Article abstract: Because of her philosophical profundity and her mastery of fictional technique, Eliot won a reputation as one of the world’s great novelists and helped establish the novel as an appropriate vehicle for the serious exploration of ideas.
The woman who wrote her novels under the pseudonym George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans on November 22, 1819, on Arbury Farm, near Coventry in the rich farming district of central England. Her father, a man with an almost legendary reputation for integrity and competence, worked as an estate agent, or general overseer, on the extensive lands of the aristocratic Newdigate family. Her upbringing in the evangelical traditions of the Church of England gave her strong moral convictions that remained with her all of her life and formed the basic moral imperatives of her fiction.
When Evans was twenty-two, she and her father, who had retired from active work, moved to a house just outside Coventry. Evans’ closest friends in Coventry were Charles and Cara Bray and Cara’s sister Sara Hennell. Like many others who took part in the intellectual and religious ferment of early Victorian England, the Brays questioned the validity of Christian theology, although they had no serious reservations about the value of Christian moral teachings. Contact with them reinforced the doubts about her evangelical religion which Evans had already begun to entertain. In 1844, she began translating Das Leben Jesu by the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss, which she published two years later under the title The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. Her work on Strauss further undermined her Christian orthodoxy.
Shortly after her father’s death in 1849, Mary Ann Evans, who was now spelling her name Marian, became associated with John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review, a prestigious intellectual quarterly whose first editor had been John Stuart Mill. Although the social customs of Victorian England made it impossible for a woman to bear the title of editor of an important journal of opinion addressed largely to a male audience, Evans exercised primary editorial responsibility for the Westminster Review. She not only solicited and selected articles and planned the content of the issues, but she wrote many reviews. (“Reviews” in Victorian intellectual journals were really independent essays that might run to fifteen or twenty pages in length.) Although shy and retiring by nature (her shyness may have been reinforced by her lack of physical beauty—she had a prominent nose and rather heavy features), Evans was at the center of intellectual life in Victorian England.
Among the many people with whom Evans became acquainted at this time was George Henry Lewes. One of the most versatile of the Victorian intellectuals, Lewes was a biologist, novelist, drama critic, biographer of Goethe, and author of a history of philosophy. Lewes’s wife, Agnes, was openly adulterous, but Lewes had accepted her extramarital affairs and registered her illegitimate children as his own. When Lewes and Evans fell in love, there seemed to be no way that Lewes could divorce Agnes. Not only was divorce in Victorian England expensive and legally complex, but the usual grounds of divorce, adultery, had been eliminated by Lewes’s generous acceptance of Agnes’ illegitimate children. After deciding that they could hurt only themselves by a common-law marriage, Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes agreed to live together as husband and wife. In July, 1854, they began a honeymoon trip to Germany; Marian wrote to tell her friends of this relationship and to ask that they henceforth address her as Marian Lewes.
Her common-law marriage with Lewes initiated the most productive period in Evans’ life. Lewes provided her with the emotional support she needed and encouraged her when she decided to try her hand at writing fiction. Because of the scandal which was associated with her relationship with Lewes and because she did not want to compromise her reputation as a translator and a reviewer, Evans wrote under a pen name; she selected “George Eliot.” Lewes protected her anonymity and carried on all negotiations with publishers.
George Eliot’s first published fiction was “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” which appeared in the issue of Blackwood’s Magazine that came out on New Year’s Day, 1857. With two other short works of fiction which also appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine—“Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story” and “Janet’s Repentance”—it was reprinted in book form in Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858. Her first major work of fiction was Adam Bede, published by Blackwood’s in 1859. Adam Bede was a popular and critical success, and “George Eliot” was hailed as an important new talent. Among the principal writers of the time, Charles Dickens was one of the few who suspected that Adam Bede had been written by a woman.
In chapter 17 of Adam Bede, Eliot makes one of the most important statements of the creed of the realistic novelist. Art, she says, should always remind us of the world’s “common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness”; the artist should be “ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things.” Moreover, the novelist’s purpose is not only to achieve the kind of accuracy of representation one finds in Dutch painting but...
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