A Layman’s Guide to the Life and Works of George Eliot

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It will never rain roses. When we want to have more roses we must plant more trees.”

So said George Eliot who was one of the most famous English novelist of the 19th century.  Actually, George Eliot was her pen name not the birth name. Her given name was Mary Ann Evans who lived from 1819 to 1880 in England.  Her 1872 novel Middlemarch is one of the greatest pieces of fiction in the history. Mary Anne was not only a great novel writer but also a journalist and translator during the Victorian Era. Apart from Middlemarch, she wrote many other well-known novels such as Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Most of her novels are set in English country and are known for realism and psychological understanding. George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was one of the most important writers of the century.

Social Environment of Her Time

Women writers of those times used to write only lighthearted romances, which were not taken seriously by men.  She was the first woman of her times to write about politics and philosophy. That is the reason Mary Ann chose to keep a male pen name George Eliot so that people would notice her. Another possible reason could have been her wish to hide her 20-year relationship with married George Henry Lewes.

George Eliot lived a different sort of life–not the conventional type that people lived then. There has been a lot of debate, and material written by many biographers about her ways of life. In her times, people were not just surprised but shocked by her way of life. They thought that sort of behavior did not suit a proper, polite lady. However, her writing has overshadowed all the so-called faults that people found with her.  She wrote about social change and triumphs of the heart. Eliot had a sharp eye for the details of the rural English life: its people, classes, and double standards in the society. Most of her novels are said to be the holy rules of 19th century literature.  A lot of her work is still in circulation and many of them have been made into films.

Childhood and Education

Although George Eliot used different names in her life, she was born as Mary Anne Evans on 22 November 1819 at South Farm near Nuneaton, England.  Born as the youngest daughter to Robert Evans’ second wife, Mary’s father was a strict but loving man. Her mother’s name was Christiana Pearson Evans. Mary had a stepbrother and a stepsister and two full siblings – Chrissy and Isaac. She was very fond of Chrissy and devoted to brother Isaac.

So, a few months after Mary Anne was born, her family moved from south farm to a house named Griff, between Nuneaton and Bedworth.  She was to stay at this home until she was twenty-one. It was a large house with stables and outbuildings, a dairy and farmyard, and an orchard. The life around there was full of contrast and Mary would take a lot of inspiration for her novels from the experiences here. Although they lived around poor tenants on the estate and people working in the nearby mines, yet the Evans family enjoyed a good life. Because Robert Evans was the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate for the Newdigate family.

Here, Mary Anne spent wonderful and happy childhood with her siblings—beautiful sister Chrissy and dear brother Isaac. Isaac and Mary were playmates—they both enjoyed outdoors activities. They went fishing, spun tops and dug earth-nuts.

Then at a very early age, Mary Ann and her brother were sent to the village free school at Colton.  Young Mary used to attend church with her family and became a keen reader.  She spent a lot of time in the library. In fact, she was such a keen reader that she used to fall asleep reading.  She was intelligent but shy and introverted by nature.

So, in 1824 when she was five, she was sent to Miss Latham’s school in Attenborough and stayed there. It was very saddening for her because her dear brother went to a separate boys’ boarding school. This separation made her even more introvert.

Then, at the age of nine, Mary was moved to Mrs. Wallington’s school in Nuneaton. At this school, she was very impressed by her teacher Maria Lewis who became her guide and friend. Here in Coventry Mary learned to play piano, study languages. Mary was so devoted to Maria Lewis that they wrote letters to each other even long after Mary left the school.

After that, she went to a school called the Miss Franklin’s School in Coventry. While the previous school had quite liberal atmosphere, this school was very strict for her. She turned fully religious and was a serious student. In fact, even at the age of thirteen, she was so serious in her manners that people mistook her for some elderly matron of the school.  Also, she was so advanced in her studies that she was always pulled out of the general class and made to study separately. Here Mary adopted the manners and speaking style of Miss Franklin and perfected her voice to the sweetest.  Apart from that, she began writing poems and stories.

