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



Introductory Post to The Real Marian Evans.

It’s Thanksgiving day here in America, and it is in the spirit of giving thanks that I offer this. Part tribute, part educational project, here’s my contribution to the Marian Evans Memorial, which is embodied in the totality of information about her to be found in print and on the web.  There is no definitive source, and that is as it should be, so this is not an attempt to be that.

Don’t expect scholarly.  I’m just a common guy.  I’ll include something old and something new about Marian with each post.  Old as in, from before a century ago—new as in, anything I might find interesting.

Here’s a bit of both, for starters.  I’ve already mentioned a certain old book left me by my father–a century old copy of Silas Marner— The Weaver of Raveloe, that belonged to my aunt Marian when she was a schoolgirl.  Here’s an excerpt from that book.  It’s taken from the introduction, page 18, and is written by Cornelia Beare instructor in English, Wadleigh High School, New York City.

George Eliot began her literary work as a translator, essayist, and editor—novel writing was at first a side issue.  When she did take it up, her habits of thought were already formed; the translator’s exactness, the scholar’s careful and minute analysis, the critic’s care for perfection of form are all found in her work.  Brought up as she was among the middle class and with plenty of opportunity to know the working class from her father’s position, she is at her best in presenting to us the thoughts and lives of the workers.  No other writer has quite her gift of entering into the personality of the character and interesting the reader in the seemingly trivial details, the sordid tragedies and comedies of peasant life.  Nor is this all.  Her works deserve to rank as classics to be placed among the truly great examples of modern art, because they never lose sight of the fact that literature, fiction, though it may be, has a higher aim than merely to entertain—its true purpose should be to teach and guide, to put before us the working out of the great truths which shape life, that, by seeing this, we may guide our own lives aright.”

That was from Merrill’s English Texts, published in 1908.  This is what my aunt Marian was reading as a 10th grader!  Wonder what they’re reading these days?  More from that book in a later post.  I promise.

Here’s an excerpt from the afterword to my recent book, Reset by Marian Evans.  Keep in mind that I was not trying to portray the Marian of my title as being the one, the only, the real and true Marian of Victorian England, but yes, she is definitely the inspiration. Quirky title and all, I hope it helps to introduce more people to the work of the girl that was George Eliot.

“Yes, my name really is Cool. German immigrant ancestors adopted the spelling because they thought it would be cooler than K-u-h-l. 🙂

“I originally wrote and planned to publish this story using a pen name, Marian Evans, for several reasons, but decided to publish it under my own name for several others. The perceived benefits of using a pen name, compared to the real complications involved, are hard to balance. Growing up with a name like Cool, I knew it was likely that some people would think my real name a pseudonym anyway. I mostly wanted to avoid any limelight that would inevitably follow someone who writes as well as I hope to. I also wanted to avoid any controversy provokeable by the uneasy thoughts I might put on paper. 

‘So, I created Marian, and she wrote Reset. I think she’s good, if a little strange. But alas, “words weren’t made for cowards,” says Happy Rhodes. Heeding her advice, I must take the credit, the blame, and any fame, if people recommend this story to others. 

“—What’s that? Umm . . . Marian asks me to note that she was NOT conceived and created by me.

“Fine fine–I don’t think I need to point out that (shhh) her initials are M.E. In return, she may be kind enough to refrain from explaining, yet again, that it’s just as likely that she created me, and that I am but a crazy dream of hers.

“Her name sounds like another writer, whose name and works are as liquid on the page, who was obliged to publish as a man, that her words might sell. I always wondered what that says about a man, which is all I meant to point out through the similarity to the late great Mary Ann Evans-Cross (one spelling). She had skill and grace with the written word that far exceeds my own.”