was a theme that ran through the many successful books that she wrote, novels that retain their popularity today 150 years after she wrote them, and which find new audiences when they are dramatised on TV and radio. Her books include The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Adam Bede, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. They explore themes which include the interdependence of all human beings, the search for values to live by in a confusing and changing world, and the difficulties and frustrations of being a woman in the nineteenth century. Though George Eliot was an independent and intelligent woman who earned her own living, she was not a feminist in the modern sense of the word; she believed that women belonged at home, doing good in the world in small domestic ways. Middlemarch ends with the author’s comment on the life of her heroine, Dorothea: “…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
When she was 34 years old, she found herself faced with a difficult ethical decision. She and writer George Lewes fell in love, but his wife had deserted him and he could not obtain a divorce. She was therefore unable to marry him. Although the very narrow and intolerant social attitudes of those days would result in her being socially ostracised as a “fallen woman”, they lived together as husband and wife until he died 25 years later.
You may see why Professor C B Cox chose to call the book he wrote about her The Free Spirit. A more recent biography of her by Kathryn Hughes is called George Eliot: the Last Victorian (1998). The contrasting titles seem to sum up well the life of this complex, intelligent woman.
You can listen to Radio 4’s In Our Time on her masterpiece Middlemarch here.