Last reviewed: June 2018
November 22, 1819
Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire, England
December 22, 1880
George Eliot was the pen name used by Mary Ann Evans. She was born on November 22, 1819, at Arbury Farm, Warwickshire, in the parish of Chilvers Coton, and was baptized at what has since become the famous Shepperton Church. Her mother was Christina Pearson. Her father was Robert Evans, a carpenter, builder, and agent. She attended numerous schools, at one of which she became an intimate friend of Maria Lewis, a teacher with whom she exchanged letters for years and who did much to deepen her strong sense of religion. Thus at the age of seventeen she already had an excellent educational background when her sister’s marriage made it necessary that she return home to look after the house for her father. George Eliot
She continued her study with lessons in Greek, Latin, Italian, and German. She was also an accomplished musician, though shy of appearing in public. When her father gave up his duties on the estate, he moved in 1841 to Coventry. Here, at twenty-two, she met Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bray and Charles Hennell, who were radical freethinkers. Both men were writers, Bray having already published The Philosophy of Necessity in 1841. Hennell was the author of An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838). Such influences caused Evans to question the evangelical beliefs that had always been a strong influence on her life. In fact, her new freethinking attitude and her refusal to attend church caused a temporary rift with her father. However, a tenuous reconciliation was effected and she returned to church, continuing to live with him until his death in 1849, upon which she inherited a small income for life.
Eager for an intellectual direction in her life, Evans spent two years translating David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which was published in 1846 with the author’s preface. After her father’s death she traveled for a time on the Continent, spending about a year in Geneva. Upon her return to England she accepted a position as an editor of the Westminster Review (1850–53). As editor of an important journal, Evans became part of a distinguished circle of friends, including James A. Froude, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer, and George Henry Lewes. She and Lewes, who was married and unable to get a divorce, became very close. In 1854, she published her translation of Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. Shortly thereafter, she and Lewes left for the Continent together, and it was assumed, correctly, that they had begun a relationship. Flying in the face of public opinion, these two formed a union that they regarded as the same as a marriage, despite the lack of legal sanction—an arrangement which lasted until Lewes’s death in 1878.
After returning to England, she continued her scholastic pursuits, working mostly on articles for The Leader, the Westminster Review, and the Saturday Review. Encouraged by Lewes, Evans began writing fiction. Her first story, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” was published in Blackwood’s Magazine. Later, in 1858, it was included in her first collection of short works, published in two volumes as Scenes of Clerical Life.
Once started on fiction, Evans had at last found her proper métier. In 1859 she published Adam Bede under the pen name George Eliot, which she continued to use in all her later writings. The next year marked the publication of the three-volume edition of The Mill on the Floss. By this time George Eliot had joined the ranks of the successful and popular novelists: her novels Silas Marner, Romola, and Felix Holt, the Radical were avidly read by a large and eager public. Her works were admired by the other prominent English novelists of the day, including Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
The Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede, and Silas Marner were skillfully written pictures of provincial life, in some instances drawn from the author’s own observations, background, and family. During a trip to Italy she had collected the material for Romola, a historical novel of the period of Savonarola. Felix Holt, the Radical, her only novel concerned with politics, hardly ranks with the other famous titles. Published in 1868, The Spanish Gypsy, a blank-verse poem containing drama and narrative, was intended (said its author) to show doctrines of duty and heredity. Her next novel was Middlemarch, which marked a return to her earlier locale. Probably based on her early life in Coventry, it draws a remarkable picture of middle-class life in an English town and is generally considered to be one of the greatest nineteenth-century British novels. Her last novel, Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876.
Having attained notable success as a writer, she and Lewes could now enjoy scholastic pursuits as they wished. They traveled on the Continent and visited the English universities; they even purchased a home in the country. This life came to an end with the death of Lewes in 1878. Deeply grieved, she finally finished The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a collection of essays that came out in 1879. She also edited Lewes’s unpublished works.
Before Lewes’s death, the couple had known J. W. Cross, a New York banker. He was of considerable service to the widow in settling her affairs. Mutual ties of sympathy brought the pair together, and they were married in the spring of 1880 at St. George’s, Hanover Square. After returning to London from a trip to the Continent, Eliot caught a cold at a concert. She died in London on December 22, 1880.