It’s not often I find myself surprised by the solitary entry about Greenwich in a general publication about London. However, I have to confess to being taken aback at a Christmas present last year. A friend had bought me Writing London, one of Herb Lester’s splendid ‘alternative’ maps where there’s a delightful schematic plan on one side and ‘interesting stuff’ on the other.
I (obviously) turned straight to Greenwich. It only had one entry – George Eliot.
George Eliot? I always think of Cheyne Walk and Wandsworth when I think of the ‘scandalous’ author of Middlemarch, Adam Bede and The Mill of the Floss . I have never heard her name mentioned in connection with Greenwich before – not even in my book about The Trafalgar Tavern where, I have just discovered, she enjoyed a whitebait dinner in June 1861. I guess everyone is so delighted to talk about the rivalry between The Ship and the Tavern, to supply the two political sides of the Commons with annual dinners, and so overjoyed with ‘the Dickens connection’, to pay a nod to this extraordinary writer.
Female authors still use male names to sell books, using the old argument that women will read books by either gender but a large enough number of men will not read a book by a woman to make economic sense in changing their pen name to something more masculine. It’s only a relatively small number of writers these days, but in Victorian times, Mary Ann Evans figured that there would be even more prejudice against her – and, ultimately she was right.
Wanting to be taken on an equal footing with male authors, she became George Eliot so that it wouldn’t be assumed she could only write frothy little potboiler romances. Originally from the Midlands, she moved to London to write and wanted a quiet life, not least because she was living in daring sin with the married George Lewis whose wife was also having a relationship with someone else. Oh – just as a by-the-by, Lewis was educated at Greenwich himself, at Burney’s school…
Evans edited the left-wing journal The Westminster Review (quite an acheivement for a woman in those days – there were female writers but few with any ediotorial power) and published a ‘Scene of Clerical Life’ in Blackwood’s Magazine whilst building up to Adam Bede, her first novel.
It wasn’t long before the pseudonym became a pretty open secret (Dickens declared he wasn’t fooled for a moment) – as was the author’s private life, which wasn’t helped when she married someone else after Lewis’s death who jumped from their hotel balcony on their honeymoon (though survived.)
Victorian society though, had notorious double-standards. Whilst queuing up to read her novels (Queen Victoria loved Adam Bede so much she commisioned an artist to paint scenes from it for her), no one wanted her to come to dinner or infect their women-folk with her loose morals. Tongues wagged and George found herself in the odd position of being both ostracised and lauded.
When her publisher John Blackwood held a dinner for her to celebrate the publication of Silas Marner, he took her downriver to the Trafalgar Tavern where, as we all know, Greenwich women were much more robust…
It was the fashionable place to eat whitebait and, despite sundry Phantom efforts to introduce a new ‘local delicacy’ remains the only true ‘Greenwich food.’ Eliot was the only female present. Men, of course, being much stronger of character than women, would be able to withstand the disgraceful way she lived without being tempted to emulate her.
By this point, though, she was used to it all. She had a marvellous time – John Blackwood declares ‘George Eliot was extremely delighted with the whole affair, which she caused others to enjoy so much.’
Why didn’t I know about this fleeting moment in literary history?
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