In the last week I have three times come across the George Eliot quote above, and then this afternoon I stumbled across a documentary on the life of the famous writer.
The author Henry James called George Eliot; or Mary Anne Evans as she was christened, “hideously ugly”.
She had a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth and a chin and jawbone ‘qui n’en finissent pas’… Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.
Henry James, in a letter to his father, published in Edel, Leon (ed.) Henry James: Selected Letters (1990).
A former lover, the biologist and philosopher Herbert Spences wrote an essay on the repugnancy of ugly women that was a veiled description of Eliot.
George Eliot Aged 30 by the Swiss artist Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade
Why do people feel that they have the right to comment on another’s appearance in such a manner? To wound another defenceless human being who can alter nothing in the face of that criticism? Let us be honest, the practice still continues in this twenty first century that we consider so civilised. All those women’s gossip magazine and celebrity web sites would not exist if it did not!
Here was a woman, repeatedly told she was ugly and unlovable. Those who did develop relationships with her often made the point of telling her that they only loved her for her brain. How could any individual flourish on a personal, or career level when they are diminished in such a cruel manner?
The only quotes I could find relating to Eliot’s appearance where made by men, most that were suppose to be friends or lovers, but I hazard more than a fair guess that such observations were also made by other women. They just did not use the pen to record and wound.
It is more than coincidence that Mary Anne Evans only developed into George Eliot when she was in a stable relationship with a man who cared for her, and did not use her physical appearance as an excuse for his own behaviour. George Lewis was a philosopher, psychologist and literary critic and they were together some twenty five years, until his death.
Indeed, it is never too late to be what you might have been. Mary Anne was 38 years old when her first short story was published. The life expectancy for a member of the English upper class was 52 years in the nineteenth century, so she was considered to be well into middle age.
My point is that we should not allow anyone to define us as a person, and we should not allow society to define when we can and cannot do something. We have the innate right to set out own life agendas and we should never allow anyone to dissuade us from that path.
I cannot imagine what a loss the world of literature and philosophy may have suffered if Mary Anne Evans had not battled against the flood of public opinion to become George Eliot. Something to remember the next time someone offers an “opinion” for “your own good”, perhaps?
Be courteous, be obliging, but don’t give yourself over to be melted down for the benefit of the tallow trade.
Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.
I’m proof against that word failure. I’ve seen behind it. The only failure a man ought to fear is failure of cleaving to the purpose he sees to be best.
The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men.
The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.
We are all apt to believe what the world believes about us.