I learned a new word the other day: clocky. It describes someone who doesn’t pass as their (chosen) gender. It originated in the trans community and comes from the idea of “clocking” or recognizing something. Its use can be dysphoric or derogatory, a way to express the disappointment of missing the mark or to throw an insult back at transphobes. But lately, as the gender spectrum expands to include more ambiguous varieties, clocky has become a bit of a compliment. What a great word! I thought. It rolls off the tongue. It’s tongue-in-cheek. It has a little bite. Plus it rhymes with cocky—which makes for a lucky pun whichever way you spin it.
Clockiness has been on my mind because of a tidbit of literary history I also recently learned. In 1857 three stories about Anglican clergymen were published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine. The next year they were collected and republished as a book called Scenes of Clerical Life under the then unknown name George Eliot. The publisher, William Blackwood, sent copies to select members of the British literati, including Charles Dickens. Dickens knew of Marian Evans, the assistant editor of the Westminster Review who had scandalized London by living with a married man. But he had no idea that Evans had taken on a male pen name to publish Scenes of Clerical Life. He sent a letter to the writer via Blackwood, with a sly guess:
I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.
When I read this, I of course immediately wanted to know: How did Dickens clock her? What was the tell? Most readers at the time took the male name on the cover in good faith, so much so that some rube who happened to live near the town on which the setting in Scenes of Clerical Life was modeled started going around taking credit for it.
Dickens said nothing in his letter to explain how he could discern from words on a page that the person who wrote them was a woman. Maybe it was because, a few years earlier, he had made himself “mentally…like a woman” in Bleak House, which is interspersed with chapters from the first-person point of view of a young woman named Esther Summerson. Dickens told an American journalist the effort had “cost him no little labor and anxiety. ‘Is it quite natural,’ he asked, ‘quite girlish?’” Charlotte Brontë, for one, thought it wasn’t: “It seems to me too often weak and twaddling; an amiable nature caricatured, not faithfully rendered.” But Dickens felt he had succeeded, writing another friend that he had done “a pretty womanly thing as the sex will like.”
Why then, when reading Eliot’s debut, didn’t he assume that another man had done the same—or outdone him—in bestowing “such womanly touches” to Scenes of Clerical Life? How in the dickens did Dickens know?
Readers have long wondered whether women’s writing might have a distinctive “style.” Is genre connected to gender? Do men tend toward sea yarns, women toward melodrama? What about plot? Some have argued that the shape of a narrative maps onto the rhythm of a male orgasm—think “rising action,” think “climax.” Others have suggested in turn that the female orgasm—multiple, polymorphous—would model a different style. With no small irony, the narrator of Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or cites one French theory of this kind:
“A feminine textual body is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending: there’s no closure, it doesn’t stop, and it’s this that very often makes the feminine text difficult to read,” wrote Hélène Cixous, in a sentence that could definitely have been shorter.
But is a meandering syntax masculine or feminine? Going on and on can make you seem like a blowhard; trailing off can make you seem meek. Purple prose can be flowery or fey, bombastic or baroque. (What is the gender of alliteration?)
You’d think there’d be clearer data on this by now, or at least some kind of gender detector. The Turing test, which determines whether you can tell a human from a computer, was allegedly based on a parlor game—“the imitation game,” which Alan Turing may have made up—that tests whether you can tell a man from a woman based on their written answers to questions. At least one linguistic study, using a large data set, claims that men’s writing is “informational” (more nouns and things) while women’s writing is “involved” (more pronouns and relations).
Engineers have used findings like these to develop software that purports to discern the gender of any anonymous text. I found three websites with beta versions and tested the paragraph you’re reading now. They all thought I was a man. (ChatGPT told me that with no “overt gender markers,” it was “impossible to say whether a man or a woman wrote” my paragraph.) I tested a paragraph from Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life, with the same result. One website is evidently accustomed to unhappy customers: “Lyrics, lists, poems, and prose are special writing styles. This tool is unlikely to classify these texts correctly.” Dickens must have had a better algorithm.
