A Window into Women’s Lives
This online exhibition, curated by Dr Rosalind White (Royal Holloway, University of London) opens out the history of nineteenth-century Coventry through the lens of George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871).
How to cite this research: White, Rosalind. (2023) ‘Part Six: A Window into Women’s Lives’, Finding Middlemarch [Online Exhibition]. Royal Holloway, University of London. In collaboration with Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery, Nuneaton Library, Coventry Archives and the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum and funded by the Arts Humanities Research Council. Retrieved from Exploring Eliot [https://exploringeliot.org/discover-george-eliot/finding-middlemarch/women/]
From a young age, needlework was the medium through which women were expected to learn — everything from prayer and poetry to ABCs and arithmetic could be taught through stitch. They often included text accompanied by figures, and decorative borders as well as the date, name and age of their creator.
This sampler was made by Mary Ann Tidye in 1813 when she was 11 years old. It is worked in fine silk thread and the piece is of high quality. The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery houses an impressive collection of samplers stitched in the nineteenth century by girls as young as nine. As a child, George Eliot would have produced comparable work.
In her early years, Eliot attended Mrs Moore’s dame school in a nearby village with her brother Isaac. Dame schools were small, domestic enterprises usually run informally by a local woman from her home.
In Middlemarch Mary Garth’s mother runs a dame school from her kitchen for neighbourhood children — deftly handling pastry or washing up while they follow her about with slate and chalk so she can correct their blunders. The narrator pointedly notes that Mrs Garth thinks it important for the children to learn ‘that a woman with her sleeves tucked up above her elbows’ could cultivate an education ‘without being a useless doll’.
‘She was admitted to be the flower of Mrs. Lemon’s school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female–even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage. Mrs. Lemon herself had always held up Miss Vincy as an example: no pupil, she said, exceeded that young lady for mental acquisition and propriety of speech, while her musical execution was quite exceptional.’
– (On Rosamond Vincy), MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 11.
In the nineteenth century, the education of a well-to-do young girl would have largely consisted of cultivating ‘accomplishments’; that is, skills that might aid courtship and secure a husband, or hobbies that were considered suitably ladylike and would occupy them for long stretches of time.
In Middlemarch Rosamond Vincy is taught to value her physical appearance above all else and construct every aspect of her identity around charming a suitor. With substantial sarcasm, Eliot describes her as the choice ‘flower of Mrs. Lemon’s school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female—even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage.’ Through Rosamond, Eliot critiques a scholastic culture that prepares women for the marriage market above all else. As she explains in her 1856 essay ‘The Natural History of German Life’, ‘the education of women has hitherto been directed chiefly to the acquirement of accomplishments, and has left them without any adequate preparation for the serious business of life. This is a great evil, both for women themselves and for society.’
Throughout the novel, the narrator draws attention to the artifice inherent in Rosamond’s every action: she is ‘always that combination of correct sentiments, music, dancing, drawing, elegant note-writing, private album for extracted verse, and perfect blond loveliness’. When Lydgate finds himself enamoured with her ‘admirable’ piano playing, the narrator alerts us to the fact that even the ‘hidden soul that seemed to spring forth’ from her fingers is carefully contrived — a passionate performance pirated from her old music tutor, whose ‘manner of playing’ she had learnt to mimic with the ‘precision of an echo’.
‘What have you had such an education for, if you are to go and marry a poor man? It’s a cruel thing for a father to see.’
– (Mr Vincy to his daughter, Rosamond), MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 36.
In 1828, at the age of eight, Mary Ann moved from Miss Latham’s — a local school attended by farmers’ daughters — to The Elms, a genteel establishment run by Mrs Wallington. At thirteen she changed to the Franklin sisters’ school in Coventry where she practised needlework, painting, dancing and singing and excelled at writing, piano playing, and French.
Influenced by the elegant, Parisian-educated Miss Rebecca Franklin, Mary Ann changed the spelling of her name to its French variant, Marianne. Subject to similar refinement, her broad, Midlands accent was exchanged for a well-modulated, melodic voice, that utilised careful enunciation and precise language.
