George Eliot Biography
George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, may have been called ugly by the author Henry James, but James also admitted that Eliot was so intelligent that he couldn’t help but fall in love with her. That second part is certainly true: readers have been falling in love with Eliot and her work ever since her first story, “Amos Barton,” was published in 1857. She had previously been a journalist and a translator, but once Eliot began to write novels, she turned fiction on its head with richly textured works such as The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. Unlike many writers before her, she was interested not so much in what her characters did but how they thought and felt—an interest that paved the way for modern novels that were more experimental than Eliot’s, but perhaps never quite as beautiful.
Facts and Trivia
- When Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, became a success, several men claimed to have written the book. Eliot was forced to come forward as the rightful author.
- When the reading public discovered that Eliot was a woman, they didn’t know whether to condemn her for being an arrogant woman who thought she could write, or praise her for writing so well.
- For over thirty years, Eliot lived with philosopher George Henry Lewes, although they never married because Lewes was unable to divorce his wife (who had four children with another man, as well as three with Lewes).
- Upon Lewes' death, Eliot married John Cross, a man 20 years younger than her.
- It has been suggested that Herbert Spencer, a famed British philosopher, had an affair with Eliot and then broke up with her. Afterward, he wrote an essay on the repugnancy of ugly women. All of Eliot’s friends knew whom he was writing about.
- British author Virginia Woolf said that Eliot’s Middlemarch was the first novel written for grown-ups.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2288
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 also to ensure that a “fibre of sympathy” ties the author—and, by implication, the reader—to the “vulgar citizen” with whom one is in contact in everyday life so that, as she says, “my heart should swell with loving admiration of some trait of gentle goodness in the faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me.” The aim of the novelist, then, is not only to depict life accurately, but also to enlarge the reader’s human sympathies.
George Eliot’s second novel, The Mill on the Floss (1860), is her most autobiographical work, nostalgically recalling her own childhood with her brother Isaac Evans in her depiction of Maggie and Tom Tulliver. The novel also embodies, in the adult character of Maggie, the moral issues that Eliot was to explore again and again in her fiction: the dangers of self-indulgence and self-deception, often associated with some inappropriate sexual relationship, and the need for self-sacrifice and the renunciation of egotistical desires. The Mill on the Floss was followed in 1861 by Silas Marner, which is perhaps the most familiar of all of her novels. Her shortest major work, it suggests more directly than her other novels the way in which human relationships based on Christian morality provide the support that in previous ages might have been afforded by the institutional church. Romola (1863), a historical novel set in Renaissance Florence, is Eliot’s only novel which does not have an English setting. The historical novel was a genre which enjoyed considerable prestige at the time, and Eliot’s research into the historical background of the novel was both exhaustive and exhausting. Yet the novel, which was published in the Cornhill Magazine, then edited by William Makepeace Thackeray, was not a popular success. In order to compensate Thackeray for the comparative failure of Romola, Eliot gave him, without charge, a short story for publication in the Cornhill Magazine.
In her next fiction, Felix Holt, Radical (1866), Eliot returned to an English setting and to her previous publisher, Blackwood’s. Felix Holt, Radical, perhaps Eliot’s least-read novel, has a plot marred by excessive reliance on obscure coincidences, but also contains some of her most profound psychological analysis. Her next work, The Spanish Gypsy (1868), is a blank verse tragedy, another genre that enjoyed considerable prestige in Victorian England. Eliot’s literary gifts did not, however, include the ability to write good poetry, and The Spanish Gypsy, in spite of some commercial success, must be rated as her least effective major work.
Eliot’s first three novels have a warmth and humor that has charmed her readers. Her works of the mid-1860’s show an advance in psychological complexity and philosophical depth, but often lack the seeming spontaneity of her early novels. All of her talents as a novelist, however, have their greatest expression in her next novel, Middlemarch (1871-1872), which is one of the supreme achievements of English fiction. A novel with dozens of deeply studied characters, Middlemarch examines the limitations and opportunities of life in a provincial English town in the early 1830’s. Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), combines some of her most profound psychological analysis with a plot that anticipates the Zionist movement to establish a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine.
