About A Most Dangerous Woman
I read my first George Eliot novel years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The more I learned about the writer, the more fascinated I became by the paradoxes of her extraordinary world.
Critics of the 19th century placed George Eliot on a level with Shakespeare. And because she led the life every liberated woman dreams of, I thought, “Now here is a woman feminists must adore!”
Alas, I was wrong.
In the 20th century, feminist critics found fault, bordering on betrayal. In their eyes, Eliot lived one life—and wrote another. In her biography, Kathryn Hughes describes “the puzzle about Eliot” that bothered these critics: “While in her most intimate and habitual life she flouted orthodox social roles, her politics and her novels dealt with the status quo, with life as it is rather than how it might be.”
But in fact, Eliot (née Mary Anne Evans) never forgot that her own extraordinary life was the exception. And, much to her credit, she continued to write about ordinary women and their limited lives. Eliot, who was notoriously unattractive, saw beneath the veneer of Victorian society and the face people present to the world. Her novels cleverly expose how gender expectations stifle the development, and the promise, of men and women alike. And if that isn’t feminist, I don’t know what is.
In the play, I explore the unusual circumstances of Evans’ life and the brave, difficult choices she made—not least of these her decision to reveal herself as the real George Eliot. But I also hope to shed light on her work. Her novels often strike a modern reader as nostalgic and conservative. However, there is a subversive streak in all of them. Many of Eliot’s characters are spiritually severed from the society she renders so realistically. And, like their creator, they find true affinities—true happiness—outside the hearth and home they’re born into.
A century and a half later, we continue to wrestle with many of the same issues: the importance of female beauty, the definition of marriage, the consequences of revealing to our own families who we really are.
Did Eliot hide behind her pseudonym and George Henry Lewes’s protectiveness? Or did she wisely conceal her identity from a critical and unforgiving society? A Most Dangerous Woman is about a figure misunderstood both then and now—a woman with a lifelong desire for legitimacy, determined to fulfill that need on her own terms.