Though the curriculum at Miss Franklins was far more varied than the average Midlands girls’ school (including Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron and Wordsworth), there was still a focus on ‘ladylike’ subjects that either prepared a young woman for entry into polite society or cultivated in her the skills required to be a devoted mother and wife.
This little white cloak with a ruffled trim is an example of work executed by Mary Ann and her classmates at Miss Franklins’. The garment is very small and is likely intended for a doll, though it might also have been constructed for a baby’s christening or funeral.
Exhibit 71 – The Elms School, Nuneaton, from Photographs of ‘George Eliot country’ by Clare Speight, (c. 1919), Nuneaton Library. Speight published the images as postcards in the 1910s possibly to coincide with the 1919 commemoration of Eliot’s birth and they are an example of early Eliot tourist memorabilia.
Eliot’s intellectual education was deeply self-motivated. From a young age, she had access to the Newdigate Library at Arbury Hall (home to her father’s employer). While at boarding school, she wrote essays of such a calibre that — according to one of her schoolfellows — they were ‘reserved for the private perusal and enjoyment of the teacher, who rarely found anything to correct’ (Cross 1: 16).
Her often lofty letters depict a stern, studious pupil with a somewhat self-important attitude to learning. In one, penned as a teenager, she dramatically writes she is ‘ready to sit down and weep at the impossibility of [her] understanding or barely knowing even a fraction of the sum of objects that present themselves for our contemplation in books and in life’ (Letters 1: 23).
This fervour set her apart among her peers. According to Edith Simcox, Eliot recalled ‘when she was young, women and girls seemed to look at her as somehow ‘uncanny’ (‘Autobiography’ 9 Mar. 1880). In Middlemarch, Dorothea is often classified in a similar manner: Lydgate concludes she does ‘not look at things from the proper feminine angle’; likewise, Celia privately finds her sister’s many ‘notions and scruples’ off-putting — ‘like spilt needles, making one afraid of treading, or sitting down, or even eating.’
At sixteen, Eliot returned home to nurse her mother (and later her father). Here, she picked up German and Italian with the help of a tutor and continued to read widely in science, theology, philosophy and history.
‘[She] is fit for nothing but to sit in her drawing-room like a doll-Madonna in her shrine. No matter. Anything is more endurable than to change our established formulae about women, or to run the risk of looking up to our wives instead of looking down on them.’
– GEORGE ELIOT, (On the paucity of female education), ‘[Review] Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft’ (1855).
In the sphere of science, women were expected to tread carefully. Although most scientific branches of learning were coded as masculine and considered off-limits, there were circumstances in which a smattering of knowledge in natural history would have been encouraged.
Those who relegated botany (the scientific study of plants) to ‘the female province’ regarded it as an ‘elegant home amusement’ that necessitated ‘delicate work’ more suited to the dexterity of a woman’s ‘pliant fingers [than] the clumsy paws of men’ (‘Botanical Studies’ 200). Practical manuals for young ladies encouraged them to shun ‘the graver sciences’ and placed botany at ‘the pinnacle’ of all the ‘laudable pursuits’ that might entice a husband (The English Gentlewoman 18-19). In general, women were expected to practice “polite botany” rather than “scientific botany”, Books like Priscilla Wakefield’s An Introduction to Botany (1796) sold the practice as ‘an antidote to levity and idleness’ (v). Presented as after-dinner conservations or familiar letters, such works had little scientific rigour and seldom taught ‘the botany of schoolmen, with its forbidding nomenclature and terrible array of physiological facts’ (‘The Englishwoman’s Conversazione’ 168.).
Exhibit 72 – Pink Aquilegia, Yellow Foxgloves, Cow Parsley (1875), by Christiana Jane Herringham (1852–1929), oil paint on canvas, Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more about visiting Royal Holloway’s stunning Grade 1 listed Picture Gallery or book a research visit to view the private collection here.
