Authors: George Eliot

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist

November 22, 1819

Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire, England

December 22, 1880

London, England

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: Adam Bede, 1859 The Mill on the Floss, 1860 Silas Marner, 1861 Romola, 1862-1863 Felix Holt, the Radical, 1866 Middlemarch, 1871–72 Daniel Deronda, 1876 Short Fiction: Scenes of Clerical Life, 1858 Poetry: The Spanish Gypsy, 1868 The Legend of Jubal, and Other Poems, 1874 Nonfiction: The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, 1879 Essays of George Eliot, 1963 (Thomas Pinney, editor) The Journals of George Eliot, 1998 (Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston, editors) Translations: The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 1846 (with Mrs. Charles Hennell; of D. F. Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu) The Essence of Christianity, 1854 (of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums) Bibliography Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 1997. An introduction to Eliot’s life and work by an admirer of her fiction; interlaces discussions of Eliot’s life with analysis of her fiction and the context of her work within Victorian society and social thought. Argues that her fiction most often focuses on characters out of step with their culture. Brady, Kristin. George Eliot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Includes chapters on Eliot as icon, on her life as a woman writer, and on her major novels and poetry. Bibliography and index. Bull, Malcolm. “Mastery and Slavery in The Lifted Veil.” Essays in Criticism 48 (July, 1998): 244-261. Discusses sources of Eliot’s novella in Victorian fascination with magnetism or mesmerism; discusses the relationship between Eliot’s view of mesmerism and Hegel’s view; considers how in both the master/slave concept can be liberating. Dodd, Valerie A. George Eliot: An Intellectual Life. New York; St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Part 1 gives the intellectual background of Victorian England, discussing writers such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. Part 2 discusses George Eliot’s work in relation to that intellectual background. Includes a useful bibliography. Dowling, Andrew. “‘The Other Side of Silence’: Matrimonial Conflict and the Divorce Court in George Eliot’s Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50 (December, 1995): 322-336. Argues that there is a correlation between the legal and social changes brought about by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 and the Divorce Court it created, and the emphasis on silence as a sign of matrimonial conflict in Eliot’s fiction; suggests that Eliot’s use of silence reflects a new social awareness of psychological cruelty in marriage. Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. George Eliot. Boston: Twayne, 1985. An excellent short reference on Eliot. This book provides a biographical sketch and outlines Eliot’s career, including a good chapter on Scenes of Clerical Life. The select bibliography is helpful, as is the chronology. Flint, Kate. “Blood, Bodies, and The Lifted Veil.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 51 (March, 1997): 455-473. Argues that Eliot’s novella is concerned with the relationship between science and the imagination; states it was influenced by G. H. Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life. Claims that the blood transfusion scene is not simple gothicism but is grounded in contemporary debate about transfusion. Hands, Timothy, A George Eliot Chronology. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This book provides daily information about Eliot’s life, particularly focusing on her writing career. Pieced together from letters and journals, this book provides a quick reference to most of the important facts of Eliot’s life. A useful and interesting text. Harvey, W. J. The Art of George Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. This volume covers the structure of Eliot’s work—the omniscient narrator, the treatment of time, and characterization. A helpful source for a close study of Eliot’s work. Supplemented by a short bibliography. Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot. New York: Encounter Books, 2009. This book does an excellent job of placing Eliot’s beliefs and her writing in the context of the Victorian England in which she lived. Himmelfarb examines her life and writing career, and paints a vivid portrait of Eliot’s personal relationships and her involvement in Zionism. Hughes, Kathryn. George Eliot: The Last Victorian. London: Fourth Estate, 1998. A standard biography of Eliot, good for the general reader. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Hutchinson, Stuart, ed. George Eliot: Critical Assessments. East Sussex: Helm Information, 1996. Volume 1 consists of biography, nineteenth century reviews, and responses; volume 2 contains perspectives from 1900-1970 on Eliot’s work; volume 3 provides critical essays on individual works; volume 4 includes perspectives from the 1970’s on. Karl, Fred. George Eliot: Voice of a Century. New York: Norton, 1995. Draws on valuable new archival material and on feminist criticism. 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. Pangallo, Karen L., ed. The Critical Response to George Eliot. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Provides sections divided into articles on individual novels as well as a separate section on general responses to Eliot’s novels. The selection encompasses the responses of both Eliot’s contemporaries and later generations of critics. Bibliography and index. Rignall, John, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. An encyclopedic volume with entries that cover everything about the novelist, including her pets and homes, as well as her themes and various contexts in which to place her works. Shaw, Harry E. Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. Explores the technique of the three authors. Bibliography and index. Taylor, Ina. A Woman of Contradictions: The Life of George Eliot. New York: William Morrow, 1989. Taylor claims to work from sources different from those on which all previous biographies drew—all of which, she says, come from one beginning: Eliot’s husband, John Cross. An interesting and provocative book that focuses on Eliot’s personal life. Includes photographs of Eliot, her family, and friends.

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