Mary Anne (alternatively Mary Ann or Marian) Evans, better known by her pen name George Eliot, was an English novelist, journalist and translator, and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She is the author of seven novels, including Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876), most of them set in provincial England and well known for their realism and psychological insight.
She used a male pen name, she said, to ensure her works would be taken seriously. Female authors were published under their own names during Eliot's life, but she wanted to escape the stereotype of women only writing lighthearted romances. An additional factor in her use of a pen name may have been a desire to shield her private life from public scrutiny and to prevent scandals attending her relationship with the married George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived for over 20 years.
Her 1872 work, Middlemarch, has been described as the greatest novel in the English language by Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.
Early Life and Education
Mary Anne Evans was the third child of Robert Evans (1773–1849) and Christiana Evans (née Pearson) (1788–1836), the daughter of a local farmer. Mary Anne's name was sometimes shortened to Marian. Her full siblings were Christiana, known as Chrissey (1814–59), Isaac (1816–1890), and twin brothers who survived a few days in March 1821. She also had a half-brother, Robert (1802–64), and half-sister, Fanny (1805–82), from her father's previous marriage to Harriet Poynton (?1780–1809). Robert Evans, of Welsh ancestry, was the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate for the Newdigate family in Warwickshire, and Mary Anne was born on the estate at South Farm. In early 1820 the family moved to a house named Griff, between Nuneaton and Bedworth.
The young Evans was obviously intelligent and a voracious reader. Because she was not considered physically beautiful, and thus not thought to have much chance of marriage, and because of her intelligence, her father invested in an education not often afforded women. From ages five to nine, she boarded with her sister Chrissey at Miss Latham's school in Attleborough, from ages nine to thirteen at Mrs. Wallington's school in Nuneaton, and from ages thirteen to sixteen at Miss Franklin's school in Coventry. At Mrs. Wallington's school, she was taught by the evangelical Maria Lewis—to whom her earliest surviving letters are addressed. In the religious atmosphere of the Miss Franklin's school, Evans was exposed to a quiet, disciplined belief opposed to evangelicalism.
After age sixteen, Eliot had little formal education. Thanks to her father's important role on the estate, she was allowed access to the library of Arbury Hall, which greatly aided her self-education and breadth of learning. Her classical education left its mark; Christopher Stray has observed that "George Eliot's novels draw heavily on Greek literature (only one of her books can be printed correctly without the use of a Greek typeface), and her themes are often influenced by Greek tragedy". Her frequent visits to the estate also allowed her to contrast the wealth in which the local landowner lived with the lives of the often much poorer people on the estate, and different lives lived in parallel would reappear in many of her works. The other important early influence in her life was religion. She was brought up within a narrow low church Anglican family, but at that time the Midlands was an area with a growing number of religious dissenters.
Move to Coventry
In 1836 her mother died and Evans (then 16) returned home to act as housekeeper, but she continued correspondence with her tutor Maria Lewis. When she was 21, her brother Isaac married and took over the family home, so Evans and her father moved to Foleshill near Coventry. The closeness to Coventry society brought new influences, most notably those of Charles and Cara Bray. Charles Bray had become rich as a ribbon manufacturer and had used his wealth in building schools and other philanthropic causes. Evans, who had been struggling with religious doubts for some time, became intimate friends with the progressive, free-thinking Brays, whose home was a haven for people who held and debated radical views. The people whom the young woman met at the Brays' house included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through this society, Evans was introduced to more liberal theologies, and writers such as David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, who cast doubt on the literal veracity of Biblical stories. In fact, her first major literary work was translating into English Strauss' Life of Jesus (1846), which she completed after it had been begun by another member of the Rosehill circle.
