Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 35 (2004) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The contentious issue of fame, infamy, and notoriety is the issue at stake in this lecture. On the one hand I focus attention on a tiny moment at the beginning of George Eliot's career, but argue that its gendered implications remain provocative. It acts as a test case of how nineteenth-century women writers had to justify the 'unfeminine' attribute of ambition. It also tells us something about the double standards operating in the reception of fiction by male and female writers.
On 1 February 1859 literary history was made with the publication of a novel called Adam Bede. A chorus of critical acclaim followed in periodicals across the political spectrum - moving politically from left to right, the Westminster Review, the Athenaeum and the Saturday Review - which all trumpeted their approval. E. S. Dallas's review in The Times is representative of the predominant tone, with its opening declaration that 'there can be no mistake about Adam Bede. It is a first-rate novel, and its author takes rank at once among the masters of the art'.2 Charles Dickens wrote a letter of praise, as did Jane Welsh Carlyle, while Queen Victoria's admiration was such that she commissioned the court painter, Edward Corbould, to paint two scenes from the novel for her private collection. Victoria asked for illustrations of the heroine of the book, Dinah Morris, an earnest young Methodist preacher bringing her audience back to the paths of righteousness, and another of the seduced woman, Hetty Sorrel. Her choice was entirely predictable as her taste ran to narrative paintings with an unexceptionable moral message.3 So, it would seem from all this that Adam Bede was a respectable novel, promulgating an unambiguous moral message, well-designed to suit a middle-class Victorian readership. Indeed, the novel sold over 15,000 copies in 1859 and was also translated into Dutch, French, German and Hungarian, making it, by the standards of the day, an international bestseller.