With its main character Dorothea being an intelligent and idealistic woman stifled by a patriarchal society, the fact that Middlemarch was published under a male pen name adds an intriguing twist.
But now George Eliot’s masterpiece will bear the name of its author Mary Ann Evans for the first time since it was released in 1871.
Miss Evans’ complex work about provincial life – described by Virginia Woolf as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’ – will be re-released along with 24 female authors who had to use men’s names to sell their books.
The Reclaim Her Name campaign, launched by the Women’s Prize for Fiction and sponsor Baileys to mark its 25th anniversary, will see the ebooks available for free download.
Physical copies, which will feature new female-designed cover art, will be donated to selected libraries.
Other authors published under their own names for the first time will include Violet Paget – who wrote gothic novel A Phantom Lover as Vernon Lee – and Amantine Aurore Dupin, who used the name George Sand for Indiana.
Author Kate Mosse said it was about ’empowering women, igniting conversations and ensuring they get the recognition they deserve’.
Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, Miss Evans’ book focuses on Dorothea’s loveless marriage to the pompous, middle-aged Reverend Casaubon and her later relationship with his headstrong young cousin Will Ladislaw.
Numerous plot strands spread across eight volumes – including the start of the railways, the 1832 Reform Act reshaping parliament, and the accession of King William IV.
As George Eliot, Miss Evans also wrote Adam Bede (1859), The Mill On The Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861).
She insisted on her pen name, saying that she was ‘resolute in preserving my incognito, having observed that a nom de plume secures all the advantages without the disagreeables of reputation’.
Miss Evans is believed to have been anxious to avoid public scrutiny due to her relationship with a married man, the philosopher George Henry Lewes, which would have scandalised Victorian society.
She was not the only great 19th century author to write under a man’s name. Charlotte Bronte originally published Jane Eyre as Currer Bell. Suspicion grew that the author was a woman until Bronte’s identity was eventually revealed. Her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights went under the name Ellis Bell.
Miss Mosse, who launched the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1996 as an antidote to the then male-dominated Booker Prize, said: ‘Women felt they had to be invisible as a woman to be taken seriously as a writer, and I’m afraid to say that hasn’t entirely gone away.’