Friendship of two women spat at

Historical Notes
Click to follow
WHEN MARIAN Evans commenced writing fiction, she was "living in sin", with a married man, and felt sure that her books would not receive a fair hearing from the critics. She was sadly aware that Mary Wollstonecraft's and George Sand's work had been maligned and misrepresented because of the irregularity of their personal lives. Imagine her delight when, in 1859, after the publication of Adam Bede under the pen-name "George Eliot", she received an ecstatic letter from a woman friend who had recognised her friend, simply by reading reviews of the book:

I can't tell you, my dear George Eliot how enchanted I am. Very few things could give me such pleasure. First that a woman should write a wise and humorous book which should take a place by Thackeray. Second that you whom they should spit at should do it!

This letter was from Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, the leader of the Langham Place feminists, named after the address of the feminist journal she had founded. The two women had met in 1850 when Marian had immediately been attracted to Barbara's intelligence and noble looks. She also empathised with Barbara's anomalous social position. She was the adored daughter of a radical MP, but she was illegitimate, the outcome of a liaison between her father and a milliner from Derbyshire. Barbara grew up determined to fight "the unjust laws both of society and country which crush women". In 1854 she published a pamphlet which summarised Laws Concerning Women, explaining that when women married they lost their legal identity - their husbands owned their property, bodies, even children. Barbara followed up on the outcry that followed the publication of her pamphlet with a petition to Parliament. In the space of a few short months she circulated 70 petitions and achieved 26,000 signatures.

Barbara had introduced her friend to the Tales of the Arabian Nights, in particular the story of Perizedeh, who had set out on a quest and succeeded where her brothers had failed. Both Marian and Barbara had overbearing brothers and so took a particular delight in this tale. But more poignantly, the story also dealt with a disgraced mother, who had been accused of producing monsters instead of children. As a punishment the mother had been locked in a wooden shed and the men going to the mosque had been encouraged to spit in her face. Both Barbara and Marian had been on the end of the Victorian version of spitting, one for her illegitimacy, the other for her elopement. Marian in turn had been cut when she "eloped" with George Lewes. Now, however, Marian's books were rehabilitating the reputation of their author.

Marian went on writing books. Barbara continued with her campaigns, including one in 1866, to try to obtain the vote for women. Her last major campaign was the founding of the first university college for women, Girton College, Cambridge. This was a long-drawn-out and dispiriting affair. After one dismal Girton committee meeting Barbara had written to her friend, "I am very grateful to you dear Marian for that book & I know it will help us, in fact when some of our Council were very down I felt partly hopeful because [of] the last few pages of Middlemarch." These words are: "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts: and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

They seem particularly apt for the "first friend" of George Eliot, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, whose name should be honoured by women everywhere, yet, until now, has hardly been recognised.

Pam Hirsch is the author of `Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: feminist, artist and rebel' (Chatto & Windus, pounds 20)