Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 47 (2016)
This is the text of the Forty-Fourth George Eliot Memorial Lecture delivered at the Chilvers Coton Heritage Centre on 10 October, 2015. An extended version of this article will appear in late 2016 or early 2017 as an interview/essay in the series 'anglistik & englischunterricht': Christina Flotmann and Anna Lienen (eds.), Victorian Ideologies in Contemporary British Culture, Heidelberg: Winter Verlag.
My first historical novel - lames Miranda Barry (1999) was not born a Neo-Victorian novel, but became one. And it had a very personal link to my own life. Barry was a nineteenth-century colonial doctor and medical reformer, who had a very successful and colourful career in remote parts of the Empire. He spent an important period of his life in Jamaica, then a British colony, during the 1830s, taking care of the army garrison stationed on the island to protect the interests of the Crown and put down the numerous slave revolts. The British maintained a regiment there until the island's independence on 6 August 1962. I come from Jamaica: my father was Jamaican and my mother is English. Our house in the Blue Mountains near Greenwich, where the army barracks was situated, had been built by my father on the foundations of the old colonial barracks constructed by Dr James Barry to acclimatize the troops, so that they did not all die from yellow fever upon their arrival on the island . But 1 didn 't know that when I began my work on Barry. What interested me was the rumour that leaked out when Barry died in the early 1870s, that he was in fact, a woman. But was he?
Which brings me to my second historical novel, Sophie and the Sibyl: A Victorian Romance (Bloomsbury, 2015), which, this time is quite self-consciously written as a NeoVictorian Novel, in awareness that this particular genre has a literary history and an associated, developing body of criticism. Hallucinating Foucault represented two writers, one fictional and the other an historical character, the philosopher Michel Foucault. This time, in Sophie and the Sibyl, I decided to settle my scores with the Victorian writer I most admire, cherish, re-read and adore: Marian Evans Lewes, better known, but never addressed, or described, except in letters, as George Eliot. George Eliot is a textual rather than a lived identity. Oddly enough, Eliot herself, like Barry, although not in the same way, was both man and woman. The magisterial voice of her narrators is often, but not always, masculine. She relished her male pseudonym, while her identity remained secret, and she assumed a male voice in her writing for the Westminster Review. Her writing name has never been abandoned. For us, her readers now, Marian Evans Lewes is never named as the author of Middlemarch. The person who wrote the books is still George Eliot.