An authorial persona is not exclusively the version created in the author’s lifetime. It also includes versions perpetuated by every new biography and every critical article that comes after. When we read a novel by George Eliot, the persona stares back at us from the page; when we read a biography about her, the persona is there in between the lines; when we look at criticism, there it is again. Assuredly, the critic’s task is not an easy one, nor is the biographer’s. While an artist like George Eliot uses acute observation of real events as the spark to ignite her imaginative creation of a realist fiction, a biographer takes the multitude of fictions created over a lifetime in letters, journals, and manuscripts, and strives to construct some semblance of the ‘real’ subject. A biographer too far distant in time is at the disadvantage of having to wade through an inheritance of opinions and attitudes shaped, changed, and perpetuated by intervening generations, an inheritance that might at any time colour the interpretation of raw materials and affect the ultimate construction of the ‘life’. On the other hand, a biographer situated too near in time or relationship to a subject, while free from the influence of a reputation’s history, is bound by codes of delicacy and respect or perhaps even a more intrusive agenda.
All biography is therefore suspect; no life can be exactly reconstructed. It will always be, in fact, a fiction. A look at several biographies of George Eliot sheds some light on the effect they might have had on her literary reputation, as well as on the development of her literary persona. The first of these, George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (1885), was written by her husband John Cross, and must be viewed as a public relations document. In reaction to this, Mathilde Blind published a biography of George Eliot in 1888, which took issue with the vast amount of detail Cross suppressed. However, Blind’s biography is widely considered to be the view of a contemporary who “politely looks away”. Over a hundred years later, Rosemarie Bodenheimer published a biography with the cheeky title: The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Her Fiction, which calls into question from the first how much of the ‘real’ might be found in constructing the life of another. She also points out that even the friendly letter is a work of fiction.
It’s additionally instructive to look at the relationship of these biographies to criticism of George Eliot’s work. Critics rely on biography to inform readings and interpretations of literature; often, however, the biography is read less critically than the fiction. In this way, they are complicit in perpetuating inaccuracies and the emphasis of certain events over others. It’s through criticism as much as through biography that an authorial persona is created and sustained.
Reading through the major criticism of George Eliot’s works, patterns emerge that mesh with themes offered in biography. One of the most prominent themes, which was also crucial for critics contemporaneous with George Eliot as well as for those of the present day, has to do with George Eliot’s masculine persona. In fact, the idea that George Eliot wrote wearing a male mask so dominates the body of criticism that theories of gendered narrative strategies have appeared in relation to her. Other critics focus on the issue of renunciation present in most of her novels, hinting that there was a psychological need for George Eliot to create characters who enact what Evans did not do regarding her religious beliefs and her love for Lewes: submit to societal pressure. Still others unkindly make much of Evans’s unattractive looks and suggest that her beautiful, ennobled heroines are projections of her own desires to be thought lovely and noble. In these examples and others, the criticism is tied to biographical information. But there is almost universally a prima facie acceptance of the scant details, without analysis of the historical and cultural context within which the events occurred.
It’s impossible ever to know the life of another with any certainty, particularly of someone so intent on wearing a public mask during her lifetime as Mary Ann Evans; but it is fascinating and illuminating to look at how George Eliot the persona was constructed.
Mary Ann Evans was herself concerned with the idea of the real versus the imaginative and, at the onset of her career as a novelist, was determined not to be thrown together with the ‘lady novelists‘ of her day. Not knowing the fame she would achieve, the decision to use a male pseudonym almost certainly arose out of the immediate circumstances of publishing a first novel. Later, however, Evans worked hard to protect, prune, and perpetuate the image she so carefully constructed over her lifetime.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot: