How Mary Ann Evans Became George Eliot
By Lynne Weiss | On June 29, 2022 | Updated July 5, 2023 | Comments (2)
In September 1856, the 36-year-old woman heretofore known as Mary Ann Evans (alternatively Marian) wrote in her journal that she had “made a new era” in her life, “for it was then I began to write fiction.”
It was a new era in another way, as well, because it was soon after this that Mary Ann Evans began to transform herself into the author we know as the eminent British novelist and essayist, George Eliot (1819 – 1880).
Mary Ann Evans was in the process of reinventing herself in several ways. A few months after she began writing fiction, she sent a letter to her beloved brother Isaac in which she announced, “You will be surprised to learn … that I have changed my name and have someone to take care of me in the world.”
She was not referring to her pen name when she announced this name change. In the same envelope with the note to Isaac was another to her sister Fanny, in which she spoke of her de facto husband, George Lewes.
Liberal-minded Lewes, a religious skeptic actively engaged in the scientific and philosophic debates of the day, had tolerated one instance of adultery on the part of his legal wife and having done so, had no legal grounds for divorce when his wife’s relationship with the other man continued, eventually resulting in four children whom Lewes adopted as his own.
Despite the legal impediments to her marriage, it was important to Eliot that she be known socially as Mrs. Lewes. A year or so later, Eliot urged a friend not to call her Miss Evans anymore. “My name is Marian Evans Lewes.”
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“Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”
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Mary Ann’s Goals for Fiction
As she began work on “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” the first of the three novellas that would constitute Scenes of Clerical Life, she was very aware of her goals in writing fiction. Just a few days before beginning this new project, she had finished writing “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” an essay in which she denounced popular fiction with predictable plots and superficial heroines—well-educated, privileged women who failed to use their advantages to accomplish anything but to find a husband.
Perhaps it was fear of being dismissed as a “lady novelist” that led Eliot to hide her identity, or perhaps it was fear that her fiction would be rejected by publishers and readers because of her relationship with Lewes.
After Isaac Evans learned that his sister’s life with Lewes did not involve a legal marriage, he cut off all communication, and then directed her sisters to do the same. With both her parents dead, the loss of contact with her siblings was deeply wounding to Evans.
Eliot may also have wanted to protect her standing as a serious essayist and translator. Writing unsuccessful fiction could threaten that reputation. Furthermore, Eliot’s goals for her fiction were ambitious. It wasn’t just that she did not want to write something silly. Eliot saw fiction as a vehicle for grappling with the largest questions of her day.
The idea that human beings had arisen through natural selection, rather than divine creation, challenged conventional religious thought. If God was not in charge, as Eliot came to believe, how were human beings to make ethical choices? Only a few months earlier, Eliot had completed her translation of humanist philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics.
Philosopher Clare Carlisle states that Eliot had “an affinity with [Spinoza’s] thinking, and particularly with his insight into the vast, intricate, ever-shifting constellation of emotion, action, and interaction that shape each human life.”
Though Eliot began her career of writing fiction with strong convictions about why she would write, she was filled with doubt about whether she could create scenes that would elicit the emotional responses from her readers that would motivate them to sympathize with the very ordinary and flawed people she planned to portray in her work.
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Learn more about George Eliot
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Choosing a Pen Name
To protect Mary Ann’s anonymity, Lewes approached his friends the Blackwood brothers, publishers of Blackwood’s Magazine as well as of books, on her behalf. Initially he led the publishers to believe that the mysterious author was a friend of his, a shy male cleric. In later correspondence he clarified that the author was not actually a clergyman but did nothing to correct the assumptions regarding gender.
The serialized version of Scenes of Clerical Life appeared anonymously in the magazine. At the end of 1857, when Scenes was about to come out in book form, the publishers pressed for an author’s name. “I shall be resolute in preserving my incognito,” Eliot responded. Recognizing that there would be “curious inquiries” on the part of readers, she announced that “accordingly I subscribe myself … George Eliot.”
In effect, she took the name of the man she regarded as her husband—George—despite their inability to marry. While Eliot liked people to refer to her as Mrs. Lewes, not everyone accepted her under that name. She took Eliot, she said, because “it was a good, mouth-filling, easily pronounced word,” and it’s worth noting that the sounds of the first two syllables name the first two letters of Lewes’s surname.
If Eliot had simply wanted to guard her fiction from judgment based on disapproval of her relationship with Lewes, or if she had wanted to shield her reputation as an essayist from any shortcomings in her abilities as a fiction writer, she could have taken a feminine name as her pen name. Instead, she chose a masculine name, reflective perhaps of her feeling that her ambitions required a masculine identity.
“You may try,” Eliot writes in Daniel Deronda, “but you can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and to suffer the slavery of being a girl.”
Charles Dickens famously saw through the ruse. In a letter thanking “George Eliot” for sending him a copy of Scenes of Clerical Life, he said, “I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself so mentally like a woman.”