Eliot herself was passionate about furthering her botanical education. In her journal essay ‘Recollections of Jersey’ (1857) she writes with frustration that the ‘smattering’ of botany she has managed to glean from ‘Miss Catlow [author of Popular Field Botany] and from Dr Thomson’s little book on Wild Flowers’ have ‘created at least a longing for something more complete on the subject’ (Journal 281). With exasperation, she wrote to her friend Sara Hennell that the woods of Jersey were full of ‘distracting wildflowers that Miss Catlow never says anything about, just because they are the very flowers you want to identify’ (Letters 2: 329).
This botanical scrapbook (Exhibit 73) was crafted by a thirteen-year-old girl called Hilda Lee in the summer of 1925 as part of a school visit. In the third image, Hilda is pictured with her class outside Shepperton Church (the second girl in the middle row). Each pressed plant corresponds to a passage from one of Eliot’s novels. Quoted scenes from her works are provided alongside each botanical specimen with the relevant flower, herb, shrub or grass underlined. This kind of aesthetically pleasing exercise (free of scientific terminology or taxonomic nomenclature), sits firmly within the sphere of ‘polite botany’ so would have met with the approval of Rosamond Vincy or a tutor at Mrs Lemon’s academy.
‘It is too painful to think that she is a woman, with a woman’s destiny before her—a woman spinning in young ignorance a light web of folly and vain hopes which may one day close round her and press upon her, a rancorous poisoned garment, changing all at once her fluttering, trivial butterfly sensations into a life of deep human anguish.’
GEORGE ELIOT, ADAM BEDE, Chapter 22.
Both “textile” and “text” derive from the Latin word for weaving “texare”. Throughout Middlemarch, Eliot’s weaving of words and the fates of her female characters parallel the various forms of handiwork they practice.
In the nineteenth century, needlework in its many forms was often framed as an antidote to feminine idleness. Sewing was regarded as more than just a practical skill, it was a prerequisite among high society women. A young woman on the marriage market would have been expected to cultivate her skills in both plain sewing and fancy work.
This sewing reticule belonged to George Eliot. It consists of a buttonhook, a file, a penknife and a crochet hook, all with mother-of-pearl handles. There is also a thimble, a bodkin and a pair of scissors. As its contents suggest, Eliot would have been equally adept at producing an elaborately embroidered handkerchief as she would tending to a frayed seam.
The long relationship between needlework and femininity is fraught with complexity. Historically, sewing and its sister-practices have played an important part in creating and conserving stereotypical notions of the feminine ideal. As Rozsika Parker puts it in The Subversive Stitch, though sewing proved both a ‘source of pleasure and power for women’, it was also ‘indissolubly linked to their powerlessness’ (11).
In Middlemarch however, references to such skills are often deployed to either highlight the extraordinary constraints placed upon women or to afford Eliot’s characters with a covert means of navigating them.
Needlework plays a significant role in the lives of many of Middlemarch’s women. Mrs Taft gleans gossip ‘in misleading fragments caught between the rows of her knitting’, while she attempts to keep the number of stitches ‘carefully in her mind’. While Mrs Garth uses knitting as a means of focusing her attention: carefully gathering her thoughts along with her yarn so she can load her ‘speech with salutary meaning’ without the distraction of looking at her guest. Like her mother, Mary Garth perpetually has sewing in her lap and finds it a source of solace during fraught conversations, particularly those with Fred Vincy.
Throughout the novel, Dorothea’s intellectual aspirations are pointedly juxtaposed with such domestic handicraft. While her sister Celia sews, ‘mutely bending over her tapestry’, Dorothea makes ambitious architectural plans for a school for the poor. When she first tours Casaubon’s estate, she briefly imagines that her new blue-green boudoir is haunted by ‘the ghost of a tight-laced lady revisiting the scene of her embroidery’ — a spectre of marriage’s propensity to further narrow a woman’s sphere according to gendered expectations.
For women’s suffrage campaigner Frances Power Cobbe, ‘the ever-revolving spinning wheel’, whether manifesting as knitting, netting, crochet, or worsted work, had long been responsible for the ‘dearth of intellectual pursuits for women’. ‘A drawing-room crammed with these useless fads’ she continued, served simply as ‘a mausoleum of the wasted hours of the female part of the family’ (362).
