|young George Eliot|
by George Eliot
Adam Bede was George Eliot's first published novel. George Eliot was actually Mary Ann Evans. Adam Bede was published under a pen name even thought Mary Ann Evans was married to a leading literary critic and was well known for her own critical writing when Adam Bede was published.
If you compare the relative popularity of four leading female Novelists: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot in a Ngram- George Eliot is the number one author over Jane Austen until the mid 1990s, with Eliot being particularly dominant between the mid 1860s and the 1930s, when the second Jane Austen revival brought her within striking distance of George Eliot in terms of popularity.
On the Ngram, you can actually see Eliot eclipsing Charlotte Bronte and sky-rocketing past her, while Bronte and Austen jostle for second place until 1940, when Jane Austen leave Bronte in the dust.
Eliot has been recognized as the first "Modern" Novelist for close to a century. (1)
This recognition places her in a more important category then title that are labeled "Early Victorian Novels" or "18th Century Literature." The modern novel is of more interest to today's Audience, because it is what they call in the pr business, "relate-able."
I would argue that George Eliot had four 'hits,' all of which appear on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die (2006 ed.) list: Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss(1860), Silas Mariner (1863) & Middlemarch(1871). Today, Middlemarch is the most popular of the four. Silas Mariner is arguably the title to be dropped from the 1001 Books Before You Die update, if you look at it in terms of popularity. Middlemarch's status as the most popular is undoubtedly due to the popularity of Middlemarch as a proto-Modernist text from the mid-late 19th century. Middlemarch has been in vogue since the late 1950s and early 1960s, which is a key sign that popularity of a specific text relates to its appreciation among the academic market.
If you super impose the relative popularity of George Eliot herself to the specific titles she wrote, you see that the Author dwarfs the Works.
Looking at the Author including Ngram, it is easy to see that she reached a peak of popularity in the 1880s, but suffered a noticeable drop in popularity in the mid 1930s. I almost want to observe that it was caused by the Great Depression and a relative lack of interest about Literature during that time period. George Eliot reached her peak in popularity at the same time as Jane Austen finally reached her top level of popularity: the mid 1960s.
The people who were 'in school' back then are now decision makers at the major outposts of the cultural industrial complex, as well bearing the fruit of successive generations that have been taught by people who were 'in school' when Jane Austen and George Eliot reached a peak Popularity.
The publication of Adam Bede must have been an exciting, well received event, judging from the way Eliot's popularity sky rocketed after it was published. The critical perspective that, "George Eliot is an innovator, not only because her approach to her subject is intellectual, but also because her intellect took in a great deal of new territory." The fact that this approach was so popular with the Audience for Novels till the present day suggests- for the first time in the history of the Novel as a distinct Art Form, suggests that an Audience for "serious" Art was well developed in 1859 as it was in 1934, and as well as it continues to exist today.
(1) "It is one of her principal claims to fame that she is the first modern novelist. That first period of the English novel that begins with Henry Fielding ends with Anthony Trollope; the second: the period of Henry James...begins with George Eliot." Early Victorian Novelists by David Cecil, pg. 213 (1934).