“The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of.”
To avoid the Victorian era’s biases against women writers, Mary Ann Evans (November 22, 1819–December 22, 1880) began writing under the male pseudonym George Eliot, which went on to become one of the most revered names in literary history. Her first big break came at the age of 37, in 1857, when “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” — the first installment in her Scenes of Clerical Life (free download) — was published in Blackwood’s Magazine, then in book form in early 1858. Eliot made sure it got into the hands of all the right people — in the first week of 1858, she mailed copies to some of the era’s most influential luminaries, including Dickens, Thackeray, Faraday, Ruskin, Tennyson, and Carlyle. It was met with overwhelming acclaim — all 1,500 printed copies sold out and early reviewers praised the writer as “strong in his knowledge of the human heart,” which sparked speculation about the author’s identity. Rumors attributed the work to Joseph Liggins, who tried to deny the allegations, in vain, then resigned to accepting the misattributed celebrity.
But the most vibrant testament to Eliot’s talent came in a letter from none other than Charles Dickens himself, which he sent to Eliot’s publisher before her identity was revealed. Though he addressed it “Dear Sir,” Dickens — whom Eliot had met in 1852 and found “disappointing [and with] no benevolence in the face and I think little in the heart” — makes a point of his intuition that the writer, despite popular rumors, was a woman. The letter, found in George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (public library; public domain) — the altogether fascinating 1884 sort-of-biography edited by her husband, John Walter Cross — disarms Eliot’s first impressions of Dickens in the most direct and beautiful of ways. It is a pinnacle of praise, written with equal parts professional admiration, generosity of spirit, and the special kindness Dickens reserved for his kin:
January 18, 1858, London
My Dear Sir
I have been so strongly affected by the two first tales in the book you have had the kindness to send me through Messrs. Blackwood, that I hope you will excuse my writing to you to express my admiration of their extraordinary merit. The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try.
In addressing these few words of thankfulness, to the creator of the sad fortunes of Mr. Amos Barton, and the sad love-story of Mr. Gilfil, I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume. I can suggest no better one; but 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 to be 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.
You will not suppose that I have any vulgar wish to fathom your secret. I mention the point as one of great interest to me — not of mere curiosity. If it should ever suit your convenience and inclination, to shew me the face of the man or woman who has written so charmingly, it will be a very memorable occasion to me. If otherwise, I shall always hold that impalpable personage in loving attachment and respect, and shall yield myself up to all future utterances from the same source, with a perfect confidence in their making me wiser and better.
Your obliged and faithful Servant, and admirer