Unlike the Garth women, whose stitching consists either of paid work or practical plain-sewing, Rosamond devotes her time to more ornamental accomplishments reliant on good taste and delicate handiwork.
This footstool, thought to have been embroidered by George Eliot, exemplifies the kind of intricate needlepoint that would have then served as a suitable demonstration of feminine refinement at a school like Mrs Lemon’s.
This box was used by George Eliot for storing lace. It is beautifully carved with flowers and opens out to reveal numerous smaller compartments. In Middlemarch, when Rosamond takes pains with the ‘careful selection of her lace’, on her visit to Lydgate’s cousin (the third son of a baronet), she may have made her choice using such an item.
Instead of hems and buttonholes, Rosamond hands are forever netting or tatting together intricate fancywork to be used as trims for collars, parasols, petticoats and the like. More so than any other character, Rosamond is always weaving — be it plaiting her fair hair or lace-edging her latest purchase.
Interestingly, the word lace is derived from the Latin for noose and is related to the term lacere, meaning to entice or ensnare. Throughout Middlemarch, Eliot alludes to the idea that Rosamond’s feverish weaving is indicative of the dextrous manner she manipulates her own fate, particularly in her conversations with young men. Ironically, her determination to not become an unmarried spinster manifests in her becoming a traditional ‘spinster’. As she waits for Lydgate, she half-heartedly courts Ned Plymdale while ‘going on with her tatting’. In a carefully calculated conversation with her fiancé she expedites their marriage while going through the ‘many intricacies of lace-edging and hosiery and petticoat-tucking’. Most memorably, she secures her engagement to Lydgate when she drops the ‘trivial chain work’ in her hands, and he stoops to pick it up.
In Middlemarch, as in ancient mythology, storytelling and spinsterhood have a long association. Among the Greek gods, only the goddesses are weavers; the spindle is connected with the Fates: crones, who ‘spin’ the span of life. Eliot shows an awareness of this connection when the knitting Mrs Farebrother tells Dorothea, ‘they say Fortune is a woman and capricious. But sometimes she is a good woman and gives to those who merit’. In times of scandal, ‘wives, widows and single ladies [take to] their work and [go] out to tea oftener than usual’. It is the women of Middlemarch, who are responsible for the chain of gossip which unveils Bulstrode’s past, entangles Lydgate in the crime, and ‘spread[s] through Middlemarch like the smell of fire’ threatening ‘the fabric of opinion with ruin’.
‘Dorothea’s inferences may seem large; but really life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusions, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization. Has any one ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?’
GEORGE ELIOT, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 2.
For a young woman intent on meaningfully contributing to the world, bettering herself, or even maintaining her premarital hobbies, courtship was a period fraught with uncertainty. As Middlemarch demonstrates, the conclusions women drew from this ‘cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship’ were as extensive and complex as they were fragile. Such surface-level inferences, Eliot writes, often amounted to very little, like the ‘pillious smallness’ of a cobweb ‘pinched’ into a ball.
Constrained by a Venn diagram of overlapping needs, most Victorian women constructed their idea of love around ‘profoundly different notions of subjectivity than [those traditionally found in the] romantic narrative’ (Schaffer x). Unlike the women of today, who have a hope of establishing socioeconomic independence, Victorian women had to ‘shoehorn’ an array of economic, social, and physical needs into their choice of partner (Schaffer x). As such, women were often compelled to draw large inferences from momentary meetings with potential husbands.
In an era when the concept of dating was yet to fully emerge, getting engaged to a man based on his profession — like Dorothea — was wholly logical. The wives of clergymen, doctors, politicians, and workhouse masters — amongst a host of other professions — were all expected to essentially share in their husband’s career, and patriarchy itself was often ‘perceived as a double act’ (Hamlett 79).
Dorothea’s ill-judged decision to accept Causabon’s marriage proposal is, in part, motivated by a desire to educate herself beyond the gendered restrictions set forth by society: to learn Greek and Latin and gain access to ‘those provinces of masculine knowledge […] from which all truth could be seen more truly’. She is pointedly ‘very glad’ that ‘Mr. Casaubon is not fond of the piano’, reports with relief that the old harpsichord at Lowick ‘is covered with books’ and seizes upon her betrothed’s polite praise as ‘precious permission’ that their marriage will further her education.