The vagaries of history make it even harder to be definitive about what he was thinking. In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that she aimed to strip her style of the “false sentiments,” “flowery diction,” and “pretty superlatives” that “create a kind of sickly delicacy” in women’s writing. For this refusal of sentimentality, Wollstonecraft and her circle were called “The Unsex’d Females.” Her famous daughter nevertheless took up this turn toward “simple unadorned truth.” It’s rather amusing to compare Mary Shelley’s lucid prose with the gaseous revisions to Frankenstein that her husband, Percy Bysshe, made. Under his pen, “caused” becomes “derive their origin from,” “about on a par” becomes “of nearly equal interest and utility,” “what to say” becomes “what manner to commence the interview.”
A character in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey declares that women are indeed the more natural writers, speculating that “the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated” comes from the habit of writing in their journals. Then again, this compliment comes from the mouth of a man, which makes it seem backhanded even as it raises that perennial question: When creating a character, can a writer plausibly conjure a gender other than their own?
The question is especially pertinent for Eliot, who didn’t just take on a male pseudonym but also wrote many works deeply concerned with the lives of men—Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Daniel Deronda. Like Wollstonecraft, she adamantly rejected what she considered a stereotypical female style. In an anonymous essay published the year before the stories in Scenes of Clerical Life came out, she writes: “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic.” Eliot goes on to complain of their “affectation,” “vagueness,” “bombast,” “vacillating syntax,” “cheap phraseology,” “vulgarisms of style,” “confusion of purpose,” “patronizing air of charity,” “drivelling kind of dialogue,” and “feeble sentimentality.” But if she was conscientiously avoiding all this silliness in her own prose, what clued Dickens in that this George was a Marian?
Is there such a thing as a female style? About a decade ago, I asked this exact question after a feminist philosopher’s talk about Eimear McBride’s novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Everyone in the audience turned in their seats or craned their necks to see the naïf among them. (This was at UC Berkeley.) I hastened to explain myself. Many reviewers had said that McBride’s fragmented style was indebted to James Joyce—as had the author herself. But her style had felt female to me, which made me curious. I cited Virginia Woolf, who wondered what the shape of a woman’s sentence might be, and circumlocutory Cixous, who also wrote, only somewhat figuratively, of an écriture féminine that would be written in the “white ink” of breastmilk. The philosopher looked down at the carpet and smiled. If there is such a thing as a female style, she replied, it arises not from some bodily femaleness but from shared experience.
Well, yes. I had meant gender, not sex. Female not as a kind of body but as a way of being. This answer felt like a tautology: female style is the style of someone who has experienced femaleness. Okay, but what is experiencing femaleness? This didn’t give me any insight into what Woolf called a “womanly” style would sound like or why McBride didn’t feel like Joyce to me. The philosopher was probably shadowboxing with the essentialist shibboleth of trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs). I didn’t follow up to distinguish myself from that rabid bunch of indignants, though. The choral gasp and the redundant answer made me think that the question I’d posed was passé, too obvious—or too obviated by contemporary feminist politics—to bother pursuing.
In retrospect, this moment was a harbinger. There has since been a resurgence of breathless chatter about who has the right to speak for whom, about the rights and wrongs of literary representation. Short stories like Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” and Isabel Fall’s “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” have sparked intense online debates. The “Reclaim Her Name” initiative, created by The Women’s Prize in 2020, declared its intent to restore women’s “real names” to works published pseudonymously; they issued a new edition of Middlemarch under the name Mary Ann Evans. Meanwhile, craft seminars, writing forums, and Reddit threads stay busy adjudicating whether, for example, men can write credible female characters. Memes flit over social media about how they sound when they do: “She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downward.”
This is a good joke, a note of levity in a discourse that feels more dour by the day—and far more literal than literary. The discussion is ostensibly about “form,” but it seems largely concerned with the “content” generated by “creatives” and absorbed by “communities.” It is positively obsessed with the bodies of each of these parties, which must somehow all match one another. Literature has always been a kind of mirroring machine. It likes to evoke uncanny resemblances between the word and the world, and among readers, characters, and authors. But this reflective tendency has grown reflexive lately, imperative even. “Write what you know,” we’re told. “I feel seen,” we rhapsodize. “I need to recognize myself in the books I read,” we demand.
We are the unlucky denizens of a Misinformation Age. It makes sense that we would be so averse to distortion, so desperate for the truth. But this has led us to overvalue certain qualities in fiction, qualities like the authentic, the realistic, the accurate, the exact. Yes, Aristotle said, circa 335 BC, that all art is imitation. Yes, Stendhal said that “a novel is a mirror.” But for that ancient philosopher, mimesis isn’t an exact reflection. And for that great social novelist, the mirror travels—it is “carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet.” Lately, it seems, the mirror of fiction has stilled, has shrunk, has turned in our hands. Now we all just want to look at our selfies.
This is the aesthetic apotheosis of identity politics. We value only what looks identical, what can be identified, what can be identified with. But this insistence on what we (are) like necessarily suppresses the differences among us—and within us. It also dovetails rather conveniently with capitalism’s drop-down menu logic: everyone must fit a category, however personalized, that the market can target. The literary—a wild and various realm that some of us once naively imagined might resist the market—has been reduced to notions like only “real women” can write “authentic female characters” whose stories will sit on a “women’s literature” shelf in the bookstore for “female readers” to find.
Worse yet, this representational agenda remains divorced from real politics: the legal battles, power structures, and acts of violence we still face. We’re quibbling over pseudonyms while they’re stripping away abortion rights. This is the fate of any discourse that succeeds in name only—mannerism. Hence the tone: strident and tremulous by turns, stultifying on the whole. On one side: “I will wear whichever hat I want!” On the other: “But—but—am I allowed to write as a so-and-so, if I’m a such-and-such?” Well, yes. It’s all fiction.
This, it seems to me, is why we still find the gender and style question so hard to wrap our minds around. We’re talking about two fictions, two constructs, two copies of copies. This is clear enough when it comes to style. But many of us still tend to treat gender as an existential truth, something we harbor inside us, something inextricable from sex—that is, from our bodies. Scientists are still working out the balance of biology and psychology when it comes to sex. The concept of gender is a different question altogether. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “One is not born but becomes a woman.” Gender isn’t what you are. It’s what you perform into being, as I learned in college under the name of “gender performativity,” a term coined by the philosopher Judith Butler.
I’ve noticed that when even the most sophisticated thinkers talk about performativity these days, they seem to forget that the concept didn’t just come from the idea of theatrical performance. Butler was also riffing on what are called performative utterances, “those speech acts that bring into being that which they name.” First theorized by J.L. Austin, this is the kind of language that causes something to happen in the world. Classic examples are “I bet” and “I do”: repeating those exact words in front of other people is how we make betting and marriage happen. Speech acts trouble the distinction we like to make between mere words and hard reality. These are words that make reality.
The idea is that gender, too, is made of performed acts, not biological facts. Regardless of your chromosomes and your genitals, your gender expression entails certain practices—a skirt, a bra, a “skrrt,” a “bruh,” a powdered wig, a snatched one. You perform whatever your society has decided are the norms for certain kinds of bodies—for now. Because these norms change from culture to culture, over time, and in relation to other people. (An easy example in the wake of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie: google “When did pink become a girly color?”) We are born with bodies that vary, and some of these physical variations are used to divide us, crudely, into sexes. Gender—what we take those physical differences to mean, to express—is even more variable. It is a social form.
That doesn’t mean it’s decided by divine law or legal fiat or academic guidelines or even the counterculture—there are no bearded people sitting around making the rules. Nor do you get to make up your own rules. There’s no such thing as a private language, no such thing as a gender of one’s own. This is why we insist that other people use our correct pronouns—and why other people don’t always do so. No one gets to dictate what a society’s current gender norms are. But in a free society, you can at least select which ones you wish to perform from the array in circulation—and when and where, too. You have, in short, limited agency. As Butler puts it, gender is “not radical choice and it’s not voluntarism…. Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify.”
How does repeating a gender norm force it to resignify, or to signify anew? Whenever you aim at gender, you miss the mark ever so slightly. This is how imitation yields change. Butler explains that it “is not a simple replication,” “copy,” or “uniform repetition” because “the productions swerve from their original purposes.” This is why, when some TERF screeches, “That man will never be a real woman!” the best response is: “Neither will you.” Being a real man, being a real woman, being really nonbinary—in each case, gender expression is an approximation, an asymptotic curve to a line we continually redraw. In this sense, everyone’s a bit clocky.
What I love about this theory is that it helps us understand other cultural expressions, too, like literary style. We know, for example, that James Joyce wanted to write like Henrik Ibsen. And that Samuel Beckett wanted to write like James Joyce. Ernest Hemingway typed out sentences from hunting magazines. (Here, to imitate a style and to perform masculinity coincide.) In turn, Ralph Ellison typed out sentences from Ernest Hemingway, a practice Ellison likened to musicians playing jazz standards. This isn’t plagiarism. It’s imitatio or pastiche, neither of which is an exact reflection. Rather, this is repetition with a swerve. Just think of how distinct Ellison sounds from Hemingway. Beckett learned the limitations of Joyce’s style precisely through his own (failed) imitations of it—he then swerved in the exact opposite direction.
In recent articles and talks like “Who’s Afraid of Gender?” (set to be published as a book in 2024), Butler seems weary with how “performative” keeps getting used to mean dramatic or phony. A different literary process has emerged as a possible metaphor: “Gender is always in the course of being translated, and is bound up with translation from the start and it is always changed—its usage, its meaning—by virtue of the translation it undergoes.” Butler focuses on the fascinating history of the emergence and translations of the word “gender” as distinct from “sex,” but I find translation itself an intriguing analogy.
What if we imagined sex as a set of obscure bodily marks we translate into gender? The resulting expression would depend not only on what languages we already know, but also on which we choose to translate them into, as well as our respective intuitions about fidelity, beauty, clarity, and so on. And everyone knows that no translation is perfect. This is precisely what made it so useful to Beckett, who stopped mimicking Joyce and started writing in—and translating himself from—his second language, French, because he felt the “need to be ill equipped.”
Style’s imitation games, like gender’s, are beset with mistakes, misfires, slippages. Repeating or translating another style or another language is how you find its rhythm. But it is also—with a twitch or a typo or a fruitful failure—how you find your own. Wherever you find yourself straying or tripping out of the groove? That’s where whatever makes your style yours springs into being. What a lovely thought. We become who we are when we fail to become whomever we were trying to be.
The productions swerve from their original purposes. With this theory of imitative errata in mind, can we still ask if there is such a thing as a female style? I think we can. But if both style and gender are imitation games we play with preexisting forms and norms, rather than sui generis expressions of the soul, then the question changes. It opens. It becomes: What styles are available for a woman to perform and swerve from? Until recently, female writers had more male writing than female writing to imitate. As Woolf noted, the very lack of a robust female tradition, “such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women…. All the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer.”
In her recent book of published lectures, In the Margins, Elena Ferrante echoes this idea:
A woman who wants to write has unavoidably to deal not only with the entire literary patrimony she’s been brought up on and in virtue of which she wants to and can express herself but with the fact that that patrimony is essentially male and by its nature doesn’t provide true female sentences.
She describes the contortions this gave her as a young woman putting pen to paper, as she “tried in every way to imitate” the “voice of men” that came from the pages. She concludes by confessing that she “imagined becoming male yet at the same time remaining female.”
Like “George Eliot,” “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym, a condition haunted by gender ambiguity. The nineteenth-century writer Samuel Butler, who wrote a book arguing that the Odyssey was written by a woman, said, “The first thing that a critic will set himself to do when he considers an anonymous work is to determine the sex of the writer.” Some journalists have gone sniffing around and conjectured that “Elena Ferrante” is the (male) writer Domenico Starnone. When I first heard this, I scoffed. Ferrante paints the lives of women in astonishing detail! Then I caught myself. That’s true of Henry James, too, whom Teddy Roosevelt once mocked for “his delicate, effeminate sensitiveness.”
In a letter praising the latest sensation, Jane Eyre, which had been published as an autobiography “edited by Currer Bell,” William Makepeace Thackeray wrote: “It is a womans [sic] writing, but whose?” How did he know? Others thought the author had to be a man, or like Wollstonecraft, “a woman pretty nearly unsexed”; the book was too forthright, too good to be by a woman. One critic struggled to work out why the Brontës’ novels, all published under the pseudonym Bell, seemed to bear “the marks of more than one mind, and one sex.” He could only conclude they were a husband-and-wife or brother-and-sister pair: “Strange patch-work it must seem to them, this chapter being penned by Mr., and that by Miss or Mrs. Bell; that character or scene being delineated by the husband—that other by the wife!”
It was precisely to avoid condescending speculation like this that Charlotte Brontë and her sisters Emily and Anne had chosen the “ambiguous” pen names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in the first place:
We did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine”—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.
Even after they made the decision to out themselves, Charlotte continued to refer to herself in letters as “Currer” (and “he”) and protested the projection of gender onto her: “I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only.”
Ferrante’s converse notion of “becoming male yet at the same time remaining female” invokes a long tradition of thinking of authors as being both genders. This notion predates the term “gender performativity” by centuries—it is as old as Tiresias, the male-female sage—but it resonates with the idea that gender is mutable, is made. What’s most striking to me is how often the idea is presented as both self-evident and praiseworthy. Woolf, who famously literalized gender transmutability in her novel Orlando, muses on this in A Room of One’s Own:
Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous…. He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind.
Woolf concludes: “It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.” George Sand’s compatriots joked that she didn’t know if she was a man or a woman. Colette, who ghostwrote her husband’s novels, described herself as a “mental hermaphrodite.” Louisa May Alcott once wrote, “I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body.”
Could it be that literary style entails some kind of a relation—a coupling? an interpenetration? an oscillation? a mutually assured destruction? a dialectic?—between what we take to be “manly” and “womanly” at any time? If so, and given a history in which men sometimes pretended to be women but women had mostly men to imitate, we must assume that a large proportion of women’s writing is possessed of this gender-bendy genius. It is a talent mothered by necessity.
I had read several of Eliot’s novels but not Scenes of Clerical Life, which is exactly nobody’s favorite. I decided to see if I could see what Dickens saw in it. Whenever I encountered a comment about gender, I carefully folded the corner of the page. My copy is as dog-eared as a wolf pack. In the first story alone, women have a “sublime capacity of loving” and a “weakness” of being “fond of dress” while men, like “you and I, too, reader,” have a weakness for “small hands and feet, a tall lithe figure, large dark eyes, and dark silken braided hair”; “every man who is not a monster, a mathematician, or a mad philosopher, is the slave of some woman or other” while “a woman always knows where she is utterly powerless, and shuns a cold satirical eye as she would shun a Gorgon.” This was not illuminating.
I tried to attend instead to the inner voice of reading echoing around my skull. Many critics have likened Eliot’s omniscient style to the voice of (a presumably male) God. But D.A. Miller describes it as the “well-remembered voice of that all-knowing, all-understanding, and all-forgiving woman to whom—uniquely—everyone has been accustomed to submit: the mother.” The narrators of the stories in Scenes are tagged as male (one speaks of his coattails), and the stories all revolve around clergymen’s business. Yet the central tragic figure in each is a woman: a neglected mother, a rejected lover, a beaten wife. Scenes take place by the hearth and in the bedroom, but also at the bar and in church. What was so womanly about this?
I learned the answer in an article by the Victorianist Beryl Gray. Nine days after Dickens wrote to Eliot via her publisher, and in response to Blackwood’s rejoinder about the manly passages in the stories, he replied directly, mano a mano, to give his real impressions:
The portions of the narrative to which you refer had not escaped my notice. But their weight is very light in my scale, against all the references to children, and against such marvels of description as Mrs. Barton sitting up in bed to mend the children’s clothes. The selfish young fellow with the heart disease in “Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story” is plainly taken from a woman’s point of view. Indeed, I observe all the women in the book are more alive than the men, and more informed from within. As to Janet, in the last tale, I know nothing in literature done by a man like the frequent references to her grand form and her eyes and her height and so forth: whereas I do know innumerable things of that kind in books of imagination by women. And I have not the faintest doubt that a woman described her being shut out into the street by her husband, and conceived and executed the whole idea of her following of that clergyman. If I be wrong in this, then I protest that a woman’s mind has got into some man’s body by a mistake that ought immediately to be corrected.
“A woman’s point of view.” “Informed from within.” At first glance, this is quite like the reflexive contemporary attitude about gender and style I deplored above. Only a woman’s mind in a woman’s body could speak to a woman’s experiences of childrearing, romantic rejection, marital abuse, and so on. It seems that Dickens assumed Eliot wrote what she knew.
Then again, Dickens’s own novels fit some of these features (references to children, wives mending clothes). So do later novels by Tolstoy (Anna Karenina’s grand form and gray eyes) and by Hardy (women cast from home, taking up with clergymen). This may be why these tells didn’t seem that womanly to me as I read: they were later adopted by men, whose novels I’ve also read. Again we meet the historical contingency of style and gender, another pun latent in “clocky”: time’s mutability.
