Why Did George Eliot Adopt a Male Pseudonym?

It’s been over 200 years since George Eliot’s birth and there are some interesting things you may or may not know about the British-born writer.

In 2015, her book, Middlemarch (1872), topped a BBC poll of the 100 greatest British novels, and it’s also been cited as one of the finest works ever written by diverse writers such as Virginia Woolf.

However, her personal life was steeped in scandal. She was ostracized by polite society for living openly with George Lewes who was a married man. After his death, she did, in fact, change her name to Marian Lewes in order to legally access their money. After her first husband’s death, her reputation took a further nosedive when she married a man 20 years younger than her, only for him to attempt suicide on their honeymoon balcony in Venice.

The writer born as Mary Ann or Marian Evans in 1819 is one of Britain’s greatest writers, yet remains something of an enigma. In part, it’s thanks to her image as a slightly dour Victorian writer (her novels fell out of favor in the early 20th century only to be reappraised in the 1950s), but also because of her male pen name–why did she feel the need to write under a false identity?

By adopting a pseudonym as a writer, Eliot was sticking to convention. “She was frightened her work would not be read properly because it was by a woman but also because it was by her, a scandalous woman,” explains Kathy O’Shaughnessy, author of the new novel, In Love With George Eliot.

“It was all about wanting to be taken seriously and not dismissed as ‘girl novelists’,” explains Professor Kathryn Hughes and author of Eliot: The Last Victorian.

It’s certainly telling that Eliot was living in an era so restrictive that her male pen name proved more appealing than mentioning the surname of the man she lived in sin with for 24 years or revealing that she was in fact a “scandalous” woman writer.

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