George Eliot Fellowship

The George Eliot Fellowship

The George Eliot Fellowship wishes to make clear that we have no intention of renaming it as

  • The Mary Ann Evans Fellowship
  • The Mary Anne Evans Fellowship
  • The Marian Evans Fellowship
  • The Marian Evans Lewes Fellowship
  • The Mrs John Cross Fellowship
  • The Marian Cross Fellowship

Mindful as we are that it is none of our business to tell the 19th century how they should have behaved (there being more than enough motes in our own eyes), and mindful too of her request, in a letter to James A H Murray, a lexicographer enquiring about her use of a word, on 5 December 1879,(GEL 9:279) that

"I wish always to be quoted as George Eliot. Thanking you for your courteous solicitude on this point, I remain,

Yours very truly,

M.E Lewes"

The chairman was invited to appear on Sky News on Sunday 16th August

The background to all this.....

The organisers of The Women's Prize for Fiction 2020, wanting  a focus for its 25th anniversary,  asked a PR/marketing/branding company to work on the idea of 'reclaiming the name' of 25 female writers who originally published under a male pseudonym. They would then republish them using their 'real' name as ebooks (ie low cost!) with some printed to be given away 'on the night'. Superficially this might have been an appealing idea but it rapidly falls apart. 

Their main problem was that one of the chosen books was Middlemarch.  Viewers of the easier TV quiz shows know that the author of Middlemarch was a woman who used a male pen name; viewers of harder quiz shows know that the book is consistently rated in the top ten great works of English fiction and has always sold well. Moreover, that by 1871/2 when it was published, George Eliot had been publishing fiction for 14 years, was very wealthy and very famous and could easily have published under her 'real' name had she wished.

The most distressing thing is that the organisers of an important event like the Women's Prize for Fiction seem to have had a blind spot where the whole naming process is concerned. Did they not wonder what George Eliot might have thought? Even minimal research would have told them. She said she loved the anonymity of a pen name; we should respect that. It is an extraordinary arrogance to assume that we can just change someone's name for the sake of publicity for a good cause, especially when the name is of a world famous writer. They did not grasp that George Eliot chose that name and chose to retain it, as was her right, and that her integrity as a writer and her own feelings about herself as a writer are bound up in what she called herself.

We could go on, as I did to the PR company back in June, about which of her many names should be chosen. She was disdainful of Mary Ann by the time she was a young adult, preferring Marian, and by the time she published Middlemarch she was calling herself Marian Evans Lewes. So the organisers were quite arbitrary in their decision as to what to call her, whereas the writer herself gave some thought to her choice.  Bessie Parkes irritated her by referring to her as Miss Evans in May 1855, and again in March 1856 and was rebuked for it. In September 1857 she said:

Dear Bessie

You must not call me Miss Evans again, I have renounced that name and do not mean to be known by it in any way.

She signed herself Marian E Lewes.

In a letter to John Blackwood in February 1857 she writes:

Whatever may be the success of my stories, I shall be resolute in preserving my incognito, having observed that a nom de plume secures all the advantages without the disagreeables of reputation.  Perhaps, therefore, it will be well to give you my prospective name, as a tub to throw to the whale in case of curious inquiries, and accordingly I subscribe myself, best and most sympathising of editors,
Yours very truly,
George Eliot.

As a result of the PR sent to media I was interviewed on Sky News. Make your own judgment about that if you care to watch it. The interviewer was keen to know how little girls would be inspired to write, suggesting that it is good to know that these obscure male names were obscure female names and she explained that a 2015 survey showed how difficult it still is for women to be published.  Good history and English teachers can use those difficulties in the past as part of a useful learning experience for students. And despite the evidence from a 2015 survey, most aspiring young girls will be more impressed by the achievements of Jacqueline Wilson and J K Rowling, and their older sisters will have noted that of the thirteen shortlisted titles on this year's Booker ten are by women.

A few days later Vivienne Wood and I were both emailed by Mark Edmonds who was anxious to meet a tight deadline from the Mail for an article about George Eliot. We both sent material, comments and ideas to him but the article did not appear. Or, not until Thursday 27 August. It is the Mail at its Middle England best, creating headlines to shock the easily shockable, turning tentative suggestions into hard facts and claiming that Eliot was pursuing the husbands of married women with avaricious lust in her eyes. No mention of her books or why we might like to read them. 

A day later I had a call from TalkRadio. They had picked up on the Mail article and wanted to talk about George Eliot and Sex. Apprehensive by now, I agreed and managed to turn discussion towards Eliot's choice of names and poured scorn on the suggestion that she was generous with her favours in literary  London.

The lessons to be learned?

Be careful of the media. Their agenda won't be yours unless you are very lucky. The Edmonds piece in particular shows how little has changed in the 163 years since Eliot decided to use a pen name to avoid the attention of the gossip hungry newspapers at the time!

Be thankful for the positive coverage we got for George Eliot last year during the bicentenary.

And if you are a Women's Prize organiser, note how it backfired for you.

But two really positive outcomes. Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet won the Women's Prize for Fiction this year. That book was the highlight of my lockdown.

Second positive outcome was the outcry of indignation by admirers of Eliot on Twitter after Edmonds's article followed by an excellent essay on the BBC Culture website by Holly Williams which you can read via this link (with Holly's permission already granted):

John Burton, September 2020