‘This result, which she took to be a mutual impression, called falling in love, was just what Rosamond had contemplated beforehand. Ever since that important new arrival in Middlemarch she had woven a little future, of which something like this scene was the necessary beginning.’
GEORGE ELIOT, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 12.
The Babylonian Marriage Market is an 1875 painting by British painter Edwin Long. It depicts the backstage of an ancient Babylonian auction, in which a series of women (those whose families are unable to afford a dowry) are auctioned off to the highest bidder. It is widely interpreted as a critique of the mercenary nature of the Victorian marriage market, in particular, the immense power (financial, physical and social) that a husband could hold over his wife. Long’s decision to project Victorian racial hierarchies onto ancient Mesopotamia (1800-600 BCE) is evident, with the maidens ordered in gradations of skin tone according to Eurocentric conceptions of female beauty.
In the 1870s, when this picture was painted and when Middlemarch was penned, there was great public debate surrounding the cessation of woman’s legal rights during marriage. The Married Women’s Property Act (1870) gave a married woman the right to own and control her own property and enter into contracts under her own name. However, it was not until 1882 that the act was amended to include property acquired after marriage. By spotlighting an ancient scene that presents women as commodities rather than as individuals, Long holds up a mirror to Victorian society casting their practices in a decidedly unflattering light. As Sophie Gilmartin has put it, ‘in effect the whole painting is a mirror, reflecting the viewer back to him or herself’ (177).
The Middlemarch marriage market is no less proprietary. In the place of love or companionship, Casaubon seeks a secretary, Dorothea a teacher, Lydgate a trophy and Rosamond a foothold in high society.
Indeed, Causabon’s convoluted proposal of marriage to Dorothea is less a declaration of love and more an arrogant entreaty for administerial support. Plagued with economic jargon and devoid of any emotion, the letter provides an unsolicited appraisal of Dorothea’s suitability for the role of wife: praising her ‘exclusive fitness to supply that need’ and asserting that she is somehow both ‘providentially’ called upon and uniquely equipped to enter into such an arrangement.
There is a passage at a party shortly before Dorothea’s nuptials where a group of men find the opportunity to appraise the local women — assessing their looks and attributes in a manner that resembles Long’s scene. The unappealing Mr Chichley, for example, (a middle-aged bachelor who bears only a ‘few hairs carefully arranged’ and has ‘a complexion something like an Easter egg’) brusquely declares he likes ‘them blond, with a certain gait, and a swan neck’. Rosamond — here referred to as ‘the Mayor’s daughter’ — is much more ‘to his taste’ than either Dorothea or Celia.
What can a persistent rumour about Eliot’s right hand tell us about what it was like to be a woman in the nineteenth century growing up in the provinces?
Rumour has it that years of butter churning during her days in the dairy at Griff House led to Eliot developing a right hand bigger than her left. According to Cara Bray, during a conversation with her friend in the sitting room at Rosehill, Eliot herself had pointed to her right hand and observed ‘with some pride’ how much bigger it was than her left due to the quantity of butter and cheese she had made in her youth. This story was passed on from Cara to Eliot’s first biographer, Mathilde Blind who had visited Cara in Coventry eighteen months after Eliot’s death.
A posthumous squabble erupted as to the veracity of this seemingly innocuous anecdote in the years that followed. As Kathryn Hughes notes in chapter three of Victorians Undone, devoted to the curious case of George Eliot’s hand, Eliot’s descendants were ‘mortified by the way each new biography continued to cut and paste Mathilde Blind’s story’ (187). Her long-estranged brother Isaac vehemently denied that his sister had ever ‘acted as a dairy maid’ and went so far as to say she could ‘not be induced to touch a cheese’ (qtd. Hughes 194). His son Fred followed in his father’s footsteps, issuing corrections to those who perpetuated the rumour into the next century. Eliot’s widow, John Cross, went out of his way to confirm she had ‘finely-formed, thin, transparent hands’ in his publication of her Life and Letters (1: 64).