When Evans began to question her religious faith, her father threatened to throw her out, although that did not happen. Instead, she respectably attended church for years and continued to keep house for him until his death in 1849, when she was 30. Five days after her father's funeral, she travelled to Switzerland with the Brays. She decided to stay in Geneva alone, living first on the lake at Plongeon (near the present United Nations buildings) and then at the Rue de Chanoines (now the Rue de la Pelisserie) with François and Juliet d’Albert Durade on the second floor ("one feels in a downy nest high up in a good old tree"). Her stay is recorded by a plaque on the building. She read avidly and took long walks amongst a natural environment that inspired her greatly. François painted a portrait of her.
Move to London and editorship of the Westminster Review
On her return to England the following year (1850), she moved to London with the intent of becoming a writer and calling herself Marian Evans. She stayed at the house of John Chapman, the radical publisher whom she had met at Rosehill (near Coventry) and who had printed her translation. Chapman had recently bought the campaigning, left-wing journal The Westminster Review, and Evans became its assistant editor in 1851. Although Chapman was the named editor, it was Evans who did most of the work in running the journal, contributing many essays and reviews, from the January, 1852 number until the dissolution of her arrangement with Chapman in the first half of 1854.
Women writers were not uncommon at the time, but Evans's role at the head of a literary enterprise was. She was considered to have an ill-favoured appearance, and she formed a number of embarrassing, unreciprocated emotional attachments, including that to her employer, the married Chapman, and Herbert Spencer.
Relationship with George Lewes
The philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes met Evans in 1851, and by 1854 they had decided to live together. Lewes was married to Agnes Jervis, but they had agreed to have an open marriage, and in addition to the three children they had together, Agnes had also had four children by Thornton Leigh Hunt. Since Lewes was named on the birth certificates as the father of these children despite knowing this to be false, and was therefore considered complicit in adultery, he was not able to divorce Agnes. In July 1854, Lewes and Evans travelled to Weimar and Berlin together for the purpose of research. Before going to Germany, Evans continued her interest in theological work with a translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, and while abroad she wrote essays and worked on her translation of Baruch Spinoza's Ethics, which she completed in 1856, but which was not published in her life-time.
The trip to Germany also served as a honeymoon as Evans and Lewes now considered themselves married, with Evans calling herself Marian Evans Lewes, and referring to Lewes as her husband. It was not unusual for men and women in Victorian society to have affairs; Charles Bray, John Chapman, Friedrich Engels, and Wilkie Collins all had affairs, though more discreetly than Lewes and Evans. What was scandalous was their open admission of the relationship.
While continuing to contribute pieces to the Westminster Review, Evans had resolved to become a novelist, and she set out a manifesto for herself in one of her last essays for the Review, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"(1856). The essay criticised the trivial and ridiculous plots of contemporary fiction by women. In other essays she praised the realism of novels written in Europe at the time, and an emphasis placed on realistic storytelling would become clear throughout her subsequent fiction. She also adopted a new nom-de-plume, the one for which she would become best known: George Eliot.
In 1858 (when she was 39) Amos Barton, the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, was published in Blackwood's Magazine and, along with the other Scenes, was well received. Her first complete novel, published in 1859, was Adam Bede and was an instant success, but it prompted an intense interest in who this new author might be. Scenes of Clerical Life was widely believed to have been written by a country parson or perhaps the wife of a parson. With the release of the incredibly popular Adam Bede, speculation increased markedly, and there was even a pretender to the authorship, one Joseph Liggins. In the end, the real George Eliot stepped forward: Marian Evans Lewes admitted she was the author. The revelations about Eliot's private life surprised and shocked many of her admiring readers, but this apparently did not affect her popularity as a novelist. Eliot's relationship with Lewes afforded her the encouragement and stability she so badly needed to write fiction, and to ease her self-doubt, but it would be some time before they were accepted into polite society. Acceptance was finally confirmed in 1877, when they were introduced to Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria. The queen herself was an avid reader of all of George Eliot's novels, being so impressed with Adam Bede that she commissioned the artist Edward Henry Corbould to paint scenes from the book.
