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  • Chrissy Hamlin

George Eliot, Daphne Du Maurier & Mary Wesley: Nikki Vallance's Inspiring Women

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

Our special guest on the Hidden Herstory podcast this week was author & writing coach, Nikki Vallance, who chose three really great female writers to talk about who have inspired her - George Eliot, Daphne Du Maurier and Mary Wesley.

The general theme of the podcast episode was "It's never too late to be who you might have been", a quote that has often been attributed to George Eliot, but which also applies to Mary Wesley, who only began writing novels when she was in her 70's. This quote is also the main ethos behind much of the coaching work that Nikki does with aspiring and established authors.

Nikki's debut novel "Pivotal" was published in 2019 by Hashtag Press and is available via her website

Below we have added some biographical details and suggestions for further reading for each of Nikki's three inspirational literary women.

You can listen to the podcast episode HERE or watch the video interview HERE

George Eliot

Born on 22 November 1819 in Warwickshire, Mary Ann Evans grew up to be a voracious reader and a highly intelligent young woman - but also one who was not deemed "a classic Victorian beauty" or to be be "marriageable material" because of her appearance.

Mary Ann was educated in boarding schools up to the age of 16, but after her mother died, she returned home to become her father's housekeeper and eventually she and her father, moved to Coventry. It was here that Mary Ann became good friends with Charles and Cara Bray - a wealthy philanthropic ribbon manufacturer and his wife. The Bray's home was a place where many radical and liberal free-thinkers of the time would meet, and Mary Ann, who was struggling with her own opinions towards religion at this time, encountered people like Robert Owen, who was a socialist reformer, Herbert Spencer, who was a philanthropical anthropologist who believed in Darwinism, Harriet Martineau, who was one of the first female sociologists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American poet and writer who believed in "Individualism".

Mary Ann began her writing career by translating works of liberal theology from Germany and writing book reviews. Charles Bray published some of her earliest writings, in his newspaper. As she became more of a free thinking radical herself, Mary Ann began to question her own religious faith, and this led to friction with her father, although she still attended Church with him until his death in 1849, when Mary Ann was 30 years old. Five days after her father's funeral, she travelled to Switzerland with the Brays and stayed in Geneva for several months.

On her return to England in1850, she moved to London to become a writer, and began calling herself Marian Evans. She was staying at the house of John Chapman, the radical publisher of "The Westminster Review" which Evans became the Assistant Editor of in 1851.

Marian Evans met writer, George Henry Lewes, in 1951. By 1954 they were living together, despite the fact that Lewes was married. Lewes had three children with his wife Agnes, but Agnes also had three children with her lover, Thornton Leigh Hunt, who was the first editor of the Daily Telegraph. As well as openly living together, Lewes and Marian Evans also travelled abroad together. Their relationship scandalized society and led to them being shunned and ostracized by family and friends.

It was Lewes who encouraged Eliot to write novels. In 1856, she wrote 'Scenes of Clerical Life', which was published in 'Blackwood's Magazine'. Her first full length novel, 'Adam Bede', followed in 1859. She used the penname of "George Eliot" so that her books were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with light hearted, frothy, romance novels.

Eliot's other novels include 'The Mill on the Floss' (1860), 'Silas Marner' (1861), 'Romola' (1863), 'Middlemarch' (1872) and 'Daniel Deronda' (1876). The popularity of Eliot's novels finally brought social acceptance for her unconventional relationship, and Lewes and Eliot's home became a meeting place for many writers and intellectuals. Queen Victoria was also a huge fan of her novels.

After George Lewes died on 30 November 1878, Eliot spent the next two years editing Lewes's final work, Life and Mind, and found love again with John Walter Cross, who was 20 years younger than her. On 16 May 1880, aged 60, Eliot married for the second time and changed her name to Mary Ann Cross.

Whilst the couple were honeymooning in Venice, John Cross, attempted suicide by jumping from the hotel balcony into the Grand Canal - but he survived. When the newlyweds returned to England, they lived in a house in Chelsea, but soon after, Eliot fell ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease with which she had been suffering from for several years, led to her death on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61. George Eliot is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London.

A Gresham College lecture by Professor Rosemary Ashton OBE on George Eliot and Relationships

Further Reading

Daphne Du Maurier

Author and playwright, Daphne Du Maurier was born into a highly creative and artistic family, in 1907 in London and grew up surrounded by the Avant Garde people of her time . Her father was Sir Gerald Du Maurier - a stage actor so famous that he had a brand of Canadian cigarette's named after him - and her mother was the actress Muriel Beaumont. Her sister Angela also became a writer and her sister, Jeanne, became a painter. Daphne's grandfather, George Du Maurier, introduced the word "Svengali" in his novel "Trilby" and was a celebrated cartoonist.

Daphne Du Maurier spent most of her life in Cornwall - a place where most of her novels are set - and due to her highly descriptive & dramatic writing style, many of her books went on to become big Hollywood movie productions - most notably "Rebecca" and "The Birds". As a young person, Daphne du Maurier met many prominent actors & writers. Du Maurier was quoted as saying that Tallulah Bankhead was "the most beautiful creature she had ever seen". She also met J.M. Barrie, author of the children's classic "Peter Pan". Daphne Du Maurier's cousins were the Llewellyn Davies boys and their mother was her aunt, and they served as real-life inspiration for the fictional characters that Barrie created.

Du Maurier's best known novel, "Rebecca", sold over 30 million copies and like many of her works, contained an exciting story full of descriptive gothic menace, along with elements of paranormal mystery and psychological suspense. Du Maurier was a very complex and private person and as her fame from writing increased she became more and more reclusive.

