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Before George Eliot

Marian Evans and the Periodical Press


Fionnuala Dillane


Cambridge: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. ix+270 p. ISBN 978-1107035652. £60


Reviewed by Stéphanie Richet-Drouet

Université Charles-de-Gaulle Lille 3



Five chapters compose this 270-page essay along with an introduction, a conclusion, a bibliography and an index, according to the following development:

1.The character of Editress : Marian Evans at the Westminster Review

2.‘Working for one’s bread’ : Marian Evans the journalist

3.Staging 'Scenes' in Blackwood’s Magazine : Melodrama, narrative voice and the Blackwood’s man

4.After Marian Evans : The importance of being ‘George Eliot’

5.Last impressions : Marian Evans takes on her audience.

Numerous studies have been devoted to the nineteenth-century iconic writer George Eliot, but comparatively very few to the ‘Marian Evans’ she was before taking on her male pseudo. Yet ‘George Eliot’ the novelist was conceived in the late 1850s only, hence Dillane’s wish to focus and revisit the first decade of Marian Evans’s working life as a journalist, editor and serial fiction writer in the periodical press which, as Dillane underscores, asserted its importance in the construction of literary reputations and more generally of culture in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth-century periodical being the dominant cultural force of the age, it is for her no coincidence that the writer who became the leading literary figure of the second half of the nineteenth century began her writing career in the periodical press. Although she never was a very prolific journalist (her journalistic production only amounting to a total of eighty articles in her whole career), Marian Evans always proved very concerned with the issues of her commercial, editorial and social environment.

However, the approach that Dillane supports here is quite original. Unlike other studies previously published, she claims that Marian Evans’s journalism is no simple rehearsal of George Eliot’s key ideas in her later acclaimed works, nor is it a literary manifesto of the concepts later developed in her fiction. Evans’s work for the periodicals should therefore not be read for its contents only and retrospectively, that is, in the light of what comes afterwards, as a mere background and marginal occupation. On the contrary, Dillane demonstrates how Evans’s journalistic career profoundly shaped the construction of her multifaceted literary persona and how the stylistic complexities of some of her journalistic voices inform the intricacy of her fictional narratives. Indeed, one must not elude the manifold interdependence that exists between an article and the periodical in which it is published. Identification with the general spirit of the journal in which one is writing is a prerequisite of the task of the reviewer – and Evans perfectly knew how to adapt to the various magazines she worked for (the liberal Westminster Review, the more conservative Saturday Review, the Leader). Nor is it possible to ignore Evans’s developing sense of audiences in her different but related roles as a journalist, editor and serial fiction writer. Obviously, Evans knew how to meet the expectations of both her editor and her readers, as Dillane makes clear with the example of Scenes of Clerical Life, first published as a Blackwood’s series. She points out how Scenes of Clerical Life conform and adapt to the double purpose of the melodrama-prone periodical magazine, i.e. to divert and to edify – two characteristics of the original style of the Scenes.

The intricate question of the audience is certainly the cornerstone of this thorough study of Evans’s early writing career, especially with the exposition of how Evans’s practices as a journalist laid the pattern for the complex and ambivalent relationship she entertained with her public throughout her writing life. The final two chapters address Evans’s awareness of the British periodical as a model of audience-making and the way in which her final essay as ‘George Eliot’, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, evinces the writer’s resentment for the periodical press and its readers, which she repeatedly attacked at the end of her life for its omnipotence and lack of respect for writers in particular and culture in general. It is therefore ironic that the very medium that helped her shape her literary persona should be the very target of her wrath once a renowned novelist, yet her attitude reveals the major role she recognised to the media in the construction of literary fame. While ‘George Eliot’ only has a public persona, Marian Evans very much remains behind the scenes. Yet the author George Eliot has no flesh, she is just an impersonation, disembodied fiction. This essay claims to give flesh to Marian Evans before she became George Eliot. By unearthing and rehabilitating the early writings that so much influenced the writer’s legacy, it invites us to reconsider our conception of the novelist.


 Illustrated version on The Victorian Web:



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