A tragedy struck Mary Anne in 1836 when at the age of 16 her mother died of cancer. So Mary had to leave the school. Her brother, Isaac, was preparing to replace his father’s position on the estate, and Chrissy was also there. Mary and Chrissy both ran the household and took care of their father.

Those days women were not given much education. But when Robert Evan found that Mary was very intelligent and had done well in school, he wanted her to continue her studies. He bought her many books and even appointed a private tutor to help her learn Italian and German. Hence, she soon became a fan of good books and literature.

Some years later, more saddening events took place. Brother Isaac as well as Chrissy got married and settled with their respective families. This left Mary and her father alone at the Griff House. For some years they both stayed there. Mary took good care of the house though; since she was as good at managing the estate as she was with her studies.

As her father supported her education so much, she continued her self education. And she often went to the library of Arbury Hall where she was allowed because of her father’s job at the Estate. She was very fond of Greek Literature, that’s why there are many themes of Greek tragedy in her books. She was also influenced by social issues and religion because of the religious education she received. At the estate, Mary observed the difference between the life of the wealthy local landowners and that of the poor people on the estate. At the same time she kept in touch with her favorite teacher, Maria Lewis by writing letters.

A Turning Point in the Life in Coventry

Some years later in 1841, a 21-year-old Mary Evans and her now-retired father had to leave Arbury Hall Estate as her married brother had taken over their father’s position and occupied the house. They went to Foleshill near Coventry. Here in this new home, she was living mostly alone as her father was away many times. She found free access to many more books there; although she had built a huge library of her own. In addition to her private studies, she was now also able to have lessons in Greek and Latin and continue her study of French, German, and Italian.

Later in Coventry, Mary came in contact with different thinkers especially Charles and Cara Bray. The Brays’ home was a meeting place for intellectuals and attending some of the sessions there made Mary close friends with the Brays. This helped her growing religious doubts and she started thinking unconventionally.  There Mary Evens had a chance to mingle with free thinking intellectuals like Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She became more liberal thinking by meeting writers such as David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, who debated about the truth of the stories in the Bible. Thus, in 1846 she started her first major writing work which was to translate into English – Strauss’ “Life of Jesus”. And this was a period of great change for Mary—a turning point in her life, in fact.                             

Now, for many years Mary had been self-conscious about her plain appearance and she tended to be lonely many times. So she got afraid that she might remain a spinster all her life. And at the same time, she was raising doubts on her Christian faith as well as the on the ways of Victorian society. She started soul-searching and forming her own opinions.  During these days of questioning of her religious faith, she stopped going to church. That strained her relationship with her brother and father as well as her former teacher and friend Maria Lewis. Now it so happened that her father had fallen sick and she had to nurse him for quite a long period. These years were very lonely and painful for her as her father behaved ungratefully. She got very tired, both physically and mentally.  However, she continued taking care of her father without directly exposing her opinions to him. She faithfully served him until his death in 1849. She was 30 at that time.

Her father left her some money from in his will which encouraged her to try living independently. But that money was not enough. She needed to have a supplementary income. Although, she could have chosen to live with married brother Isaac or sister Chrissy and thus lead an ordinary life of a woman sewing, playing piano and reading stories to her nephews and nieces. But she found conventional life and religious surroundings very suffocating.  On top of that, Isaac and she disagreed with each other on everything: be it religion, politics or question of obeying elder brother.

Thus Mary found herself at crossroads in life when, by chance, a few days later, the Brays offered her a trip to Switzerland and Italy. It was a golden chance for her. She accepted the offer and went along with them. Although Brays returned to England after a few weeks, she stayed back in Geneva where she bravely stayed at various places independently. Then she was allowed as paying guest by the family of an artist, François D’Albert Durade, who painted her picture in February 1850. Incidentally, he would translate many of her novels into French later. During her extended stay in Switzerland, she spent her time reading, learning mathematics, and continuing with translation.  Also, she enjoyed taking long walks in the lush surroundings and getting inspired by nature around there.

