George Eliot was never elected a Fellow of the RSL.

When I first became aware of this, I couldn’t quite believe it. Silly men, I thought. They weren’t able to read past their beards or past the scandal of her transgressive living arrangements with the married writer-philosopher George Henry Lewes.

Yet how could they have shunned the miraculous Marian? She had, in all but name, edited the prestigious and progressive Westminster Review in the first half of the 1850s. Her sparkling essays and reviews for it bristle with erudition. She translated Spinoza’s Ethics and the biblical sceptic David Strauss’s bestselling Life of Jesus. All this, before embarking on her poetry and novel-writing life on the cusp of her fortieth birthday. Under her new pen name, George Eliot, she proceeded to give the world the best fiction in English: novels that plumbed the recesses of character as well as the individual’s relationship with society.

Eliot is above all the novelist who illuminates the complexities of the individual mind, the seemingly free choices that fail to fulfil hopes and desires. She traces the play of ideas as well as the play of love. She is a novelist who reveals the shaping hand of society – and therefore, of course, of gender – on individual conflicts and conformities. Not for nothing did Virginia Woolf say of Middlemarch that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

Henry James, who met Eliot in 1869 when he was 26 and she 50, may have commented in a letter to his father that she was “magnificently ugly,” “deliciously hideous”, yet he found himself “literally in love” with her and went on to review most of her novels. He also knew that Dorothea Brooke posed a challenge in rendering “the expression of a soul” that he would somehow have to meet if he was to become the great writer he dreamed of being.

Henry James was elected a Fellow of the RSL in 1907. George Eliot never was, despite her achievement and her fame. Even the fact that Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, an admirer of Eliot’s writing, conferred “respectability” on the adulterous couple by meeting them in 1877, did not result in an RSL Fellowship.

I was long convinced it had to be Marian’s gender that had kept her locked out of the Society. Then I did a little research.

‘Learned societies,’ the kind of body the RSL constituted at its inception by Royal Charter in 1820, grew up in the 18th century and then proliferated through the second part of the 19th. The first, however, The Royal Society – for natural philosophers and physicians, those who wanted to ground words and ideas in facts, hence scientists in today’s parlance – dates from 1660. In France, the Académie Française, which oversees the French language and hence literature, was founded in 1635. In learned societies the like-minded congregated to advance knowledge, to listen to lectures, to discuss and vet, and importantly to mingle with colleagues. As the historian William C. Lubenow argues, knowledge springs not only out of mental but also personal associations. It has a repertoire of social dynamics. Meanwhile, the accolade of a royal imprimatur confers recognition and importance on a particular pursuit.

The men (and they were men) who founded the RSL largely understood literature to be “book-learning”, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word’s first usage in the early 16th century. Only in 1779, did Samuel Johnson extend literature’s meaning to include “the activity of a writer, the profession of a literary writer”. More conservative than their patron George IV, certainly during his regency, the founders of the RSL were men of the cloth, philologists, antiquarians, and yes, moralisers. Like many in the neoclassical 18th and early 19th centuries, they valued antiquity above all, whether in shards or science, architecture or literature. They gathered to hear lectures on Euclid and obelisks. When Coleridge, the only early associate whose name I recognise, lectured in 1825, it was in Latin on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. He was a Cambridge man, after all, as so many of the early Fellows were.

Charles Dickens was never elected to the RSL. In fact, not until 1894, the fin de siècle, 14 years after George Eliot’s death did the first novelist make his way into the Fellowship. He was a George, too – George Meredith. The novel as a form was not what the earliest Fellows of the RSL admired.

Eliot herself was hardly unaware of the contemporary novel’s low status. Her 1856 essay, ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, shows her setting out to distinguish herself, well before her first novel Adam Bede is published in 1859, from the ladies in her title. She is at her wittiest, her excoriating best, here, as she skewers a whole range of popular writing from the novels of ‘mind and millinery’ and its sub-category, ‘rank and beauty’, to the ‘oracular’ novels, whether of high or low church where romance lies in the ‘white neck cloth’. All this women’s fiction is addled by silliness, she argues, shallow in its effusion of bad education, its lamentable writing, “drivelling” dialogue, and “equally drivelling narrative”. It’s easy to imagine that the variety Eliot names the ‘modern-antique’, might have been particularly galling to the early RSL Fellows, if they ever stooped to reading novels. The beautiful Gwendolen Harleth, in Eliot’s final novel Daniel Deronda, is perhaps her own answer to the “silly novels”.

Ever alert to continental ideas and developments, Eliot wrote warmly about the French salon women in whose gatherings new art and science were discussed, new movements shaped. Like Flaubert – whose Sentimental Education she read aloud to George Lewes – she wanted to give the novel a new artistry, a higher seriousness. We don’t know if she ever read Madame Bovary, but it is more than likely that she read the review of it in the Westminster Review just after she left: it was written by none other than George Meredith.

Tastes and values shift through time, of course. It may well be that our own relative slowness in considering various genres – thrillers, graphic novels or even emoji fiction and spoken poetry – may be read by future Fellows as part of the ever-ongoing argument between tradition and innovation. But at least they will see that finally in its bicentenary year, the RSL has honoured the great George Eliot and new Fellows are proud to sign the Roll Book with her pen.

Lisa Appignanesi

Lisa Appignanesi is a prize-winning writer, novelist and cultural commentator. She has served as Chair of the Freud Museum London, President of English PEN and Chair of the RSL, of which she is now a Vice-President. An Honorary Fellow of St Benet’s Hall Oxford and visiting professor at King’s College London, she was awarded the OBE for services to literature in 2013.

George Eliot

George Eliot (1819-1880) was the pen name of Victorian novelist and journalist, Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans. Evans wrote under a male pseudonym to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels. Her novels, primarily set in the Warwickshire of her youth, were influenced by an interest in the lives of ordinary people.

Further reading

Adam Bede (1859)
The Mill on the Floss (1860)
Middlemarch (1871-72)