When Daniel Deronda was published, Eliot was widely regarded as the greatest living English novelist. Her literary achievement, the more liberal moral code of the late Victorian period, and the obvious respectability of her life with Lewes had largely dissipated the scandal once associated with their common-law marriage, and she and Lewes were received in the highest literary and social circles. Both, however, were afflicted with ill health, and on November 30, 1878, Lewes died at the age of sixty-one. Devastated by the loss of the man who had given her so much companionship and encouragement for more than twenty years, Eliot turned for support to John Cross, a young man who had been their close friend for several years. On May 6, 1880, she and Cross were married, but their marriage was to be a short one, for on December 22, 1880, Eliot died.
George Eliot was approaching forty when she embarked on the career as a novelist for which she is known today. Her previous work as a translator of theological and philosophical treatises, her experience as the virtual editor of one of the leading intellectual quarterlies of the day, her authorship of many extensive essay reviews, and her friendship with leading Victorian thinkers had given her a depth of knowledge unmatched by any previous novelist. As her standing as an intellectual was widely recognized in her own day, Eliot probably did more than anyone else to change the view that the novel could only be regarded as popular entertainment and to win recognition for this genre as a vehicle for the serious examination of ideas. Like other great novelists, she expanded both the range and the technical resources of the novel. Whereas previous novelists had, in general, emphasized the external events in the lives of their characters, Eliot emphasized their thoughts and feelings. In her novels, her characters’ psychological response to an event is almost always more significant than the event itself. The expansion of the subject matter of fiction often requires new techniques of novel writing; Eliot’s examination of her characters’ mind and emotions is frequently presented through elaborate patterns of imagery which allow her to express the subtleties and complexities of their emotional and ethical dilemmas.
Eliot is not generally considered a feminist, but what she accomplished in her career unquestionably did much to enhance the status of women. Other women—for example, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë—had achieved critical or popular success as novelists, but Eliot’s recognition as the greatest living English novelist was an unprecedented achievement for a woman.
Although Eliot wrote primarily of English subjects, she was highly regarded in the United States as well. Her defense of realism in chapter 17 of Adam Bede was echoed on both sides of the Atlantic, and she was a major influence on some of America’s most important novelists, among them William Dean Howells and Henry James.
Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. A careful and thorough biography by one of the leading Eliot scholars, this book avoids interpreting Eliot’s personality beyond elaborating on a statement by Charles Bray that “she was not fitted to stand alone.” It is the most reliable source for detailed factual information about Eliot.
Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot and John Chapman, with Chapman’s Diaries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1940. A detailed study of Eliot’s work on the Westminster Review and of her personal relationship with John Chapman. Includes transcripts of Chapman’s diaries.
Kitchel, Anna. George Lewes and George Eliot. New York: John Day Co., 1933. A standard work on Lewes as well as a useful study of the most important relationship in Eliot’s life, this biography gives a good picture of Eliot’s emotional and intellectual development.
Laski, Marghanita. George Eliot and Her World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. A richly illustrated short biography. Less sympathetic to Lewes than most biographers, Laski tends to support the conjecture, mentioned in other biographies as well, that Eliot’s marriage to Cross soon after Lewes’s death may have been prompted by her discovery of evidence that her common-law husband had been guilty of infidelity.
Menon, Patricia. Austen, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and the Mentor- lover. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. An examination of how Austen, Eliot, and Brontë handled matters of gender, sexuality, family, behavior, and freedom in their work.
Redinger, Ruby. George Eliot: The Emergent Self. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. An interesting and often persuasive attempt to explore the interplay of events and personality traits that contributed to the development of Eliot as a writer. Redinger emphasizes the psychological damage caused by Eliot’s father’s insistence on evangelical orthodoxy and by her brother’s cruel rejection of her when she associated herself with Lewes.
Sprague, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Biography. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co., 1968. A well-written biography with a considerable appeal for the general reader. It includes critical comments on Eliot’s novels.
Willey, Basil. Nineteenth Century Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. A classic study of the impact of German theology and “higher criticism” on Eliot’s early evangelicalism. Of special interest are the chapters “George Eliot: Hennell, Strauss and Feuerbach” and “George Eliot, Conclusion.”