George Eliot did not exist before 1857. The pseudonym appears first in a letter to John Blackwood dated 4 February, 1957, after the appearance of The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton in Blackwood’s Magazine, and its subsequent positive critical and public reception. Marian Evans writes (through George Henry Lewes):
…It will be well to give you my prospective name,
as a tub to throw to the whale in case of curious inquiries,
and accordingly I subscribe myself,
best and most sympathizing of editors,
Yours very truly, George Eliot.
John Cross, the man Evans married at the end of her life, later wrote that she chose this name because “George was Mr. Lewes’s Christian name and Eliot was a good mouth-filling easily pronounced word”. It can be argued that it was through Lewes that a pseudonym came to be required at all, since it was “a consequence of [his] friendly urgency that she wrote the Scenes of Clerical Life“; and the fact that living openly with Lewes required a certain delicacy towards the audience to whom her work would most appeal.
That is not to suggest that Evans would not have written novels without Lewes’s “friendly urgency”, or that she would have felt comfortable publishing them under her own name if they had not been romantically involved. Undeniably, the name George Eliot and the fiction of a clergyman-turned-novelist somewhere in Coventry were part of a convenient cover for an unmarried woman concurrently living in sin and embarking on what might be seen as a somewhat risky career change after a successful stint as a translator and a journalist. But the social and literary environment was potentially far more hostile than suggested by the playfulness with which the newly created George Eliot writes to Blackwell.
As recounted earlier, Evans was indignant that her readers speculated that Adam Bede could only have been written by a country parson. When Joseph Liggins stepped forward, pretending to be the novel’s author, Evans revealed her identity. While this shocked many readers—because of her gender and her relationship with a married man—strangely, it didn’t affect her popularity as a novelist.
For the next twenty years, Evans lived quietly with Lewes writing novels under the name of George Eliot. The pseudonym served her well, providing a mask for those who did not know her situation and a nod to discretion for those who did. Her fame rose and times changed. In 1977, Evans and Lewes were even introduced to Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria.
George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876, around the time Lewes’s health began to fail. He died in 1878, leaving Evans bereft. Her career as a novelist was intimately connected to Lewes and his encouragement. Though her final work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), is fictional, and also her most experimental work, she was never again to write another one of her expansive social novels. She returned to non-fiction, editing Lewes’s last work, Life and Mind.
Her grief was overwhelming during this period; and, consequently, her health began to fail. It’s likely Evans anticipated her own death during the months she work on this final project. As she was working to honour and perpetuate the memory of her lover, it’s likely that throughout the process of editing Lewes’s work, she gave some thought to how she would be remembered and how her work would be thought of in generations to come.
Many, including Henry James, have said her marriage to John Cross in 1881, a year and a half after the death of Lewes and eight months before Evans’ own, was an act motivated by the wish to have her memory ‘administered’ by a sympathetic friend after she died.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot: