My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, followed by comments added by the reader.)
“I had time to learn Greek because I was not invited to dinner.”
—from the letters of George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans),, (1819-1880)
After any setback, that dry, flat, ironic quotation has always inspired me to “stop whining and get back to work!”
Mary Anne Evans met setbacks and challenges on a grand scale. She lived for 20 years with George Henry Lewes, calling him her “husband” although they could not marry because the bizarre marriage/divorce laws of the time kept him legally bound to his former wife (and forced to support the children she conceived with another man). Hence Mary Anne—George Eliot—was isolated, exiled from her social class, “not invited to dinner.” Lewes was still accepted everywhere socially, as men with iffy domestic arrangements were, but Mary Anne was cut off even by her family,
Like other serious women writers, she had taken a male pen name—to set her apart from those whom Hawthorne called “those scribbling women” who wrote popular romances (one of few ways, aside from factory labor, that a woman could earn a bit of money). Perhaps her pen name was also intended to shield her family from her disgrace. But growing respect for her work did not win her social acceptance.
Biographers credit Lewes for running interference for her: negotiating with publishers; shielding her from the more blatant insults of polite, insular English society; for devoting himself to fostering her genius. The irony is that their relationship supported her inner genius while making her socially a non-person. When Lewes died, she married their close friend and surrogate son, John Cross, 20 years her junior, who was emotionally fragile and dependent on her. With that act, she achieved instant respectability (to go with her fame as the author of 7 novels), and her brother actually started speaking to her again.
She was described as a formidable intellect—not a compliment for a woman in those days. One of the bright spots for American writer/feminist Margaret Fuller (also guilty of superior intellect, condescended to by Emerson, detested by Hawthorne) when she went to Europe, was that she was able to meet George Eliot.
I wish I could have eavesdropped on their conversation.
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