Magazine article The Spectator

This Is What a Feminist Looks Like

Magazine article The Spectator

This Is What a Feminist Looks Like

Article excerpt

It’s easy to forget, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth, how radical George Eliot actually was. The face that smiles tenderly out at us from François d’Albert-Durade’s portrait (pictured), on the dust jacket of her books, seems to epitomise the moralising Victorians — very establishment. And perhaps this is why her dramatic and shocking life story is so oddly absent from the English public imagination.

How radical was she? ‘May I unceasingly aspire to unclothe all around me of its conventional, human, temporary dress, to look at it in its essence and in its relation to eternity…’

This is an early letter from Marian Evans, or Mary Ann Evans as she was then (she changed her name repeatedly); the provincial girl in Warwickshire, before she met the Coventry sophisticates who changed her life. But what a vow! You can sense her longing for intellectual exploration, and her ambition, too. She was intensely religious, but aged 21 she stopped believing in God. Overnight she refused to go to church any more — witness already the powerful convictions and self that would not fit with authority, in this case the male authority of her father. There was a public row and her father threatened to evict her from the house. Over time a compromise was reached (she would go to church but think her private free thoughts). At the age of 25 she translated David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesuinto English, a radical text that deconstructed Christianity as historical myth.

But the shocking event that defined her image for decades was her decision to live openly with the married George Henry Lewes, who was legally unable to divorce. Society closed its doors instantly, women stopped visiting her, her family broke off contact with her for 25 years. And what of her fiction, that rescued her from her ostracised existence, winning her fame and glory? She’d had enough of cosy bucolic representations of the rural poor as pretty people with flushed faces sleeping in haystacks; so her early Scenes of Clerical Lifefeatures an alcoholic wife-beater; in Adam Bedea unmarried young woman murders her baby. The choice of subject isn’t cosy. In the later Middlemarchthe subject matter is less controversial but the instinct to question is still there. Dorothea famously wants to do something with her life, but look closer, and the same questions are being asked at a micro-level. Consoling in tone, those famous authorial addresses to the reader are also mind-expanding. It’s a reflex she can’t resist.

Here’s one on James Chettam’s attitude to Dorothea in Middlemarch: ‘Sir James had no idea that he should ever like to put down the predominance of this handsome girl, in whose cleverness he delighted. Why not? A man’s mind — what there is of it — has always the advantage of being masculine — as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm — and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality. …

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