It may have been the complex emotional lives that Eliot portrayed in Scenes of Clerical Life that prompted Dickens’s comment. The collection included “The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton,” which describes the plight of an Anglican priest falsely slandered by villagers; “Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story,” about a clergyman who aids the woman he loves after she is accused of murder, even though his love is unrequited; and “Janet’s Repentance,” the story of an alcoholic woman who escapes an abusive husband with the support of a cleric whose theology she does not share.
While now regarded as somewhat awkward in style compared to her later work, Scenes received “discerning applause” and readers of Blackwood’s wondered about the identity of George Eliot. But it wasn’t until the tremendous success of Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, that the nom de plume became a problem.
Growing curiosity about the identity of George Eliot
Adam Bede, published in February 1859, attracted far more attention than Scenes of Clerical Life. Like Scenes, it first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in serial form before being published as a book. The Blackwoods’ enthusiasm for the story provided Eliot with significantly more money for her first novel than she had received for her series of novellas.
The story of a love rectangle that culminates in the death of a child born out of wedlock and the conviction of its mother for murder, Adam Bede attracted the admiration of many readers, including Dickens and Queen Victoria. The glowing reviews increased public curiosity about the author.
Lewes and Eliot had revealed her identity to publisher John Blackwood in December of 1857. He kept the secret, but as time went on, people around Eliot began to guess that she was the mysterious author of Scenes and Adam Bede. In February of 1859, Lewes flatly denied that his wife was George Eliot when John Chapman, publisher of many of Evans’s essays, confronted him.
Chapman, who was used to Evans sending articles on a regular basis due to her need for money, was suspicious because she had sent him nothing in eighteen months. Other friends noticed that Lewes and Eliot had recently moved into a larger house and purchased linens and china, middle-class luxuries that had previously been beyond their means.
Even Eliot’s estranged brother Isaac bragged that the popular Adam Bede could have been written only by his sister, based on the novel’s depictions of places and situations familiar to his family. When Barbara Bodichon, a friend of Eliot’s who had read an excerpt of Adam Bede, guessed her identity, Eliot asked her to “keep the secret solemnly till I give you leave to tell it,” and her friend complied.
Complications and revelations
The situation soon became more complicated. A man named Joseph Liggins denied rumors that he was the author George Eliot. After his denials were brushed aside, he began to complain that he had not received a penny for Adam Bede. At first, Eliot and Lewes found this somewhat funny, but when a group of men planned a fundraising campaign on his behalf, Eliot became concerned about well-meaning people being caught up in the fraud.
Despite the Liggins rumors, more and more people who knew her began to suspect that Evans was George Eliot. An article denouncing George Eliot as a woman who refused to reveal her identity because of her shame regarding her private life infuriated Eliot. Worse, the article claimed that George Eliot herself had promulgated the Joseph Liggins rumor to sell more books.
It became clear that Eliot’s “incognito,” as she had termed it, had run its course. Blackwood announced his intention to reveal Eliot’s identity. Before his public revelation, Evans and Lewes shared the news that Evans herself was author of Adam Bede, first with an inner circle of close friends (some of whom were deeply offended at having been kept so long in the dark), as well as with Lewes’s adopted sons, whose school fees were paid by Eliot. The boys were delighted to learn that their father’s new wife was a celebrated author.
The secret was officially disclosed in July 1859. By this time Eliot was writing her second novel, The Mill on the Floss. When that novel was published in April of 1860, her identity was widely known, and yet her public continued to refer to the novelist as George Eliot.
Sales of Mill did not suffer from any scandal attached to her relationship with Lewes, and her public continued to refer to the novelist as George Eliot. Her transformation, in fact, was complete. The novelist George Eliot had triumphed over the social limitations Mary Ann Evans Lewes faced as a woman.
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Contributed by Lynne Weiss: Lynne’s writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review; Brain, Child; The Common OnLine; the Ploughshares blog; the [PANK] blog; Wild Musette; Main Street Rag; and Radcliffe Magazine. She received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has won grants and residency awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. She loves history, theater, and literature, and for many years, has earned her living by developing history and social studies materials for educational publishers. She lives outside Boston, where she is working on a novel set in Cornwall and London in the early 1930s. You can see more of her work at LynneWeiss.
- Carlisle, Clare, ed. Spinoza’s Ethics translated by George Eliot. Princeton University Press, 2019.
- Eliot, George and J.W. Cross. George Eliot’s Life, as Related in Her Letters and Journals, Everyman’s Library, 1910 (Project Gutenberg, 2013; updated 2021).
- Harris, Margaret and Judith Johnston, eds. The Journals of George Eliot, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Hughes, Kathryn. George Eliot: The Last Victorian Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
- Nestor, Pauline George Eliot. Palgrave Critical Issues, 2002.
- Eliot, George Scenes of Clerical Life. Everyman’s Library, 1910. (Project Gutenberg, 2006; updated 2021)