Violetha Bennett always told us grammar schoolers that if we used a new word three times it would become ours. It made logical sense. It would take some cognitive effort to consciously use a specific word in context three times, three ways. And it’s easier for your brain to snag a new word as it goes out your mouth rather than come in through your eyes or ears. But I’ve just discovered a word that although at once familiar presents a brand new meaning and challenges the use-it-three-times rule: agency.
The first thing that comes to mind is a storefront insurance or real estate office. The term also has a long relationship with the law, and in the old days, law students took a course entitled Agency. It later became contracts. Nowhere along the way between then and now did I happen across the usage of the word “agency” that New York Times columnist David Brooks has offered. He used the term “agency moment” in a recent column to describe how George Eliot reached an epiphanic moment in her life and when, according to Mr. Brooks, “she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.”
First things first, however. George Elliot was the pen name of English novelist Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), and her bibliography includes The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch. According to Mr. Brooks, she expressed her “agency moment” in an 1852 letter she wrote to Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and liberal political theorist of the Victorian era. Eliot was in love with Mr. Spencer and at age 32 wrote to ask for his commitment to her. “If you become attached to someone else,” she wrote, “then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything—I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”
She apparently realized such actions reflected a forwardness quite out of character for the Victorian era, but tossed aside any concerns. “I suppose,” she penned, “no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this—but I am not ashamed of it, for I am conscious in the light of reason and true refinement I am worthy of your respect and tenderness, whatever gross men and vulgar-minded women might think of me.”
Her effort failed. The narcissistic Mr. Spencer rejected her offer in part because of Ms. Eliot’s lack of good looks. Ms. Eliot did not die as the result of the rejection and went on to publish her first complete novel, Adam Bede, in 1858. The book was an instant hit and generated much inquiry into the identity of this hot new literary talent. Ms. Eliot stepped forward and out came details of her private life, including the fact that she had by then taken up with philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes. They started to cohabitate back in 1854—apparently she got over Mr. Spencer’s rejection—and they pretended to be married. They had little choice but to pretend since Mr. Lewes was married to another woman, who herself had children by another man. They had an “open marriage” in the broadest definition of the term. Oh the chatter amongst all those Victorians ladies this must have generated!
I’m not convinced that Mr. Spencer provided Ms. Eliot her “agency moment” as much as her experience with him served as a catalyst to her obviously and already existent independent thinking and motivated her to find the confidence to seek her own fame. She took a rather confident position in her offer to Mr. Spencer, but maybe that is what an “agency moment” means—when something happens in one’s life that causes the person to put or see things in proper order and perspective and have the insight and courage necessary to take the next step toward maturity—confidence. Too often, maturity is thought to be chronologically driven. Likely it’s event driven. And more likely, it requires that the events that stir intellectual growth be sufficiently substantive to awaken one’s subconscious and skills of introspection.
This is important for the writer to consider and understand. So often writers try to emulate others when it would be more fruitful to spend the time discovering themselves. Maybe Ms. Eliot’s Spencer letter was in reality a letter to herself, and in finding the courage to write it to him, she discovered her own potential independence. Or it might just as easily have been an errant, ill-conceived emotional act of love that she might later have slapped herself on the forehead in regret when the topic came up. History certainly indicates she didn’t pine away after Mr. Spencer’s rejection but instead thrived. Based on the subsequent chronology of her life, she got along rather well, found her focus, persevered in her passion and achieved great success. So why does Mr. Brooks seem compelled to give the credit to Mr. Spencer? Perhaps to provide the basis for his position about modern young people of a certain station in life.
Opines Mr. Brooks: “Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy, and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria, and definitions of success that don’t fit them. / So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction.”
Seems to me that Ms. Eliot did—and still does—just that. She learned and moved on. What she learned, however, more likely arose from her experience with Mr. Spencer, not from Mr. Spencer. It might be more accurate to associate Ms. Eliot’s subsequent reactions and intellectual growth with Nietzsche’s essay “On Self-Overcoming” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. She found her own way.
Giving credit to a male for a female’s intellectual success seems misplaced. It’s clear that George Eliot may well have exceeded her former lover’s intellectual capacities, and that she fell victim to the problem traditionally encountered by men—letting her sex drive get ahead of her intellectual wisdom. There is evidence that she succumbed to it on other occasions, but that doesn’t warrant giving credit to the intimate activities she shared with Mr. Spencer as a basis for her literary talents. But prurient interests have always trumped historical accuracy.
Unfortunately, such relationships are less likely to occur today. Modern technology, as much as it is founded on communications theory, has removed much of the level of intimacy reflected in Ms. Eliot’s letter. We are more physically and psychologically distant in the world of email and social networking posts. Ms. Eliot and Mr. Spencer’s relationship ended. Why can’t history leave it there? Ms. Eliot deserves credit for her own literary efforts. Maybe somebody should focus on whether Mr. Spencer had any regrets.
It’s probably a waste of time to try to find your Spencer. In college you’re too young and after graduation too busy. Instead, you need to light your own inner fire, and find the necessary fuel to maintain it within yourself. Mr. Brooks offers no specific guidance in this regard when he writes that agency is not automatic but has to be given birth to. “It’s not just the confidence and drive to act [but having] engraved inner criteria to guide action,” he writes. When I first read that, my immediate response was “what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
But as I think about it, Mr. Brooks is telling us we need to do less careening down our path toward maturity and more planning for it. You don’t have to read far into any biography of George Eliot to learn that she was a disciplined talent. Too many of us end up where we had neither the intention nor the desire to go and along the way sort of missed the turn off to our envisioned bulls’ eye. We give up; fall short; lose motivation; get redirected. What George Eliot represents is staying on target despite external challenges and what might be labeled as character weaknesses, although her libido was probably an asset to her writing. As titillating as Ms. Eliot’s escapades (relationships) are, the evidence indicates they did not get in her way to succeed in her work and receive recognition for it.
She succeeded at a time when most woman did not. Her lesson to writers is to develop and husband your perseverance and to forge ahead despite colliding with the inevitable brick walls life presents you. And who knows but that her experience with Mr. Spencer taught her about the kind of people with whom to associate. After all, her greatest productivity came during her subsequent relationship with George Henry Lewes. In fact, it’s said that she took her nom-de-plume from Lewes. George from his first name and Eliot from her code “L—I owe it” for his last. Where Mr. Spencer was unable to overcome his personal criteria for beauty, Eliot’s suffered no loss to her literary abilities from lack of handsomeness. I’m not so sure that would be as easily achievable today.
Henry James, after meeting Ms. Eliot, wrote to his father: “She had a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth and a chin and jawbone ‘qui n’en finissent pas’ (never-ending).” But, continued James, “. . . in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.”
Now that’s agency! And it speaks reams of Ms. Eliot’s character strengths and literary talents that Mr. Spencer likely had little to do with. But for some reason, virtually every George Eliot biographer invests time in contemplation of her lack of beauty. If you look at pictures of English female novelists, you might rank her at the top of a list from ugly to beautiful. Maybe the fascination with her lack of beauty is derived from her success despite her homeliness, the fact that she flaunted the social norms of the Victorian era, and the fact that Middlemarch is frequently described as the greatest English language novel. Or, as likely, it arises from a jealously of her courageous ability to be her own person at a time when such behavior was unheard of.
At least she proved that misogyny can be trumped by talent and perhaps that is the lesson we should be celebrating, especially in these times where surface beauty seems to trump everything. We need more people with George Eliot’s courage and character and intellect, and perhaps that is the source of any writer’s “agency”—not of the moment but of a lifetime.