Why did Eliot’s family attempt to control this narrative even after death? What’s more, why were they so passionate in their attempts to dispel such a rumour?
In the nineteenth century, the dairymaid was intimately associated with a physicality unbecoming of a genteel woman. On both a practical and euphemistic level it carried sexual connotations. A milkmaid spent her days surrounded by copulating animals and in the vicinity of male farmers and labourers. Who’s to say that a hand having built up such muscles was a result of the butter churn and not from another — decidedly more deviant — activity? As Hughes puts it ‘It wasn’t just that the story of George Eliot’s large right hand gave her the clumsy body of a working-class country girl; it hinted that she had the sexual morals of one too’ (252).
Isaac Evans’ determination to squash this rumour would have no doubt been exacerbated by the fact he could not do the same with regard to the scandalous truth of his sister having openly cohabited with a married man for most of her adult life.
In Middlemarch, Dorothea is ‘spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin—young enough to have been his son’. We learn that ‘those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been “a nice woman,” else she would not have married either the one or the other’. Like Eliot, Dorothea’s perceived sexual impropriety cannot help but colour her reputation. In a provincial environment like Middlemarch, such events emerge as ‘the most determining acts of [Dorothea’s] life’ irrespective of her subsequent contributions to ‘the growing good of the world’.
These delicate, cream kid leather gloves belonged to George Eliot. Pale gloves that extended only to the wrist were donned during the day for errands and other informal activities. They would have been worn for the sake of modesty rather than for practical purposes.
Amusingly, it is the left glove that is broader than the right. The gloves are a size six and a half, which – as Hughes points out – is remarkably small even by Victorian standards (the smallest size then available would have been six).
Whether or not Eliot tried her hand at churning butter in her days at Griff, she would have always worn gloves while in the company of polite society. In Middlemarch, it is noted each time Dorothea takes off her gloves, ‘an impulse’, the narrator observes, ‘which she could never resist when she wanted a sense of freedom’. Often, she does this whenever she is feeling restricted by the gendered role she is expected to play, such as when she implores Dr Lydgate to ‘speak plainly’ to her regarding her husband’s medical prognosis.
Exhibit 79 – Quote from Middlemarch, kept in the sewing box of Cara Bray, (1871-1905), The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. Text reads: “They were not thin hands, or small hands; but powerful, feminine, maternal hands.” – Middlemarch, Book I, Chapter 3.
This walnut sewing box, inlaid with mother-of-pearl belonged to Eliot’s Coventry friend, Cara Bray. The box contains locks of hair from two of Cara’s siblings, Charles and Harriet.
It also contains a quote in Cara’s writing from Middlemarch that reads: ‘they were not thin hands, or small hands; but powerful, feminine, maternal hands.’ Middlemarch repeatedly draws our attention to Dorothea’s hands, (the second sentence of the entire novel informs us they are ‘finely formed’). In the quote chosen by Cara, Eliot emphasises their maturity. They are not ineffectual, hesitant or self-serving but capable, caring and effusive. Unlike Rosamond’s hands which are expressly described as ‘little’ on five occasions and spend the novel touching, adjusting or caressing her hair, Dorothea’s hands are constantly in the service of others. They clasp Rosamond with a ‘gentle ‘motherliness’, they implore Casaubon on behalf of Will, and they repeatedly redraft an answer to Casaubon’s proposal ‘not because she wished to change the wording’, but because she ‘could not bear that Mr. Casaubon should think her handwriting bad and illegible’.
For a woman from the provinces born in 1819, Eliot led an extraordinarily progressive and independent life. She earnt her own living by becoming one of the leading writers of her generation, and she lived openly with a man to whom she was not legally married. Yet Middlemarch’s women find no such freedom. Why is this?
