George Eliot [pseudonym of Mary Anne or Marian Evans] (1819-1880), English author wrote The Mill on the Floss (1860);
"How can you talk so, Mr. Tulliver? She's too big a gell--gone nine, and tall of her age--to have her hair cut short; an' there's her cousin Lucy's got a row o' curls round her head, an' not a hair out o' place. It seems hard as my sister Deane should have that pretty child; I'm sure Lucy takes more after me nor my own child does. Maggie, Maggie," continued the mother, in a tone of half-coaxing fretfulness, as this small mistake of nature entered the room, "where's the use o' my telling you to keep away from the water? You'll tumble in and be drownded some day, an' then you'll be sorry you didn't do as mother told you."
John Morley, in his essay titled "The Life of George Eliot" (1904) recalls Eliot's frustration towards the 'habit' of literary biography. She herself lived a controversial and unconventional life, has been the subject of much scholarly debate, and been the study of many biographers. In her time many were shocked by some of her choices in life 'unbecoming a woman', but she eventually earned the deserved esteem of an accomplished author. Her works stand on their own, not to be overshadowed by her personal life. Among the best of the Victorian writers, Eliot deals with themes of social change and triumphs of the heart and has a remarkable talent for showing us the depth and scope of Provincial English life: its classes, pretensions, and hypocrisies. Many of her novels today are included in the canon of classic 19th century literary works. Some have been adapted to film, many still in print today.
Although she would use a number of spelling variations of her name over the years, she was born Mary Anne Evans on 22 November 1819 at the family home "South Farm" on the Arbury Estate in Warwickshire, England. She was the youngest daughter of Robert Evans (1773-1849) and his second wife Christiana Pearson Evans. Mary had two step-siblings, Robert and Fanny, and two full siblings, Chrissey and Isaac. Her father was a stern but loving man, working under great authority for the Newdigate family as a land agent and builder. Robert is likely in part inspiration for Eliot's fictional characters Adam Bede (1859) and Caleb Garth in Middlemarch (1871-2). Unlike the many poor tenants who worked the estates' land and surrounding mines, the Evans's enjoyed a comfortable life. Young Mary attended Chilvers Coton Church with her family and became an avid reader, spending much time in the library. She was very close to Chrissey and devoted to her older brother Isaac, although in later years they would disagree on most matters familial and religious. It was very difficult for the shy and introverted Mary to see him go off to boarding school.
Her own formal education at boarding school started in 1824. She was next enrolled at Mrs. Wallington's School at Nuneaton where the school's governess, Miss Maria Lewis took her under her wing. Mary found in her evangelical piety purpose and comfort; she became her mentor and they held a long correspondence after Mary left the school. Nuneaton would play a large role in Eliot's fictional work Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). At school in Coventry Mary learned to play the piano, studied languages, and began writing stories and poetry. She fully embraced her faith and was a pious and serious student; however, like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, she would come to question her faith.
After her mother died of cancer in 1836, Mary moved back to the family home "Griff House" on the Arbury Estate. Isaac was back home living with his father in preparation to take over his position on the estate, and Chrissy was also there. Mary helped her run the household and take care of their father. He bought many books for Mary and hired a tutor for her because she had done so well in school--he wanted her to continue her studies. She also found time to write; the Christian Observer published her first poem in 1840. The next year she moved with her now-retired father to "Bird Grove" in Foleshill, near Coventry and embarked on a period of great change. For many years Mary had been self-conscious about her appearance and been plagued by self-doubt; she was afraid of becoming a spinster and tended to melancholy. And she was questioning her Christian faith and forming her own opinions of Victorian society. Her soul searching resulted in her deciding not to attend church anymore, which strained relations with her brother and father. But, another world of purpose and comfort had opened to her; her social circle widened as she was welcomed into Coventry's intellectual circle. She became friends with irreverent freethinkers like Cara and Charles Bray and started reading non-religious literary works such as those of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Sir Walter Scott. She also met publisher John Chapman who printed her first translation, Life of Jesus, in 1846. Another translation of hers', Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, was published in 1854.
When her father died in 1849 after a lengthy illness, Mary travelled with the Brays to Italy and Switzerland. In Geneva she met the D'Albert Durades family and revelled in her freedom. Her father had left her a small yearly income, just enough to live on, and she moved to London in hopes of becoming a journalist as Marian Evans. She roomed at 142 Strand, the home of and offices for Chapman, who was now owner of the Westminster Review. Marian assisted as editor, vetted submissions, and wrote reviews for it. Her keen intellect, years of religious study, knowledge of languages and literature, and work in translations proved invaluable to Chapman and the Review. She was given wide-ranging editorial control and flexed her might as a writer in the non-fiction vein, her articles published anonymously. She enjoyed a particularly unorthodox position as a single working woman in a mid-1800's male-dominated industry; she was independent and free to make her own choices. But life in London was becoming complicated. Marian fell for the charms of the charismatic Chapman who was married, had a mistress, and was now spending much time with her. Marian was also attending lectures and the theatre, and becoming acquainted with many figures in the publishing world including Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and prolific author, philosopher, and critic George Henry Lewes (1817-1878).
When Marian met the bohemian Lewes he was in an open marriage with Agnes Jervis, but by the end of 1852 he was staying with Marian at her new rooms in Hyde Park. Although now a free-thinker herself, Marian chose not to have children, not wanting them to be born to unmarried parents. Although the Lewes's never memorialised their union legally, they considered it a marriage despite the derision they received from friends and relatives and the effect it had on their professional careers. Marian now called herself Mrs. Marian Evans Lewes. The two travelled to the Continent a number of times and shared several homes including "Priory" in Regent's Park, London, and "The Heights" at Witley, until Lewes' death in 1878. Her lover and her best friend, Lewes was an avid supporter to Marian and encouraged her to take up her pen and write fiction. Despite the public scandal that arose from their relationship, Marian's most prolific and successful period of writing started with the serialisation in Blackwood's Magazine of her Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). A collection of three stories, it was her first work published under her pseudonym George Eliot. There were a few reasons for her choosing a pen name at this point in her life; public knowledge of her adulterous relationship with Lewes was one. Another was that, although she had been published anonymously in the Westminster Review, many now knew it was she who wrote with the sharp and cunning intellect that cut away conventions and exposed the mediocrity to be found in literature of the day. Neither male nor female authors were immune to her scrutiny. She did not want her reputation to precede her works. Having a male pen name ('George' of course being Lewes' first name) set a tone for her fiction apart from the feminine genre of cookbooks and domestic moral tales.
Adam Bede (1859) was her first full-length novel. It was an immediate success, but attracted fervent public gossip as to who the real author was. When it was discovered that Eliot was Mrs. Marian Evans Lewes, many castigated her but she was also lauded by friends, fellow authors, and feminists. The dedication in Adam Bede read;
"To my dear husband, George Henry Lewes, I give the manuscript of a work which would never have been written but for the happiness which his love has conferred on my life."
The Lifted Veil (1859) reflects the personal struggles Eliot went through as a woman and author in the spotlight since the success of Adam Bede. She still felt self-doubt at times and had bouts of depression--this sensitive inner-life reflected in many of the portraits painted of her. But always Lewes was there to urge her forward. Eliot's most autobiographical novel The Mill on the Floss (1860) was followed by Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe (1861). Her epic historical novel for which she did much research, Romola (1862-3), is based on the life of Dominican Monk Savonarola. It was followed by Brother Jacob (1864) and Felix Holt: The Radical (1866), a political story set in the time of the Great Reform Act of 1832. Eliot wrote many poems including her epic "The Spanish Gypsy" (1868) and "How Lisa Loved the King" (1869). Other poems would be included in The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems (1870). Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch (1871-2) was followed by Daniel Deronda (1876). Around this time the Lewes's went to live at "The Heights" in Witley, Surrey. George had been sick for some time, and died on 30 November 1878. Eliot was profoundly grieved, but found some comfort in editing his Problems of Life and Mind. She was also working on her own last work, a collection of essays titled Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879). While Eliot isolated herself from family and friends, she did allow banker John Walter Cross to visit her. Over twenty years his senior, Cross asked Eliot to marry him. Initially she was very reluctant, but in an odd turn of events she accepted. They were married in May of 1880 and Eliot reverted back to her name Mary Ann, only dropping the e. While it was a convention she had rejected for so many years, her marriage did contribute to reconciliation with her brother Isaac. Settling at 4 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, London, the Cross's marriage would be short-lived.
George Eliot died on 22 December 1880. She now rests with Lewes in Highgate Cemetery in London, England. Her epitaph reads: "Of those immortal dead who live again, In minds made better by their presence." Here rests the body of GEORGE ELIOT. (MARY ANN CROSS). Although Eliot's wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey was not granted, in 1980 a memorial was placed in Poet's Corner in her honour, among other such esteemed literary figures as William Blake, Aphra Behn, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Elbert Hubbard, in his Little Journeys, Vol. 1: Good Men and Great compares Eliot to Shakespeare--their lives, loves, and works;
Warwickshire gave to the world William Shakespeare. It also gave Mary Ann Evans. No one will question that Shakespeare's is the greatest name in English literature; and among writers living or dead, in England or out of it, no woman has ever shown us power equal to that of George Eliot, in the subtle clairvoyance which divines the inmost play of passions, the experience that shows human capacity for contradiction, and the indulgence that is merciful because it understands.
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.
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