Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Not-So Well Behaved Woman

Magnet # 99: Westminster Abbey

Material: Metal

Purchased By: Debbie

Just what is it about famous people with the name of George or some variation thereof born in November? The lady born on this day in 1819 started off as Mary Anne Evans, but later chose to be known to the world as George Eliot, one of the most beloved writers of the Victorian Era. She caused a stir of scandals her entire life, and when she died, her legitimate request to be buried in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey alongside some of the greatest authors in British history, such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spencer, was cruely denied. Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster at the time, felt that her division with the church was more important than either her wishes or her accomplishments as a writer. It was the final insult in a life filled with rejections and hard-won triumphs.

To best understand Mary Anne Evans, one must be aware of the four qualities and ambitions that shaped her entire life: first, she was brilliant in mind, and second, she was, unfortunately, extremely unattractive, even repellant by some accounts. She also was unwilling to follow the rules of her time, and, finally, was desperate for the love of a man. Her father was not rich, but he farmed and managed land for an upper class family in Warwickshire, England. Because of this, Mary Anne was exposed to literature from an early age and later sent to boarding schools, where she excelled. When she had grown older and her mother had passed away, Mary Anne began to question the faith that had been so important to her over the course of her life. Finally, she decided to do something that was almost unheard of at the time - she stopped going to church. This created a rift between Mary Anne and her father, as well as the rest of her family, but it allowed her to grow closer to a circle of intellectuals and free thinkers in the area. She also pursed some of her male acquaintances, but to no avail. When her father passed away, Mary Anne traveled with two of these individuals to Switzerland and Italy. When she finally returned to England, she was determined to become a writer. She began boarding at the home of John Chapman, owner of The Westminster Review, and secretly became his assistant editor and a frequent contributor to the publication. The two began spending more time together, and, in doing so, ran afoul of Chapman's wife and his mistress. The pair ganged up and had Mary Anne kicked out, but soon she met another married man - George Henry Lewes. Lewes was both a highly intelligent man and considered to be pretty unattractive himself. His marriage was an open one, however, and his wife had children fathered by other men during it course, although Lewes had always treated them as his own. Although Lewes could not divorce his wife, their marriage was all but over, and Mary Anne moved in with him before long, calling herself Marian Evans Lewes. The behavior she had been demonstrating before - having a job and associating with men as a young, unmarried woman - had been considered pretty bad, but this simply shocked Victorian society. The pair were ostracized from nearly everyone - very few friends came to call on them at their new home. This upset Mary Anne, but she continued to write, and soon had finished her first book, a collection of stories called Scenes of a Clerical Life. She chose to publish under the name of George Eliot, both so she could be taken seriously as a male writer, and because she didn't want her scandalous life to taint her work.

The writings of George Eliot became a sensation. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, made Victorian society desperate to know just who this writer was. Eliot kept her silence for sometime, until a man posing to be George Eliot finally forced her hand. Those who had shunned Eliot were shocked by this revelation, as were her readers when they heard about her private life. But Eliot kept writing her novels, and they were successes. More friends began calling on them and eventually, they were even introduced to Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, a fan of Eliot's novels. Both she and her mother read them. However, Lewes passed away, leaving mary Eliot alone again. But, at the age of 61, she finally was married to a man twenty years her junior, a banker that she initially refused. She suffered the final scandal of her life during their Venetian honeymoon, when he either jumped or fell from the balcony of their room into the canal. But he was unharmed and the couple returned to England. But before the year was over, Eliot had died of an illness.

Because she was not allowed to be buried at Westminster Abbey, Eliot was laid to rest at Highgate Cemetary beside her beloved Lewes. The seven novels she left behind, though they suffered a temporary setback, have persisted to this day. Eliot had an insightful view of society, particularly its hypocrisies and what it meant to be alienated from it. Her novel Silas Marner is a personal favorite. If you've never read this story of how a man cast out by society finds hope again, I highly recommend it. Even watching the film adaptation with Ben Kingsley or its modern update, A Simple Twist of Fate with Steve Martin, will do if you don't feel like reading. Nowadays, Eliot has finally received the respect she earned. On the centenary of her death, a memorial stone to her was placed in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. The only Victorian writer who ever gave her a run for her money in the scandal department, Ocsar Wilde, has also been memorialized there. I'm glad that we are finally able to look beyond Eliot's flaws and recognize her contribution to literature, and I hope her wonderful books are enjoyed for many years to come.

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