“My writings are public property: it is only myself apart from my writing that I hold private and veto about as a topic.” (George Eliot qtd. in Dillane, 145)
In a letter to Elma Stuart, George Eliot penned the above quotation, permitting us a brief glimpse into her rather elusive attitude towards any kind of public image. In her examination of Eliot’s complicated relationship with the press, Fionnula Dillane points out that Eliot was one of the few authors at the time who enjoyed the “unique distinction” of completely avoiding any prying photographer’s lens (145). Was George Eliot photogenic? Sadly, we will never know for sure, and Dillane argues that the nagging lack of any photographic embodiment of George Eliot, the celebrated and occasionally controversial author, resulted in an effort by initial reviewers to embody Eliot through mining her fictive works for “the authentic visual image that acted as a ‘genuine’ copy for the real author” (149).
The convergence of cheap photography and emphasis on the visual in empirical sciences created a precarious dilemma for Eliot and an irresistible temptation for her fans and reviewers to equate the personas of her fictional narrators with the camera-shy authoress (Dillane 145). Yet, our discussions of Eliot’s fictional and journalistic work challenge any one-to-one correlation between the narratorial and authorial voices. Moreover, ‘George Eliot’ is only an “illusory mask” for Marian Evans, and Dillane highlights the additional complications Eliot’s gendered identity as an authoress posed for her or for any woman who wanted to enter into the man’s world of letters (149, 151). How then are we to arrive at any kind of knowledge of the authentically embodied George Eliot? If Eliot’s gender and unorthodox lifestyle precluded her from engaging with her public directly (along with her own personal aversions to the public limelight), what avenues are left to us to encounter the true Eliot?
Dillane outlines for us two alternate reductions of Eliot commonly perpetrated by her initial critics and fans: planting Eliot in her “native setting” as displayed through her earlier, more pastoral-like works to deduce her implicit biography or suppressing the existence of any physical origin or body of Eliot to transform her into “a Sibyl or Sage” of moral authority (154). Dillane derides both of these approaches for attempting to dissect Eliot’s mind through pages as two-dimensional as photographs. Yet I wonder if we can legitimately find clues of Eliot’s experience as an author in her writing, if not an exact blueprint of her thought. In a letter written on February 24, 1861, during the process of publishing Silas Marner, Eliot tells John Blackwood, her publisher, that she prefers her works to appear in the order in which she wrote them because they “belong to successive mental phases.” Perhaps we cannot measure the precise degree to which these “successive mental phases” are apparent in her works, but if we permit Eliot to know her own mind and writing more intimately than we ever can, then we may find many reflections of Eliot, the woman and the author, in the multiple mirrors of her journalistic and fictional writing.
Any reflections we find are certainly not as stable and fixed as a photograph, but neither are they so stagnant and paralyzed, impervious to the changes of time. In the artistry of her early fiction such as Silas Marner or the narrators of her later fiction such as Middlemarch, we can find traces of a mind that wrestled with social structures and moral responsibility. In her essays and reviews, such as “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” her views on art and education are implied beneath the layers of wit and irony. And if her published works are insufficient, her prodigious output of letters offers another mirror for us to peer into and steal a glimpse of her authorial embodiment. This tripod of fiction, journalism, and letters might be a more viable platform than the tripod of “the goddess, the witch, [and] the celebrity” that Dillane finds to begin attempting to understand George Eliot in any of her many roles and works (165).