George Eliot Becomes a Writer of Fiction

by Edwin Watts Chubb

As one is ready to call Elizabeth Barrett the greatest poetess of the nineteenth century, so there is little hesitation in pronouncing George Eliot the foremost of the many women who have written fiction. The literary critics sometimes dispute her supremacy by urging the claims of Jane Austen, who is said to have Shaksperean power in the delineation of character. But the name of Jane Austen is unknown to the general public. For every reader of Pride and Prejudice there are a score of readers of Adam Bede.

George Eliot is the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans. She took the name of George because it was the first name of Mr. Lewes, and Eliot "was a good, mouth-filling, easily pronounced word."

George Eliot was almost thirty-seven years old before she began to write fiction; in this respect reminding us of Scott, who had first achieved fame as a poet before he began in his maturity to write fiction. We are happy in having from the pen of George Eliot herself the account of how she began to write fiction:

"September, 1856, made a new era in my life, for it was then I began to write fiction. It had always been a vague dream of mine that some time or other I might write a novel; and my shadowy conception of what the novel was to be, varied, of course, from one epoch of my life to another. But I never went further toward the actual writing of the novel than an introductory chapter describing a Staffordshire village and the life of the neighboring farm-houses; and as the years passed on I lost any hope that I should ever be able to write a novel."

Mr. Lewes encouraged George Eliot by admiring her introductory chapter. He first read it when they were together in Germany. When they had returned to England and she was more successful in her essay writing than he had expected, he continued to urge her to try to write a story. "He began to say very positively, 'You must try and write a story,' and when we were at Tenby he urged me to begin at once. I deferred it, however, after my usual fashion with work that does not present itself as an absolute duty. But one morning, as I was thinking what should be the subject of my first story, my thoughts merged themselves into a dreamy doze, and I imagined myself writing a story, of which the title was The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton. I was soon wide awake again and told G. (Mr. Lewes). He said 'Oh, what a capital title!' and from that time I had settled in my mind that this should be my first story. George used to say, 'It may be a failure—it may be that you are unable to write fiction. Or, perhaps, it may be just good enough to warrant your trying again.' Again, 'You may write a chef-d'œuvre at once—there's no telling.' But his prevalent impression was, that though I could hardly write a poor novel, my effort would want the highest quality of fiction—dramatic presentation. He used to say, 'You have wit, description, and philosophy—those go a good way towards the production of a novel. It is worth while for you to try the experiment.'"

When she had finished the first part of Amos Barton, Mr. Lewes was no longer skeptical about her ability to write dialogue. The next question was whether she had the power of pathos. This was to be determined by the way in which the death of Milly was to be treated. "One night G. went to town on purpose to leave me a quiet evening for writing it. I wrote the chapter from the news brought by the shepherd to Mrs. Hackit, to the moment when Amos is dragged from the bedside, and I read it to G. when he came home. We both cried over it, and then he came up to me and kissed me, saying, 'I think your pathos is better than your fun.'"

The first part of Amos Barton appeared in the January number of Blackwood. The publisher paid the author fifty guineas. Afterwards, when the series of stories dealing with clerical life was published in book form, she was paid £120; later, when the publishing firm decided to issue a thousand copies instead of seven hundred and fifty, £60 was added to the original sum. George Eliot expressed herself as sensitive to the merits of checks for fifty guineas, but the success of her later writings was so pronounced that a check for fifty guineas would have made little impression, except a feeling of disdain.

Amos Barton was followed by Mr. Gilfil's Love Story, and Janet's Repentance. The three comprise Scenes from Clerical Life. The stories are based upon events which happened in the early life of the writer when she lived in Warwickshire. The village of Milby is really Nuneaton. When the villagers and country people read the Scenes from Clerical Life there was great excitement. Who could this George Eliot be? Some one who had lived among them and heard all the gossip of the neighborhood. But they could not recall any man with enough literary ability to do what had been done. Finally they did remember that a man, Liggins by name, had written poetry. The poetry was rather weak stuff, but perhaps his strength lay in fiction. Liggins was flattered by the suspicions of his neighbors. His own doubt was gradually changed to belief. Yes, he was the author of this new fiction, because every one said he was. The voice of the people is the voice of God. He was invited to write for a theological magazine. Finally George Eliot was obliged to reveal her identity when the public was about to subscribe a sum of money for the pseudo-literary Liggins who was so fastidious as to refuse money for the product of his genius. Here ends the career of Liggins, the liar.

One reason the villagers had for believing one of their own number was the author was based on the conversations in the Scenes from Clerical Life. Not only were they true to life, but they were conversations that had actually taken place. How did George Eliot hear them? Had she loitered in the public room of the village tavern? Mr. C.S. Olcott writes in the Outlook,—"The real conversations which were so cleverly reported were actually heard by Robert Evans, the father of George Eliot, who doubtless often visited the Bull in company with his neighbors. He repeated them to his wife, not realizing that the little daughter who listened so attentively was gifted with a marvelous memory, or that she possessed a genius that could transform a simple tale into a novel of dramatic power. Mary Ann Evans had moved to Coventry sixteen years before, and was therefore scarcely known in Nuneaton at the time the stories appeared. She then had no literary fame, and was no more likely to be thought of in this connection than any one of a hundred other school-girls."

In her journal she records on October 22, 1857,—"Began my new novel, Adam Bede." For it her publishers offered her £800 for the copyright for four years; later they added £400, and still later Blackwoods, finding a ready sale for their numerous editions, proposed to pay £800 above the original price. And for the appearance of Romola in the Cornhill Magazine, Mr. George Smith offered £10,000, but £7000 was accepted. For Middlemarch, which appeared in separate publication, that is, independent of a magazine, she received a still larger amount. Middlemarch is considered by many critics her best work. It was very popular from the first. In a letter to John Blackwood, November, 1873, George Eliot writes,—"I had a letter from Mr. Bancroft (the American ambassador at Berlin) the other day, in which he says that everybody in Berlin reads Middlemarch. He had to buy two copies for his house, and he found the rector of the university, a stupendous mathematician, occupied with it in the solid part of the day."

The public may prefer Adam Bede or Middlemarch but it is reported that George Eliot herself preferred Silas Marner. This is the report of Justin McCarthy, who was a frequent visitor on Sunday afternoons at the Priory, the home of George Eliot, where many distinguished visitors, such as Herbert Spencer, Tyndall, and Huxley, loved to gather. "There is a legend," writes Mr. McCarthy, "that George Eliot never liked to talk about her novels. I can only say that she started the subject with me one day. It was, to be sure, about a picture some painter had sent her, representing a scene in Silas Marner, and she called my attention to it, and said that of all her novels Silas Marner was her favorite. I ventured to disagree with her, and to say that the Mill on the Floss was my favorite. She entered into the discussion quite genially, just as if she were talking of the works of some stranger, which I think is the very perfection of the manner authors ought to adopt in talking about their books."