When Eliot’s father died in 1849, he left her an annual allowance of £90. This would not have been enough money to live on. Following a trip to Switzerland with the Brays, Eliot moved to London, determined to make a living as a writer. Here, she became assistant editor of The Westminster Review, a radical philosophical journal headed by her Rosehill friend John Chapman. In the years that followed she took classes in mathematics at the Ladies College in Bedford Square, and began a relationship with George Henry Lewes.
By the time the two met, in 1851, Lewes and his wife Agnes had mutually agreed to have an open marriage. As far back as the late 1840s Agnes had engaged in an affair with Lewes’ friend and colleague, Thornton Leigh Hunt. At least four of the nine Lewes children are thought to have been Hunt’s progeny. Despite knowing about Agnes’ affair, Lewes agreed to be listed on the birth certificate for each of their children. As a result of this decision, legal divorce became impossible as he was considered complicit in adultery.
The scandal that ensued when society learnt of Eliot’s involvement with Lewes would have eclipsed any such storm weathered by one of her heroines.
Though they were unable to officially marry, Eliot openly referred to herself as his wife, and even signed her receipts Marian Lewes.
Exhibit 80 – Portrait study for a head of George Eliot, novelist; turned and looking to the front by Sir Frederick William Burton, (c. 1864-5), drawing, © The Trustees of the British Museum. Burton was friendly with Eliot and visited her regularly from the early 1860s.
Exhibit 81 – A receipt signed Marian Lewes dated 8 December 1857, Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery. It records the income she received from the trustees of her father’s estate. At this point in time, her first foray into literature, Amos Barton had only just been published in Blackwood’s Magazine so her identity remained a secret. As Helen O’Neill has noted, the item is a ‘visceral example of Eliot’s breath-taking self-determination’.
In later life — despite inexorable pressure from the Evans family — Eliot continued to refer to herself as Mrs Lewes. There is no entry for Marian Evans in the census records of 1861 or 1871. There is, however, a Mrs Marian E. Lewes registered at their home in Marylebone. For occupation (underneath where George Henry Lewes squeezes in ‘literature and biological science author’) Eliot forgoes her profession as a writer, and defiantly writes ‘wife’.
Exhibit 82 – ‘1861 England, Wales & Scotland Census entry by George Henry Lewes and Marian E Lewes’, Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives.
Eliot’s career proved as transgressive as her living arrangements. In 1856, Eliot and Lewes set off for the Devonshire coast: self-confessed amateur naturalists but ‘anxious to learn and not simply to seem to learn’ (Lewes Seaside Studies 101). Her journal entries from this time, suggest that the couple considered themselves on a “working honeymoon”. In between hours zoologising and gathering material to furnish his future scientific publications, Lewes fervently encouraged Eliot to fulfil her ambition to write fiction. He went on to send the manuscript for ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’, (the first of three short stories which would later make up Scenes of Clerical Life) to his publisher John Blackwood.
Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859 and was a critical and commercial success. She went on to write six more novels, including The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871-1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876).
Exhibit 83 – George Eliot’s blotter, Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery. A blotter is a piece of absorbent paper used to soak up excess ink and to protect one’s desk or table from ink spills.
The pages of this blotter, when held up to a mirror, reveal the signature ‘M. E. Lewes’. It would have served as an everyday necessity for a prolific writer like Eliot.
Exhibit 84 – Knee writing board made by Elma Stuart for George Eliot, (c. 1878), The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.
This writing board was a gift from Elma Stuart to George Eliot. Stuart began corresponding with Eliot in 1872. She was nearly twenty years her junior and a passionate fan of the author. On 12 January 1878 Eliot thanked Stuart for the gift, reporting that she was ‘at this moment writing on it’ and found the intricate carvings ‘soothing to [her] outward and inward sense.’ (Letters 5: 125)
At the start of her career, Eliot adopted a male pseudonym, so that she would be taken more seriously as a writer, and so that she could write freely, without feeling constricted by the societal restrictions imposed on women. The name “George Eliot” was chosen: “George” as a tribute to Lewes (given that she could not legally use his last name) and “Eliot” in reference to her maiden name and as it was a good ‘mouth-filling’ word (Cross 1: 430). Her identity as a woman remained a secret until November 1859.
