The Future of George Eliot Studies
George Eliot struggled with depression, anxiety, and relentless self-doubt throughout her life. She was painfully conscious of her plain looks, the cause of rejection by John Chapman and Herbert Spencer, and she feared becoming a spinster. When she boldly commenced a liaison with Lewes, she suffered the rejection of her family and society. Writing, too, provided an endless source of anxiety. Eliot took on a male pseudonym to protect herself from detractors who would denigrate her work based on her reputation as a fallen woman. Hiding her identity suited her because she had a deeply ingrained fear of failure. Extremely self-conscious and often in need of reassurance, she worried about not writing well and about the criticism of her work. Benjamin Jowett wrote that her “extraordinarily sensitive, pathetic, & sympathetic emotions” were the “secret of her not writing until she was 40 years of age” and that she was “deeply affected by what is said of her” (Collins, Interviews 157). He also said that she “seemed to fear too much that her writing would not be appreciated” (205). Novelist Mary Ward wrote of Eliot’s need for sympathy from others:
I am conscious of something very human and womanly, which seems still to lay an appealing hand upon one, as though it asked above all for sympathy-and to be understood. She was abnormally, pitifully dependent upon sympathy; it explains the false step of her life. But it also explains the infinitely receptive and plastic temper which was the source of her best art. She who craved for sympathy had first given it in good measure-poured down and running overto the human life about her. (143)
Eliot’s emphasis on sympathy arose from her own experience as an outsider in society who longed to be understood and to be a part of the community. She valued human relationships and was hurt by societal alienation. She chose a lifestyle that many deemed immoral, yet she championed morality by upholding the notion that sympathy itself embodied that which was best in religion and suggested that those who treated others with understanding and compassion best understood the concept of God. Her personal choices meant that she would not be a legal wife or biological mother. Yet, she assumed these roles and accomplished a domestic and spiritual ideal in her life and writing. Writing as a poetess, she transformed her pains and troubles into an impulse to convey the redemptive value of sympathy in poetry.