There’s more reason to question Dickens’s assumptions about Scenes. As Clare Carlisle’s absorbing new biography, The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life,* confirms, at that point in her life, Eliot had not been married or shut out into the street. She had perhaps cast an envious eye over the beauty of a Janet, but she in fact had been the one to break off an early courtship with a restorer of paintings. And she had taken up with George Lewes, whose wife had left him for his best friend but wouldn’t divorce him. Eliot called her relationship with Lewes, which was never legalized, “a sacred bond.” Though she treated his sons as her own, she did not have much hand in raising them and she herself never gave birth. After Lewes died, she finally got officially married, at age sixty-one, to a man twenty years her junior—who, for reasons unknown, leapt from a balcony! On their honeymoon! And survived! There are wondrous tales in Eliot’s “double life.” But she herself never told them.
So, if she wasn’t writing what she knew, what was Eliot re-presenting? With a second glance at the reasoning in Dickens’s letter, certain phrases light up: “marvels of description”; “point of view”; “more alive” characters; scenes “described…conceived and executed”; and, tellingly, “I know nothing in literature done by a man like [it]…whereas I do know innumerable things of that kind in books of imagination by women.” Perhaps what Dickens recognized was Eliot’s debt not to her female experience, but to the Silly Women Novelists she once berated or those she admired, such as Currer Bell and George Sand.
One early critic called Eliot “a peculiar and remarkable writer, whose style showed little or no family resemblances with that of any living author.” A more recent line in Victorian studies is that Eliot engaged in “deliberate mimicry,” “a canny process of revision,” and “subversive imitation” of male writers. This makes me wonder whether Eliot’s style came from imitating both men and women. The scholar Alexis Easely argues that Eliot’s narrative voice in her early fiction, “oscillating between ‘masculine’ and androgynous gendering,” yielded a “gender complexity” that became her “authorial signature.” Perhaps every female style, imitating and synthesizing whatever is considered male and whatever is considered female at any given time, is a kind of clocky, chameleonic chimera. (Alliteration is apparently androgynous.)
Eliot, who published under her male pen name even after public disclosure had made it moot, seemed to sense that to be an author was to be both. Carlisle tells us that “her diary’s odd structure expressed an emerging double life,” the front recounting Marian Evans’s days, the back detailing George Eliot’s work. As a young woman she wrote a letter to a friend with a self-mocking, satirical story about marrying a dry professor type. This old man, she said, had specific tastes in women’s dress:
The Professor prefers as a female garb a man’s coat, thrown over what are justly called petticoats so that the dress of a woman of genius may present a symbolical compromise between the masculine and feminine attire.
Someone else, it turns out, clocked Eliot before her “veil of anonymity” was lifted. Blackwood had also sent Scenes of Clerical Life to Thomas Carlyle. He never replied, but his wife Jane did. “Dear Sir,—I have to thank you for a surprise, a pleasure, and a—consolation (!) all in one book!” she fawned. She wondered
if the person I’m addressing bears any resemblance in external things to the idea I have conceived of him in my mind—a man of middle age, with a wife, from whom he has got those beautiful feminine touches in his book.
Like the critic who reckoned that the Brontë sisters must be a man-and-woman pair, she invented a lovable clergyman and his perceptive wife to make sense of Eliot’s genius. The irony is that Mrs. Carlyle had made scurrilous remarks about Marian Evans, whom she knew only as a dull critic (“Propriety personified! Oh so slow!”) living with a married man. Mrs. Carlyle felt Evans had “mistaken her role—that nature intended her to be the properest of women…her present equivocal position is the most extraordinary blunder and contradiction possible.” Such a woman could not possibly be this charming and brilliant author, could not possibly be responsible for those “beautiful feminine touches” in Scenes of Clerical Life.
When Eliot first read Dickens’s fan letter about her womanly touches, she wrote to Blackwood: “I am so deeply moved by the finely-felt and finely-expressed sympathy of the letter, that the iron mask of my incognito seems quite painful.” The next year, she privately let Dickens know who she was and sent him her new book, Adam Bede. Dickens asked to visit Eliot, saying he wanted to tell her
as a curiosity—my reason for the faith that was in me that you were a woman, and for the absolute and never-doubting confidence with which I have waved all men away from Adam Bede, and nailed my colors to the Mast with “Eve” upon them.
They had dinner, but there’s no record of what was said. Within a year, everyone in London was translating “George Eliot” to “Marian Evans”—except Dickens, who apparently had started calling her “Adam (or Eve) Bede.”