During this time, Charles Dickens wrote to Eliot’s publishers to express his professional admiration for ‘the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil’. Though he addressed his letter ‘Dear Sir,’ he also wrote that he was ‘strongly disposed’, to address ‘said writer as a woman’, owing to the ‘womanly touches’ in her prose. He goes on to assure her that he has no ‘vulgar wish to fathom [her] secret’, and should it ever suit her ‘convenience and inclination, to shew [him] the face of the man or woman who has written so charmingly’ he would love to meet (Hartley 332). Neatly sidestepping his speculations regarding her identity, Eliot wrote back to thank him ‘most sincerely for his generous praise’.
Exhibit 85 – Portable Stationery Cabinet owned by George Eliot, (1840-1880), The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.
It is likely that Eliot would have penned her reply using this portable stationery cabinet to store her letter-writing materials. Like many middle-class Victorians, Eliot was a prolific letter writer. In her lifetime, she wrote over 10,000 letters.
Letter writing was a particularly liberating and empowering form of communication for women in the Victorian period. It was a medium through which they could express themselves, exercise agency and participate in the wider culture. For Eliot, it served as a means to safeguard her authorial anonymity, maintain valued friendships and finesse her writing. Her letters are full of perceptive observations, witty remarks and clever turns of phrase.
Throughout her life, Eliot carefully navigated the tensions between her private identity as an unmarried woman in a committed relationship with a married man and her “masculine” profession as a writer. Her female characters, particularly in Middlemarch, struggle to find their place in the world owing to the gendered restrictions they contend with. Unlike her creator, Dorothea’s ambitious intellectual aspirations never come to fruition.
Some readers have found themselves disappointed or dissatisfied by Middlemarch’s “conventional” ending. Why “doom” Dorothea to a life as second fiddle to her husband, when you could instead place her on a more progressive path? Why mention the ‘delightful plans’ she has for the future as an independent widow who can do as she pleases with her money, and then have her remarry?
Scribner’s Monthly, in March 1881, wrote of ‘a thoughtful and sensitive young man, who rose from the perusal of Middlemarch with his eyes suffused with tears, exclaiming “My God! and is that all?”’ (21: 791) Twentieth-century feminists likewise lamented Dorothea’s fate. As Kate Millett put it, ‘“Living in sin”, George Eliot lived the revolution, but she did not write it’ (139)
Shrewdly anticipating this reception, at the novel’s close Eliot writes that ‘many who knew [Dorothea], thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother’ (611). She then gently reminds the reader of the realities of life as a provincial woman in the 1830s: ‘but no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done’ [emphasis mine].
For Eliot, living a life of permanent rebellion was both exhausting and intensely lonely. She was estranged from her family, the subject of constant gossip and rumour, and held at arm’s length by many of her peers.
‘I have counted the cost of the step I have taken’, she wrote in 1854, ‘and am prepared to bear, without irritation or bitterness, renunciation of all my friends’ (qtd. Haight 162).
‘We insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.’
GEORGE ELIOT, MIDDLEMARCH, Finale.
In the final paragraph of Middlemarch, Eliot pens an impassioned eulogy to Dorothea: gently rebuking potential critics who see little value in living a hidden life ‘absorbed into the life of another’.
Middlemarch is devoted to those who have an ‘incalculably diffusive’ influence on the lives of others. Women like Dorothea and Mary Garth, (and men like Rev. Farebrother) who in the span of their time on earth prioritise human connection over intellectual advancement or professional ambition – individuals that are often found clustered at the margins of the private diaries, commonplace books, and correspondence of history’s ‘great men’, discreetly supporting their every endeavour. ‘The growing good of the world’, Eliot writes, is dependent on these ‘un-historic acts’, carried out by those ‘who live faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs’.
In this powerful passage, Eliot delivers more than consolation to those disappointed with Dorothea’s lot. While she joins them in lamenting the gendered conventions that would hold back ‘the lives of many Dorothea’s’ — from inadequate education to the cruelties of the marriage market — she urges them to radically rethink their conception of value and their understanding of ‘the history of man’.