The Name Mary Ann Evans

The name Mary Ann Evans, like the name George Eliot, is one of those we don’t hear much of anymore. Most people only dimly recognize either one, and most are interested to learn that the two are one. How did such a brilliant star fade to the fringes of our collective memory?

Do the following excerpts lend a clue? Today’s something old comes from the Grolier Society’s encyclopedia set for children, collectively titled The Book of Knowledge–circa 1922 (Not quite a century old, but close enough).

It’s from an essay/article called Great Fiction in Its Full Tide.

“It [the mid-Victorian wave of literature] reached its greatest height between 1845 and 1865, when British fiction had a range and power never attained before or since.

Dickens and Thackeray, whose striking personalities and works we have already read about, cannot be taken as sufficient for an age which also included Lytton, Disraeli, Charles Reade, and Charles Kingsley, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope; George Meredith and the beginnings of Thomas Hardy, besides such individual stories as Cranford, and Lorna Doone. In the quarter of a century between 1845 in 1870 all these writers were writing, together with Dickens and Thackeray. It was an age resplendent in fiction, as in other forms of literature.”

The essay goes on to study each of the aforementioned lesser-known authors in turn, using an odd but workable style of overlapping one author with the next. In the next excerpt, the article leads from Brontë to Meredith and Hardy, while keeping the focus on Eliot.

“Two years after the death of Charlotte Brontë, Mary Ann Evans, a Warwickshire land agent’s daughter, born and brought up in that delightful county before it became industrialized, wrote, under the name of George Eliot, her first book of stories, Scenes from Clerical Life.  Thus she began, in the form of tales, a series of descriptions of the people of rural England, which remains the supreme study of quality in country character.

How George Eliot lost her way in the world of books.                           In later years George Eliot wandered in her tales away from the company into which she was born. With that strange longing to write something new and great which spoils so many poets and novelists, she tried to shine in alien surroundings.  Her snares were historic Italy and the Hebrew population of London. Laboring hard to compile ambitious studies that would display her versatility she lost her way as a writer. Her Ramola and Daniel Deronda of those formal heavy days will be forgotten; but her stories of the people she knew from childhood remain a rich literary possession. 

The Scenes from Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Felix Holt (though marred by an unconvincing plot) and Middlemarch present a wonderful array of thoroughly English character. How faithful and unforced as the character-drawing, how rich and natural the humor, how tender the humanity, how direct the simple parts of the narrative! It is true that as the years went on George Eliot’s writings became burdened with intrusive reflections. If, instead of being urged to show herself a profound philosopher, her pen had been followed by a relentless blue pencil, her tale-telling would have been quickened and lightened. She knew too much and thought too much to be able to empty her mind of reflections on the story page.

A remarkable novelist of a somewhat later period, George Meredith, who had great skill in the analysis of character, made the same mistake in overloading his books with mental display that did not rightly belong to his story. He never won, and will not win, the popularity that his cleverness deserves. The true value of his writing lives too deeply buried for the average reader to dig it up. But his works will always appeal to the literary expert.

Thomas Hardy and His Word-Pictures of Life in Western England Thomas Hardy is the novelist who next to George Eliot, has most completely pictured English rural character. He has avoided George Eliot’s tendencies and Meredith’s cryptic style….”

Thoughts anyone?

Today‘s something new is an assignment. Read Marian’s Middlemarch, along with Team Middlemarch.

And not just read; experience it, as it was originally published—in pieces.  Each successive chapter was initially released individually.  Intriguing.  I’m in.  Brian


3 thoughts on “The Name Mary Ann Evans

  1. In a way, your comments about George Eliot remind me of Ken Follett. He wrote his first book, The Eye of the Needle, when he was 29. That book was racy and exciting and fresh, and it catapulted Follett into a career as an international author.

    Now, I feel like his books are over-researched leviathans. I really enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, which was obviously the fruit of years of research and thinking. But it’s tempting to believe that the success of Pillars of the Earth encouraged Follet to go bonkers and research everything in such detail that the story sometimes seems secondary.

    Of course, that’s just my opinion…

    Interesting post!

  2. jackfrey,
    If only more opinions were as well informed, and as well said. My own included.
    Thanks for the comment. I look, and see that there is no Follett on my shelves, sadly.
    I’ve made a note of Pillars of the Earth. Brian

  3. Pingback: Simon Says: Daily Food Quote, February 20, 2012 | The Rambling Epicure

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