Not That Dull

Sandra Howe
Staff Writer

Her life and works were often controversial, but the personal letters of the 19th-century English novelist known as George Eliot were often viewed as disappointingly dull, says Prof. Rosemarie Bodenheimer (English). Bodenheimer, however, was so fascinated by them she wrote a biography of Mary Ann Evans, the woman behind the male pseudonym.

"The care with which Eliot constructed her self-representations has led many readers to reject her correspondence as inexpressive," said Bodenheimer. "But it seemed clear to me that there was a war going on within her as she tried to compose her emotions and I had to explore that battle."

The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction is the first book to demonstrate how the tensions in Evans' life fueled her writing career, according to Bodenheimer. Eliot's novels, Bodenheimer says, resonate with the struggle of being both ambitious and female in Victorian culture. By reading her letters alongside her novels, stories and poems, Bodenheimer found she was able to define the personal paradoxes that helped shape Eliot's fictional characters and narrative style.

"Much writing on Eliot talks about her as an intellectual, as someone who had ideas - and she was that - but I'm talking about her as someone whose ideas were also part of an emotional economy and inseparable from it," said Bodenheimer. "I've offered a look at the way her mind actually worked, rather than at her abstract ideas."

Evans, who lived from 1819-80 and as George Eliot is best known for works such as Silas Marner , Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss , was an enigmatic figure in English literature. She chose to use a pen name to disguise her gender and identity, but also altered her real first name on several occasions and took the last name of a man with whom she had an affair. Sometimes even in her personal letters Evans would sign herself as "George Eliot."

In the book, Bodenheimer compares how Evans depicted her personal conflicts in letters, written to such people as her publisher John Blackwood and friend and fellow author Sara Hennell, with how these events were reflected in her novels. Bodenheimer was struck by how Evans intellectualized her way through strong emotions and she saw Evans' letters, full of restrained yet passionate feelings, as a way of creating self-representations for her audiences.

As an author, Evans was adept at describing the impact of gossip on a community - especially in Middlemarch - because she dealt with so much of it in her own life, explained Bodenheimer. One such episode, perhaps the most tumultuous period in Evans' life, occurred when she eloped with George Henry Lewes, a married man. Her letters to family and friendsportrayed her attitude that the relationship was nobody's business and she made strong efforts to defend both Lewes and his wife from scandal.

"She occasionally wrote in defense of the relationship, but often she would not talk about it," Bodenheimer said. "Whatever she wrote was carefully thought out, however, and she had a specific strategy to deal with other people's disapproval."

Evans courted controversy even before her emergence as a novelist, Bodenheimer said. She stopped attending church as an adolescent, causing an uproar among family and acquaintances, and the experience influenced her to adopt her pen name later on to prevent any further conflicts.

"When we write, we tell as much of ourselves as we want - or as little - and Eliot was very conscious of what people saw when they looked at her," she said. "Eliot created several masks during her life, but the masks were revealing anyway, changing through all phases of her life - from the time when she was unknown, to the time she was gossiped about and then revered and famous."

As a biographer, however, Bodenheimer is less inclined to focus on her subject's relationships or on a strict chronology of events, she says, than on the patterns which crop up in his or her life.

"I'm not so interested in biographies that simply dig up unknown facts about someone's life," she said. "It's much more interesting to look at how the way that person coped with conflicts throughout life."

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