Eliot is a respected novelist of the late nineteenth century, and her work has been praised for its penetrating psychological analysis and profound insight into human character. Generally played against the backdrop of English rural life, Eliot's novels explore moral and philosophical issues with a realistic approach to character and plot development. Middlemarch (1871) is frequently studied by feminist critics for its careful consideration of a woman's place in a male-dominated world, although critics disagree over whether this novel, and Eliot's other works, display proto-feminist ideas or reinforce patriarchal systems.
Eliot was born November 22, 1819 to a strict Methodist family whose views she accepted until her friendship with the skeptical philosophers Charles Bray and Charles Hennell brought her to challenge the rigid religious principles of her upbringing. This questioning of values also inspired her first published work, a translation of Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus; 1846) by the German religious philosopher D. F. Strauss. The incident caused a rift with her father, but Eliot later reconciled with him and lived with him until his death in 1849.
After her father's death, Eliot moved to London and became acquainted with John Chapman, who hired her as an assistant editor on the Westminster Review and introduced her to his literary circle. This group included the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who introduced Eliot to writer and intellectual George Henry Lewes. Although Lewes was married (he was legally prohibited from divorcing his estranged wife), the two openly lived together until Lewes's death in 1878, defying the strict moral code of the Victorian era. Lewes's influence on Eliot's writing was great: it was he who first encouraged her to write fiction, and he acted as an intermediary between the pseudonymous "George Eliot" and her first publisher, Black-wood's Magazine. Eliot's literary success eventually brought the couple social acceptance, but just over a year after Lewes's death she married John Walter Cross, a banker twenty years her junior, and again met with public outrage. Seven months after her marriage the novelist suddenly died and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, North London.
Although she was a prolific writer in many genres, Eliot is chiefly known for her sequence of novels that begin by drawing heavily from her rural English background and grow gradually wider in scope. Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) includes three sketches with a provincial setting and is noted for its well-drawn characters and keen rendering of Midland dialect. Adam Bede (1859) presents realistic images of daily life in a quiet rural community undercut with unfulfilled love and selfishness resulting in tragedy and hard-won self-awareness. The Mill on the Floss (1860) tells the story of Maggie Tulliver's inability to conform to the rigidly traditional society in which she lives, and Silas Marner (1861) deals with an alienated miser whose life is transformed by his adoption of an abandoned child.
Eliot broadened her thematic goals with the historical novel Romola (1863) as well as Felix Holt (1866), which is often characterized as a political novel but features a conventional courtship narrative more typically associated with domestic fiction. Middlemarch, widely considered Eliot's finest achievement, presents a comprehensive picture of English provincial life while developing moral and philosophical issues such as the relationship of the individual to society. Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), examines a broad spectrum of nineteenth-century European society and is regarded as her most ambitious yet perhaps her least successful work.
Eliot's critical acclaim came early, with the publication of Adam Bede. During her lifetime, the writer's work generally met with popular and critical success, although novels such as Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda have consistently been considered less accomplished than Adam Bede and Middlemarch. Eliot's reputation endured a significant decline, however, from her death through the early twentieth century, when her novels were often dismissed as heavy, didactic, and overly scholarly. However, Virginia Woolf was influential in reviving interest in Eliot's works as early as 1925, addressing Eliot's unique treatment of the nature of femininity, and F. R. Leavis's essays in the 1940s effectively reaffirmed the significance of Eliot's achievement.
The onset of the feminist movement sparked another reevaluation of Eliot's work, although critics have remained sharply divided about the novelist's treatment of women's issues. As Zelda Austen notes in her 1976 essay, feminists have often claimed that Eliot tends to engage in an anti-feminist reinforcement of the systems under which her heroines often suffer. For example, some feminist scholars of Felix Holt have criticized Holt's character, claiming his objections to Esther's refinement and aesthetic sensibilities make him no more desirable a suitor than Transome, who believes that women are meant to be decorative rather than functional. Other critics, however, claim Eliot as a proto-feminist figure whose complex thinking about the place of a woman in an oppressive society was instrumental in setting the stage for the women's literary liberation that would eventually follow.