Wednesday 28 September 2016

What lies beneath: Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot

Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot by Alexandre d'Albert-Durade, oil on canvass

Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30

Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot
Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot

Here's a politically incorrect question and it was addressed, some decades ago, to every woman by novelist and feminist Margaret Drabble: "Would you prefer to be praised by a man for your fine mind or your beautiful legs?" Now, now. One or the other. No boths. And before anyone gets into a tizzy, every man, woman and child will know that the only answer is: "Fine mind."

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Mary Ann Evans, one of the world's finest minds, was born on this day in 1819, in Warwickshire.

A great intellectual, she dissociated herself from "silly novels by lady novelists" and, fearing that she wouldn't be taken seriously otherwise, published under the name 'George Eliot'.

When Swiss artist Alexandre Louis Francois d'Albert Durade painted Eliot's portrait, she was 30 and unknown. Having kept house for her father until 1849, when he died, Mary Ann travelled to Switzerland five days later, boarded with the d'Albert-Durades and began forging her career as journalist, editor, poet, novelist.

She knew German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and her novel Middlemarch is often top of the 'greatest novels ever written' list. She renounced religion and lived with the already married philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes for over 20 years, shocking Victorian society.

Yet Queen Victoria loved her work and got her autograph. After Lewes's death, she did marry but John Cross, 20 years her junior, is remembered for his being depressed and jumping from a balcony into the Grand Canal, Venice on their honeymoon.

Eliot was a true maverick. Not known for her beauty, photographs suggest that d'Albert-Durade has produced an airbrushed portrait. Henry James called her "horse-faced"; even Lena Dunham tweeted about how her looks are always unfairly commented on.

Forget looks. Eliot's brilliant mind offers great advice, as in: "It is never too late to be what you might have been." And maybe beneath those voluminous skirts, she had gorgeous, shapely legs.

We'll never know.

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