The Invention of George Eliot
Resignation from strong-minded woman?
On 16 May 1880, Marion Evans married John Cross, a man twenty years her junior, and changed her name once again, this time to Mary Anne Cross. The couple moved to a new house in Chelsea but, shortly thereafter Eliot fell ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease she had been afflicted with for the previous few years, led to her death on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61.
Rosemarie Bodenheimer, one of Evans’s recent biographers, presents her marriage to Cross, who already managed her investments and venerated her work as well as her privacy, as the most practical step she could have taken. In stark contrast to Evans’s decision to live with Lewes, in which, in her letters of the mid 1850s, she casts herself as the “heroic chooser”, Evans as Mrs Cross represents her marriage to John Cross as a passive acceptance of another’s wishes.
Her personal correspondence from this period is revealing. The language of several letters appears to indicate a shift. In a letter to John Cross’s sister, Eleanor, she writes: “Without your tenderness, I do not believe it would have been possible for me to accept this wonderful renewal of my life”. To Georgiana Burne-Jones, she writes: “He has been a devoted friend for years, and now that I am alone, he sees his only longed-for happiness in dedicating his life to me”. And there is a letter to Barbara Bodichon, in which she says: “You will have inferred something of [his] delicacy and generosity from his desire to dedicate his life to the remaining fragment of mine”. After 25 years of silence, Marian Evans Lewes Cross resumes a correspondence with her brother, due exclusively to the respectability she gained in marrying Cross. To him, she writes: “His affection has made him choose this lot of caring for me rather than any other of the various lots open to him”.
Bodenheimer reads these letters and others as an announcement of “her resignation from the position of ‘strong-minded woman’”. Bodenheimer says:
She had made a contract with her audiences and her admirers to be George Eliot, great writer and infamous woman, and now she had broken that promise to the expectations she had raised in others’ minds. She had given up her special status and the names that marked it in order to end her life within the pale of her father’s world.
This type of passivity does not fit well with the way Evans had always conducted her life; and Bodenheimer, in casting the last act of George Eliot’s life as if it were the last chapter in a work of fiction, appears to be searching for a literary resolution and, in the process, overlooking something crucial.
From an early age, Evans acted, then stood her ground. When she refused the doctrines of Christianity, she was nearly sent away from her father’s house, but she did not waver in her resolve to follow her own beliefs. She chose to live openly with Lewes, forsaking her family for him, risking her position in society and her livelihood. The risks involved in such an act are difficult to fathom today: if Lewes had taken his connection with her less seriously – had he abandoned her – Evans would be just another Victorian statistic of fallen womanhood, and George Eliot may never have existed. But it would be a mistake to focus on chance. As wrote to Chapman on 4 October 1954, she had “counted the cost of the step [she had] taken and [was] not mistaken in the person to whom [she] attached herself”. Many years after George Eliot’s death, the journalist Eliza Lynn Linton recalled the aureole of new love that surrounded them immediately after their flight. She writes that “the consciousness that [Marian] had finally made her choice and cast the die which determined her fate, gave her a nobility of expression and a grandeur of bearing.”
There are other incidents that show how Evans was inclined to act rather than wait, even when it wasn’t in her best interest to do so. When speculations settled on Mr. Liggins as the author of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede, the Leweses were initially amused. However, after pretenders stepped forward to take credit, they grew increasingly annoyed. Ultimately, it triggered the withdrawal of the incognito;, although, to be fair, some had already identified Evans as the holder of the pseudonym, and George Eliot’s identity had even been correctly guessed by members of her family. The timing, however, does suggest something about George Eliot: she risked exposure and public censure regarding her personal circumstances, against the strongest advice of Blackwood, possibly even jeopardizing her arrangements with him, in order to gain proper credit for her work and the fame she felt she was due.
Close on the heels of this incident, when her sensitivity was at its height, and while she was regularly being savaged by gossip columnists and friends alike, the publisher T.C. Newby advertised a book called Adam Bede, Junior. A Sequel. After receiving an indignant letter from Lewes demanding legal action, William Blackwood wrote to his brother, John: “Lewes of course exaggerates the importance of the matter, and I have endeavoured to tone him down by recalling Pickwick Abroad and the many similar felonies on popular authors”.
Evans remained outraged, however, complaining in her journal that the Blackwoods “are slow to act in the matter — hitherto, have not acted at all: not being strongly moved, apparently by what is likely to injure me more than them”. The situation precipitated a near break with the Blackwoods, who thought it was best to let the matter die a natural death. Although the issue resolved itself, the degree of annoyance and emotion this incident inspired in Evans, and the lengths to which Evans and Lewes were willing to go illustrate how passionately concerned the two were concerning George Eliot’s reputation.
The most revealing example of Evan’s concern for the fame and reputation of George Eliot was her wish to be entombed in Westminster Abbey, which she had discussed with Lewes prior to his death. Immediately following her death, Cross elicited the help of Herbert Spencer, a long-time friend of Evans and Lewes, who in turn collected signatures and solicited others, such as Edward Byrne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, and John Tyndall, for support. These men steadfastly petitioned Dean Stanley.
Thomas H. Huxley argued that the proposal was certain to be bitterly opposed, perhaps with the raking up of past histories, as was the case with John Stuart Mill. He writes: “George Eliot is known not only as a great writer, but as a person whose life and opinions were in notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regards to marriage, and in Christian theory in regard to dogma.” Cross did not press the issue.
In the face of these examples, how should her marriage to John Cross be read? Her various biographers offer a range of interpretations. Haight interprets it straightforwardly, as an act of sincere affection. Referring to the many friends, loyal throughout 25 years of an unconventional alliance, who were shocked by her marriage, he comments that they underestimated her essential conservatism. He argues that “after her few years of rebellion, Marian… reverted quickly to traditional ways”. Bodenheimer reads her marriage to Cross as a pragmatic, but also essentially conservative, step. Redlinger proposes that she married from “a fear of losing her power to love”, helped along by a sense of defencelessness with regard to the attentions of Edith Simcox, who Redlinger suggests grew bolder after the death of Lewes. Redlinger doubts that Cross had “done much in the way of instigating this marriage”, asserting that Cross’s illness on their honeymoon was severe mental depression (brought on by feeling “overwhelmed” at his marriage), which led to a suicide attempt. *
Any interpretation of Evans marriage to Cross is speculative. Even the letters written by Evans about her marriage are suspect. Rather than explaining anything, they are primarily dictated by the unusual circumstances. Politeness required that she provide a happy tone, a forward-looking attitude, an overall positiveness, although in the same letters, she refers often to her illness, her thinness, her sickness of heart. She sees her life as “a remaining fragment”, suggesting she is anticipating her death.
Affection, need and practicality are not mutually exclusive, but I believe Evans was motivated less by conservatism than by a desire to assure her recognition in posterity. In John Cross, loyalty, devotion, attention to detail, knowledge of her private finances, appropriate reverence were all to be found. When Lewes died, Evans lost the advocate who would have arranged for George Eliot to be handed down to later generations, whether by burial in Westminster Abbey or through the publication of her life and letters. Her marriage, therefore, continued these efforts and assured her future reputation.
*There is no evidence for this, contrary to gossip and occasional poorly researched biographies. Also, Cross’s behavior during their marriage and after his wife’s death was not that of a man overwhelmed, as Redlinger suggests, by a mistake. At forty, he was capable of making his own decisions with open eyes. Whatever the terms of their relationship, it is likely that Cross had his share in defining them.
See the other sections in The Invention of George Eliot: