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Friday, 2 January 2015

George Eliot

Mary Ann Evans (1819 – 1880), known by her pen name George Eliot, was born on November 22, 1819 at Gaff House, Chilvers Coton, a micro-metropolis near Nuneaton, Warwickshire.


Mary Ann's father, Robert Evans, was a carpenter turned land agent in the service of the Newdigate family of Arbury Hall.. He was rigidly conventional and died in 1849.

Her mother, Christina Evans, was cold and strict and died when Mary Ann was 16.

Young Mary Ann was the youngest surviving child. She was particularly close to her brother Isaac from whom she was later estranged.. Mary Ann also had a sister Chrissie.

Mary Ann was sent to boarding school at the age of five, first locally, then in Nuneaton where she met and befriended Maria Lewis, who introduced her to evangelicalism, which the youngster took up enthusiastically.

At the age of 13 Mary Ann was sent to the Miss Franklins' school in Coventry, where she was further influenced by the Baptists at Cow Lane Chapel.

Mary Ann pursued her education vigorously at both Nuneaton and Coventry. Her father paid for her to learn French, German and Italian to which she later added Latin, Greek, Spanish and Hebrew.

As a young woman, Mary Ann was evangelically severe and self-critical: in 1840 she wrote: “I need rigid discipline, which I have never yet had.”

After her mother died in 1835 Mary Ann took over the running of her father's house.


Mary Ann was plain looking, lanky, dark haired, and a face like a horse. When she became a famous writer Mary Ann was adamant that not a single photograph should be set before a curious public, as she was so embarrassed by her looks.

George Eliot {PD-US}}
Henry James wrote of her: “She had a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth and a chin and jawbone qui n'en finissent pas... Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking. “

An intellectual country girl, who was known to friends as "The Sybil," Mary Ann was charming, highly strung, defiant, wayward, unconventional and sensitive to criticism. An intellectual country girl.

Mary Ann had a disastrous middle-aged flirtation with fancy headgear and the German philosopher Nietzsche mocked her "Little blue stockings."


Mary Ann had several liaisons with married men before meeting the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes.  Her emotional attachment to her landlord at The Strand in the early 1850s became an embarrassment.

In 1854 the unmarried Mary Ann Evans, with a scandalous disregard of the conventions of her time, moved in with her lover George Henry Lewes. It was not unusual for men and women in Victorian society to have affairs;  What was scandalous was their open admission of the relationship.

Lewes was married to Agnes Jervis. They had agreed to have an open marriage, and Lewes' wife had deserted him leaving him to bring up three young sons.

Evans was forced to adopt the pseudonym of George Eliot for fear that her relationship with Lewes would overshadow her books.

Lewes died in 1878. Two years later the 60-year-old Eliot married the 40 year old American banker George Cross at St Georges, Hanover Square, London . They had originally met in Rome in 1869 and he had become her financial advisor. The marriage distressed many of her friends.

Cross jumped out of the window of their hotel bedroom into Venice's Grand Canal on their honeymoon, but survived. Eliot died seven months after their marriage.


Eliot was Assistant Editor for the Westminster Review between 1851-52. She loved the job, at times working 18 hours a day.

Scenes of Clerical Life, the first work of fiction by Mary Ann Evans was submitted for publication on November 6, 1856. It originally appeared in Blackwoods magazine as three anonymous stories the following year, before being released as a two-volume set by Blackwood and Sons in January 1858.

Scenes of Clerical Life was the first of her works to appear under her George Eliot pseudonym even though Evans was a well-published and highly respected scholar of her time .

Adam Bede, set in the dale of the River Dove in Derbyshire was published in 1859, again under the name of George Eliot. The title character, a local carpenter much admired for his integrity and intelligence was based on Eliot's father.

The plot of Adam Bede was suggested to Eliot by her Methodist Aunt, Elizabeth Evans. She told her niece about a story she'd heard concerning a confession of a child murder by a girl in prison.

Speculation about the identity of “George Eliot” was growing, and after Adam Bede, she was forced reluctantly to reveal her identity, mainly because a man called Joseph Liggins was pretending to be the author of her work.

The Mill and the Floss, published in 1860, was based on Eliot's father and herself centred around the home district of Nuneaton. The scenes between Maggie and her brother Tom were based on Eliot's childhood days with her brother Isaac.

By the 1870s Eliot was widely recognized as the greatest living English novelist. Her novels were written for the educated minority. Though highly esteemed by critics they had tiny print runs compared with popular writers such as Dickens.

George Eliot began writing the two pieces that would eventually form Middlemarch on August 2, 1869 and completed the novel in 1871

The advance for Middlemarch in 1872 was huge, about sixty times the annual income of an ordinary family. By this time Eliot was earning enough money to live fashionably, to entertain and to travel.

The eight "books" which comprise Middlemarch are not autonomous entities, but reflect the form of the original eight part serialization.

Title page, first ed., Vol. 1, William Blackwood and Sons, (First volume of eight)

The novel is set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, which is thought to be based on Coventry, during the period 1830–32.

The Middlemarch character. Dorothea Brooke, who marries an elderly narrow minded scholar,.shared some of George Eliot's characteristics but had experiences the writer never had.

English physician Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1836 – 1925) is generally considered the model for the Middlemarch character Dr Lydgate. Allbutt is best known for reducing the then foot long thermometer to a more manageable size.


George Eliot was brought up in an evangelical revivalist household, and for years was a severe and self-critical evangelical herself.

When she was 28, George Eliot and her father moved to Coventry, where she found herself in a more literary atmosphere. In order to please her father she continued to attend church, organized bazaars, run a Sunday School and regularly visited a local workhouse.

Around this time she made the acquaintance of Charles and Cara Bray, a free-thinking couple, who had rejected conventional Christianity. They lent her a book by Charles Hennel, Caroline's brother, An Inquiry into the Origins of Christianity (1838), which rejected Christianity as divine revelation, but maintained that it was “the purest form yet existing of natural religion.”

Influenced by her new literary friends, Eliot became a freethinker and lost her Christian faith, concluding that religious belief was not based on truth but merely a much needed vehicle for mankind’s hopes and dreams. This caused a temporary but painful rupture in relations with her father in whose house she was still living.

In 1846 Eliot completed her translation of the religiously controversial Life of Jesus by David Strauss. Eight years later she published a translation of Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach, another theological book much derided by the church.

By 1872 Eliot was a reluctant rationalist and agnostic but due to her evangelical upbringing, she felt guilty about her lack of faith and compensated by becoming a rigid moralist. She believed that religious belief is an imaginative necessity of man and a projection of his own species but clung to a belief in duty and self-discipline.  Her works were influenced by religious concepts of love and duty. Eliot claimed “God is inconceivable. Immortality is unbelievable. But duty is none the less absolute and peremptory.”

George Eliot was the first person to use the phrase "pop music."' In 1862 she wrote: "There is too much pop for the thorough enjoyment the chamber music."


George Eliot had a pug she called, quite simply, Pug. Eliot and Lewes adored Pug, but sadly their pet pooch disappeared one day. The loss really upset Eliot and she never had another dog


George Eliot  was brought up at Griff House on the Newdigate estate on which her father was manager.

When she was 21, her brother Isaac married and took over the family home, so  Eliot and her father moved to Foleshill near Coventry, which brought her to a more literary atmosphere.

Eliot's father died in 1849, leaving her a small inheritance. She travelled abroad after his death, and spent a winter in Geneva at the home of Swiss artist Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade  and his wife reading intensively and pondering her future.

George Eliot  aged 30, by the Swiss artist Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade (1804-86), 

On her return to England the following year, Eliot  moved to London with the intent of becoming a writer and calling herself Marian Evans.

In 1851 she moved to 142 Strand London, as a paying guest in John Chapman's house. Chapman was the radical publisher whom she had met at Rosehill (near Coventry) and who had printed her translations. He was now the publisher of The Westminster Review for whom Eliot  was an assistant editor.

By 1863 George Eliot and Henry Lewis  were wealthy enough to afford a large house to the north of Regent’s Park. Lavishly decorated, ‘The Priory’ became a glittering salon where the top intellectuals gathered on Sunday afternoons. Charles Darwin and a young, star-struck Henry James both frequented there.

Eliot refused to keep a spare room for friends knowing what it would do for her working schedule.

At the age of 53 Eliot referred to railway travel as "too formidable for us old weak creatures."

After returning from her honeymoon with John Cross, the newly weds moved into a new house at 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.


George Eliot was vulnerable to depression. Also she and George Lewes both suffered from migraines, toothaches and stomach aches. Either one or the other always seemed to be ill.

Seven months after marrying John Cross, Eliot fell ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease she had been afflicted with for the previous few years, led to her death on December 22, 1880 at the age of 61.

Eliot was interred in Highgate Cemetery, London in the area reserved for religious dissenters or agnostics, in a grave touching Lewes.'

Eliot's grave in Highgate Cemetery. By Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons

A hundred years later in 1980 a place was found for Eliot in Westminster Abbey when a memorial tablet was placed in Poets Corner.

Sources Microsoft® Encarta® 99 Encyclopedia,, Novels and Novelists, The Oxford Companion of English Literature.

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