She had grown up as a tomboy and as a young woman, she dressed in men's clothes, cut her hair short and created a male alter ego called Eric Avon. She often fell in unrequited love with women, but she married Tommy Browning, a dashingly handsome establishment figure and military man who later worked for the Royal Family, but who was also a mentally fragile alcoholic. Du Maurier became a wife and mother, but buried deep inside of her there was always the "boy in the box" whom she tried to repress. Her gender and sexuality was fluid, both in her life and within her writing. Many of her narrators are male voices, but some of her female characters are strong women with feminist principles and many were based on people she had known. The theme of intense jealousy in "Rebecca" was said to be triggered by the feelings that Du Maurier had when she discovered some old love letters from her husband's former girlfriend, the society beauty, Jan Ricardo.

Du Maurier had a very complicated love / hate relationship with her father, Gerald, who was regarded as a vicious homophobe who despised gay people. However Daphne always believed there were 'deep ambiguities' in her father's sexuality and that his attitude towards her was strangely homoerotic and bordering on incestuous. 'If only she'd been born a boy,' he once lamented in a poem addressed to her. 'My very slender one, so feminine and fair, so fresh and sweet, so full of fun and womanly deceit.'

In her teenage years, Daphne's attitude to her father underwent a sharp change when she became aware of his numerous affairs with young actresses. Her reaction was a mixture of jealousy and deep resentment at the humiliation these liaisons caused her mother. She despised her father's mistress Gertrude Lawrence, then went on in later years to have a very close friendship with her.

Daphne Du Maurier died in her bed aged 81.

To find out more about Daphne Du Maurier and her books, check out the links below and watch the documentary video.

Further Reading

Daphne Du Maurier: In Rebecca's Footsteps - A Documentary Film

Mary Wesley

Mary Wesley was one of Britain's most successful 20th Century novelists. She sold over 3 million books and 10 of them were of best sellers - but she only began writing when she was in her Seventies!

Mary Aline Mynors Farmer was born in Surrey, in 1912, and grew up in a dysfunctional and eccentric family. She had a complicated relationship with her mother, her brother branded her books "filth" and her sister refused to speak to her.

Many of Mary's book can be viewed as autobiographical or feature characters drawn from people she knew and experiences she had in her life. She was educated by a series of Governesses in childhood, and went to finishing school, but in the 1930's she attended classes at The London School of Economics.

She was presented at Court as a debutante, but then went off and spent the night in a hotel in Wales with a young Catholic man, swimming naked and declaring undying love. Her mother was shocked and appalled when she discovered this, and sent Mary away to India to live with her Aunt Susan who was married to a Colonel. Mary was soon sent home in disgrace for fraternizing far too closely with all the soldiers in the regiment.

To placate her mother and be seen to be adhering to correct social convention, Mary married Baron Charles "Carol" Eady, 2nd Baron Swinfen, and despite the fact that there was very little chemistry on the marriage or sex in the bedroom, they managed, during one drunken evening together, to conceive the obligatory son and heir, whom they called Roger.

Mary had been involved in code breaking during WW2 and the war literally changed everything for her. It gave many sexually and socially repressed women like Mary, the freedom not only to work in intelligence roles previously taken on by men - but to pursue uninhibited love affairs and hedonistic sexual adventures, despite the constant fear of death, and Mary later wrote about this kind of lifestyle in many of her books. Her second son Toby was the product of a doomed love affair she had with a Heinz Zeigler, a dashing R.A.F pilot who was shot down and killed - but the truth about Toby's parentage did not come out until many years later. Preferring to go to parties at the Ritz with her friends, than be stuck at home with her inattentive husband, Mary eventually left Carol Swinfen, and divorced him in 1945, her behavior having caused quite a scandal in polite society.

During the war Mary had met and fallen in love with a Royal Marine called Eric Siepmann. He was a novelist, journalist, and handsome man-about-town, who would eventually become her second husband and the father of her third son, Bill. Eric's first wife refused to give him a divorce, so he and Mary did not marry until 1952. Their relationship during the War was passionate and unbridled, but in later years Eric was a heavy drinker, and was sometimes violent abusive towards Mary. He then became ill with Parkinson's Disease after a car crash and took his own life in 1969.

Mary was wracked with grief after Eric's death. She finally confessed to her son Roger that his brother Toby's father was Hans Zeigler, and not Carol Swinfen, and this caused major rifts between Mary and her eldest son, resulting in inheritance issues and legal wrangles that lasted for over 5 years. Mary's mother Violet, then died in the 1970's, followed closely by Carol Swinfen. Mary's health deteriorated, she had very little money and she had to find some way of supporting herself financially.

She had always written for her own pleasure, but she had not felt confident enough to try and get anything published in the past. Now in her 70's she constantly persevered, and wrote books that got turned down many times, until one day, one was accepted. It didn't get that many good reviews - but her next book did, and then she wrote almost prolifically and became a best selling novelist, writing many explicit sex scenes in her novels, which were based on her own war time memories, and the love letters she and Eric sent one another, when most women her age were happily settling into a life of quiet, respectable retirement.

Still unconventional in her 80's, Mary had an affair with Robert Bolt, screenwriter of Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence Of Arabia who was twelve years her junior. He was keen to marry her but she refused, explaining that: ‘There are men you want in your bed but you don’t want in your head.’

Mary Wesley died of cancer in December 2002 at the age of 90.

Further Reading

WILD MARY by Patrick Marnham - Biography of Mary Wesley


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