The Invention of George Eliot, Part I: the real v the imaginative

The Real v the Imaginative

In the middle of the 19th Century, Marian Evans was renown in Victorian intellectual circles for her numerous articles to the Westminster Review and her excellent translations from German of Feuerbach and Spinoza.  At the age of 36 and at the urging of her lover George Henry Lewes, Marian Evans made her first attempt at writing fiction.

Her idea was to explore the effects of religious reform and the tensions between the established and dissenting churches in rural England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Without her knowledge, Lewes submitted the three short stories that make up this exploration to Blackwood’s Magazine.  When the publisher insisted on knowing the name of the obviously talented author, Evans balked. The prospect of using her own name was risky.  It was likely the stories would be read more widely than her philosophical essays and translations.  She was a well-known agnostic, and the religious content of her stories might create a furore.  And, then, there was the awkward fact of her open relationship with a married man.  In her narrow circle this detail was known and accepted, but how would the conservative Victorian public respond?  In February 1857, Evans made the decision to keep her true identity a secret even from her publisher.  In the hope that Blackwood might allow the stories to be published anonymously if he ‘knew’ the author’s name, she wrote: “Whatever may be the success of my stories, I shall be resolute in preserving my incognito…and accordingly I subscribe myself…”  She signed the letter, “Yours very truly, George Eliot.”  This satisfied Blackwood and the stories appeared anonymously through the course of 1857. Later, the stories were collected in a small volume under the title Scenes of Clerical Life.

After its publication in 1857 and Adam Bede three years later, there was a great deal of speculation as to the identity of the mysterious ‘George Eliot’. In the mid-1800s, as today, authors were public figures, whose lives and works were understood to be deeply intertwined.

Complicating this, Eliot’s early novels were a radical departure from the kind of fiction ordinarily produced in the mid-Victorian period, and the reading public was at a loss:  How does one read a story that contains such vivid, realistic detail?  Several people came forward with first-hand accounts of knowing the characters and events depicted in the stories; others assumed the author was a member of the clergy and speculated as to who he might be, guessing wrongly, of course, some even in letters to Marian Evans.  The author George Eliot was awash in rumour and innuendo.

Marian Evans was enraged by the suggestion that the scenes and characters in her early books were simply transcribed from life.  “How curious it is,” she wrote to her friend Sara Hennell about the reception of Adam Bede, “that people should think Dinah’s sermon, prayers, and speeches were copied—when they were written with hot tears as they surged up in my own mind!”

For Eliot, the assumption that the work was drawn from life was not an affirmation of her talent for realism, but a denial of her creative imagination.  This criticism brings notions of realism in art to the forefront of her professional experience at the absolute inception of her fame.  In a letter to her publisher, John Blackwood, in 1861, Evans asserts that “there is a distinction to be made between ‘the real and the imaginative’: one could not have the former without the latter and greater quality.  Any real observation of life and character must fill in and give the picture”.



See the other sections in  The Invention of George Eliot:


2. Silly Lady Novelists

3. Birth of a Persona

4. Marriage:  resignation from strong-minded woman?



  1. This post has given me quite a bit to consider.

    It seems to me that you can’t have one without the other . . . I don’t believe a novel can be created from pure imagination, nor do I believe it should be created merely from life experiences. But one without the influence of the other makes for poor writing, I think.

    Thoreau said something to the effect of how pretentious it is for a man to sit down and write if he hasn’t first stood up to live.

    I think there is some truth in this, as well.

    Ladaisi Blog

    • I agree. I had to judge a competition recently. All the submissions were from writers under 20. Although many had good command of language and some of technique, the content tended to revolve around sibling rivalry, the loss of a pet, or juvenile love gone wrong. While all these subjects are worthy ones, I am more interested in the wise view–looking back over years with greater introspection. AJ

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