The Man who wasn’t George.

In 1857 Eliot’s life took an unexpected turn when Nuneaton inhabitant Joseph Liggins claimed to have written her books.  Joseph Henry Liggins was born in Attleborough and went to Cambridge University. He spent some time as a journalist before returning to Attleborough.

Ribbon bookmark depicting Rev Quirk who supported Liggins claim that he was Eliot. Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery

Liggins told people that he had not yet received payments for the books. He was supported by various local worthies including Rev James Quirk a local curate, who began to demand that the publisher Blackwood pay him for Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede

These books were full of recognisable characters and events from the area and this strengthened the case for someone local to have written them. Liggins became a local celebrity.  He was described in one letter, ‘They found him at the pump, washing his slop basin and surrounded by dogs it appears he had adopted’.  Liggins’ education lent weight to the idea that he could have written them. Local people reasoned that the books must have been written by someone who knew Nuneaton well. The Liggins question dominated from April to October 1859. Initially Eliot and her partner Lewes did not take the claims seriously and thought that it would help to conceal Eliot’s real identity for longer. However as the claims that Blackwood was fraudulently withholding money from Liggins grew they changed their minds. Both John Blackwood and George Eliot wrote to The Times disputing Liggins’ claim.

Eventually in 1859 Eliot was forced to claim her books as her own as Liggins gained more supporters.  Unfortunately many people didn’t believe her, because they felt a woman could not have written such books.  Others wondered how she had the local knowledge to have written the stories.  Can you imagine how she felt to be doubted as the author of her own books?