After the popularity of Adam Bede, she continued to write popular novels for the next fifteen years. Within a year of completing Adam Bede, she finished The Mill on the Floss, inscribing the manuscript: "To my beloved husband, George Henry Lewes, I give this MS. of my third book, written in the sixth year of our life together, at Holly Lodge, South Field, Wandsworth, and finished 21 March 1860."
Her last novel was Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, whereafter she and Lewes moved to Witley, Surrey; but by this time Lewes's health was failing and he died two years later on 30 November 1878. Eliot spent the next two years editing Lewes's final work Life and Mind for publication, and she found solace with John Walter Cross, a Scottish commission agent whose mother had recently died.
Marriage to John Cross and Death
On 16 May 1880 Eliot courted controversy once more by marrying a man twenty years younger than herself, and again changing her name, this time to Mary Anne Cross. The legal marriage at least pleased her brother Isaac, who had broken off relations with his sister when she had begun to live with Lewes, but now sent congratulations. John Cross inexplicably jumped or fell from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy during their honeymoon. Cross survived and they returned to England. The couple moved to a new house in Chelsea but Eliot fell ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease she had been afflicted with for the previous few years, led to her death on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61.
Eliot was not buried in Westminster Abbey because of her denial of the Christian faith and her "irregular" though monogamous life with Lewes. She was interred in Highgate Cemetery (East), Highgate, London in the area reserved for religious dissenters or agnostics, next to George Henry Lewes; Karl Marx's memorial is nearby. In 1980, on the centenary of her death, a memorial stone was established for her in the Poets’ Corner.
Several key buildings in her birthplace of Nuneaton are named after her or titles of her novels. For example The George Eliot School (Previously George Eliot Community School) and Middlemarch Junior School. In 1948, Nuneaton Emergency Hospital was named George Eliot Hospital in Eliot's honour. George Eliot Road, in Foleshill, Coventry was named in her honour. Nuneaton motor cycle manufacturer John Birch named his motor cycles after her.
A statue of Eliot is in Newdegate Street, Nuneaton, and Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery has a display of material related to her.
Throughout her career, Eliot wrote with a politically astute pen. From Adam Bede to The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, Eliot presented the cases of social outsiders and small-town persecution. Felix Holt, the Radical and The Legend of Jubal were overtly political, and political crisis is at the heart of Middlemarch, in which she presents the stories of a number of denizens of a small English town on the eve of the Reform Bill of 1832; the novel is notable for its deep psychological insight and sophisticated character portraits. The roots of her realist philosophy can be found in her review of John Ruskin's Modern Painters in Westminster Review in 1856.
Readers in the Victorian era particularly praised her books for their depictions of rural society, for which she drew on her own early experiences, and she shared with Wordsworth the belief that there was much interest and importance in the mundane details of ordinary country lives. Eliot did not, however, confine herself to her bucolic roots. Romola, an historical novel set in late 15th century Florence and touching on the lives of several real persons such as the priest Girolamo Savonarola, displays her wider reading and interests. In The Spanish Gypsy, Eliot made a foray into verse, creating a work whose initial popularity has not endured.
The religious elements in her fiction also owe much to her upbringing, with the experiences of Maggie Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss sharing many similarities with the young Mary Anne Evans's own development. When Silas Marner is persuaded that his alienation from the church means also his alienation from society, the author's life is again mirrored with her refusal to attend church. She was at her most autobiographical in Looking Backwards, part of her final printed work Impressions of Theophrastus Such. By the time of Daniel Deronda, Eliot's sales were falling off, and she faded from public view to some degree. This was not helped by the biography written by her husband after her death, which portrayed a wonderful, almost saintly, woman totally at odds with the scandalous life people knew she had led. In the 20th century she was championed by a new breed of critics, most notably by Virginia Woolf, who called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". The various film and television adaptations of Eliot's books have re-introduced her to the wider reading public.
If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
The sky is cloudy, yellowed by the smoke.
For view there are the houses opposite
Cutting the sky with one long line of wall
Like solid fog: far as the eye can stretch
You love the roses - so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
Oh, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,