Our first spotlight for Women’s History Month, and International Women's Day, is our very own George Eliot. You may have noticed the brand new halls that have just been built across the road who share a name with this week’s highlight, and that’s no coincidence.
Eliot attended Bedford College in 1849, but not at George Eliot. Her birth name was in fact Mary Anne Evans, George Eliot being her chosen pen name allowing her to excel in her field – literature. She was famous primarily for her novel writing, Silas Marner, Middlemarch and Adam Bede among them.
Eliot’s work has been exceptionally well received over the last 150 years, with Middlemarch being described as the greatest novel in the English Language by both Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.
Her work has been heavily praised for bringing action to the interior, and breaking away from the stereotypes of female writers of the 19th century. So often were female authors dismissed as ‘sappy’ or ‘overly emotional’, Eliot successfully bucked this trend.
The question remains however, why change her name? Women were already having their work published by 1859 – the Bronte’s, Jane Austen, and Anna Barbauld among them. The issue comes down to the state of literary criticism at the time.
Still subject to mass discrimination, George Eliot did not want to see her work dismissed due to her gender. The literary atmosphere in the mid to late 19th century meant that women’s writing was often pigeon holed into a category of light romantic fiction, even if, like Eliot’s work, it dealt with hard hitting, serious topics. And so Mary Anne Evans took the name George Eliot. This however, opens another debate.
How do we refer to authors of the past who used pen names? Evans made a conscious decision to refer to herself as George Eliot, so should we continue to respect that decision? Or alternatively, now that we are in an age where women’s writing is viewed on the same platform as men’s, can we confidently refer to the author of Silas Marner as Mary Anne Evans, free from the fear that her work will be seen as lesser?
The irony is that we still see female authors writing under pen names. J.K. Rowling, Christina Lynch, and Robyn Thurman among them. Which begs the question, are we truly in a place where the author is separate from the text?
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