Career in London

Then next year in 1850, Mary returned to England and stayed shortly with Isaac and Chrissy. The stay was not pleasant there and she decided not to make home with them. She took a quick decision to move to London. She wanted to be a writer and changed her name to Marian Evans. Here in London, she met a known publisher who had printed her translation work earlier when got introduced at the Brays in Coventry.

So, she started living at the Chapman’s place, who now owned of the journal called Westminster Review. Marian assisted him as editor, vetted submissions, and wrote reviews for it. The publisher John Chapman was very impressed by her intellect and stamina of completing the tough work.

Then she got editorial control and anonymously started writing articles.  It was a particularly unorthodox position as a single working woman in a mid-1800’s male-dominated industry.  Being an odd woman out there though, Marian was independent and could take her own decisions.

Here, handsome and successful Chapman held weekend parties when writers gathered to discuss literature and politics.  Marian also enjoyed getting together with them having inspiring conversations. But the life started becoming complicated for her when she fell in love with Chapman. Chapman lived with his wife, Susanna, and their two children. He also had a mistress. When the two women came to know of the affair between Chapman and Marian Evans, they both made her leave the place. Evans fled in tears to the Brays family in Coventry.

Later, Marian left all hopes of Chapman as a lover and settled down to a friendly, professional relationship with him. So in 1851, Chapman brought Marian back to London. She ran the journal single-handedly and wrote many essays and reviews during the period from 1852 to 1854. He was the nominal editor while she remained behind the scenes doing the work and letting Chapman take the credit. Although it was alright for women to write those days but heading a magazine was unusual. So, she had to face a lot of criticism and embarrassment on many occasions.

However, Marian’s started having a good social life in London. With Chapman, she attended lectures in geometry at a college in Bedford Square. She also went to see plays put on at the Lyceum Theatre on Catherine Street.

Unconventional relationship with George Lewes

So while enjoying London, Evans, through Chapman, came in contact with a philosopher George Henry Lewes in 1851. Unconventional Lewes was already married to Agnes Jervis, but they took a decision to live together openly as man and wife sometime in 1853 at Marian’s room in Hyde Park.  Although now a freethinker herself, Marian decided not to have children born of unmarried parents.  Although it was not legal yet they considered it a marriage.   Marian now called herself Mrs. Marian Evans Lewes. This caused a lot disliking from friends and relatives and had an effect on their professional careers.

In 1854 Lewes and Marian went public with their unusual relationship. Though, they did so out of England.  Lewes and she went to Germany to do research. It was also a kind of honeymoon for them as they considered themselves to be married then. While abroad, she continued with writing essays and translation works; mainly among them was Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics.

While in Germany, Marian and Lewes’s relationship did not shock anyone. The society there was not as orthodox as it was back in England.  Therefore, on their return to England in March 1855, Marian found that she was not welcome in the society. Their male friends from the Westminster Review met them as before but without their wives. Marian had to tell her friends to write letters in the name of Mrs. Lewes, not Miss Evans because she did not want to arouse the suspicion of the landlady.  Marian was not invited out to dinner though Lewes was.

Although it was quite common to have affairs in their society but what made their relationship a scandal was their open admission of it. But they continued living together and later shared several homes including “Priory” in Regent’s Park, London, and “The Heights” at Whitley.

First Publication                                         

Marian Evans was still working for the Westminster Review and contributing essays. At the same time, around in 1856, she started thinking of becoming a novelist.  Her lover and her best friend, Lewes supported her completely and encouraged her to write fiction.

She was already well known in literary circles as the author of many articles about the writing of fiction.  And she was not very happy with English women novelists of those times as they wrote only useless romantic stories which had no reality.  Marian was particularly impressed by the realistic novels written by women rest of the Europe those days.

So, she started focusing on realistic stories. Mary then decided to take a male pen name, George Eliot—by which she was to become famous later.  She chose the male pen name for a couple of reasons: to hide her illicit relationship with Lewes from the public and she thought male authors are taken seriously by the society; in which female writers were known only for writing cookbooks or domestic moral tales.

The first part of her The Scenes of Clerical Life was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1858.  It was a three part collection of stories which was received very well. Then she published her first complete novel – Adam Bede, which became a huge and immediate success in 1859. As these publications were by her pen name, people started wondering who the real writer was. Most people thought that The Scenes of Clerical Life was written by a villager or a villager’s wife.

But when the novel Adam Bede came out, it was an immediate success. People became so extremely curious, and there was public gossip as to who the real author was. Some even pretended to be the writer—George Eliot themselves. This debate about the mystery of the real author continued for quite some time.  Finally, Marian Evans Lewes came out and revealed that she was the real George Eliot. When people came to know that Eliot was Mrs. Marian Evans Lewes, many criticized her but her friends, fellow authors, and feminists supported and praised her.

Although she was very popular now yet her readers were surprised and shocked when they came to know about her private life. But it did not affect her popularity as a novelist or her relationship with Lewes. Though the polite society accepted her after quite some time.

Then came The Lifted Veil (1859) which reflects Eliot’s own struggles that she went through as a woman and author in the public domain after the success of Adam Bede. Even then she sometimes still felt self-doubt, lacked confidence and went through depression. But Lewes was always there to lend her all the support.

After the huge success of Adam Bede, Eliot continued writing popular novels. One year after finishing Adam Bede, she completed The Mill on the Floss which she devoted to her husband, George Henry Lewes. It was 21 March 1860 and they had completed six years together.  The Mill on the Floss (1860) was her very likely autobiographical novel.

That was followed by Silas Marner: the Weaver of Raveloe (1861).  The epic historical Romola (1862-3) was a result of much research. It is based on the life of Dominican Monk Savonarola.  Then Eliot published Brother Jacob (1864) and Felix Holt: The Radical (1866), a political drama set in the backdrop of the Great Reform Act of 1832.

She also wrote many poems:  That included the epic The Spanish Gypsy (1868) and How Lisa Loved the King (1869).  The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems (1870) followed.  Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch came out in 1871-72.

The social acceptance of George Eliot was finally confirmed in 1877 when she and Lewes were introduced to the princess of England. Even Queen Victoria was her fan. The queen was so impressed by the novel Adam Bede that she asked a famous painter to paint scenes from the novel.

In 1876 Eliot published her last novel Daniel Deronda, then she and Lewes moved to Whitley where Lewes’s health kept failing and finally he died in November 1878. Eliot was very sad but found some comfort in continuing the work of Lewes and in two years time she edited Lewes’s final work, Life and Mind, for publication.  Around the same time, she was also busy with her own last work, a collection of essays titled Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879).

By this time Eliot was living completely alone. No family and friends were allowed to visit but her friend Cross was an exception.  Banker John Walter Cross visited her often.

Marriage to John Cross

As usual, Eliot was the center of controversy once when on 16 May 1880 she married John Cross who was twenty years younger than her. She also changed her name again to Mary Ann Cross.  This legal marriage mended her relationship with her brother Isaac, who had got annoyed when she had begun to live with Lewes.  The couple went to Venice for honeymoon. After returning from Italy, they settled in a new house in Chelsea.  Eliot had been suffering from kidney disease for past many years and after moving to Chelsea she suffered a throat infection and that led to her death on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61.

Due to her denial of the Christian faith, Eliot was not allowed burial in Westminster Abbey. Instead they buried her in Highgate Cemetery , London which is reserved for religious dissenters. Her epitaph reads: “O May I join the choir invisible of those immortal dead who live again, in minds made better by their presence.” Here rests the body of GEORGE ELIOT. (MARY ANN CROSS).

There are many buildings named after Eliot or her novels in her birthplace and other places namely: The George Eliot School, Middlemarch Junior School, Eliot Hospital Eliot Road, in Foleshill, Coventry.  John Birch even named his motorbikes after Eliot. There is a statue of Eliot in Newdegate Street, Nuneaton and Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery displays materials related to George Eliot.  Such was the life and times of illustrious Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot.

George Eliot
George Eliot

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