Selected products from George Eliot
By the nineteenth century, female writers had begun to make considerable advances into the world of literature, a world hitherto dominated by men. Their writing was being taken more seriously, and there was a far greater market for it. However, the well established stereotyping of their work as being lighthearted romance and whimsy as opposed to scholarly and relevant prevailed, and it is for this reason that various female writers at the time chose to publish under nom-de-plumes. It was into this changing artistic environment that Mary Anne Evans was born, on the 22nd November 1819. She would become one of the Victoria era’s leading writers, authoring several novels celebrated for their realism, pastoralism and psychological insightfulness, though her work was all published under the pen name George Eliot. Alongside the necessity of using a pen name to ensure her work was first published and then taken seriously, her turbulent and occasionally scandalous private life offers a further incentive to keep her professional character separate from her personal one.
She was born the third child of Robert Evans (1773-1849) and Christiana Evans, née Pearson (1799-1836) in South Farm, a property belonging to the estate of Arbury Hall in Warwickshire, seat of the Newdigate Baronetcy of 1677, where her father was estate manager for the Newdigate family. She would later immortalise the manor by using it as a fictional setting and inspiration for ‘Mr Gilfil’s Love Story’ in Scenes of Clerical Life. Her mother was the daughter of a local farmer, and gave her name to the Evans’s first child Christiana (1814-64), who was followed by Isaac (1816-90). Twin brothers joined the family in 1821, though their stay was short-lived. Her father brought with him two children from his previous marriage to Harriet Poynton (1780-1809), Mary’s half-brother Robert (1802-64) and half-sister Fanny (1805-82).
The young Mary Anne Evan’s ferocious intelligence was noted early in her life, her voracious reading and remarkable capacity for reason and argument setting her apart from the other children her age from on or near the estate. This, combined with her unconventional physical appearance which rendered marriage unlikely, led her father to invest considerably more in her education than was often afforded women. Between the ages of five and nine she boarded, with her elder sister Christiana, at Miss Latham’s school in Attleborough, before moving to Mrs Wallington’s school in Nuneaton where she stayed until she was thirteen, before finally moving to Miss Franklin’s school in Coventry. Here she stayed until she was sixteen, which marked the end of her formal education. While at Mrs Wallington’s she was taught by Maria Lewis, an evangelical who instilled in Evans an early sense of the differing scope of religious interpretation and faith and the earliest surviving evidence of Evans’s writing is in her letters to Lewis, but the comparatively quiet, disciplined approach to religion and education at Miss Franklin’s school exposed her to a more measured belief system, opposed to evangelicalism, and she soon turned away from Lewis’s doctrines.
Having left school at sixteen she received no more formal education and her mother’s death saw her return home to act as housekeeper for her father. Despite no longer being at school, she maintained correspondence with Maria Lewis until she was twenty-one, while her father’s important position at the Arbury estate granted her access to the manor’s expansive library, where she proceeded to further her classical education by teaching herself from the books she pulled from the shelves. Indeed, this unflinching appetite for formal education, fed but barely sated by her fortunate access to the expansive library of a country estate, is mirrored in her most famous work Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, in which the young Dorothea Burke, a girl “handsome” though “dignified” in appearance, seeks intellectual and spiritual fulfillment through the pursuit of knowledge, acting as a sort of academic and analytical secretary to her pedantic husband Edward Casaubon in his obsessive and hugely ambitious work The Key to All Mythologies. The influence of the library is clear throughout much of her work beyond its quasi-autobiographical presence in Dorothea, as in Romola, in which the deceitful protagonist Tito, married to Romola who is daughter of the old, revered scholar Bardo de’ Bardi, sells his library and betrays his character as one whose respect for knowledge and the sanctity of learning is outweighed by his greed and pursuit of political influence. The classical education she gave herself in the library at Arbury is particularly evident in Romola, and the critic Christopher Stray writes “George Eliot’s novels draw heavily on Greek literature ... and her themes are often influenced by Greek tragedy.” Though Romola is set in Italy, its structure, plot devices and tragedian themes are clearly the result of hours spent poring over the Greek pages of the Newdigate collection.
Moreover, her frequent trips to and from the library afforded her a clear impression of the gulf of difference between the lifestyles of the rich landowners and the poor who lived and worked on their land. This frequent reminder of the vast class differences prevailing in England at the time also finds itself manifested in much of her work; Silas Marner, the most concise of all her novels, addresses the stigma and snobbery directed towards the peasantry and the hypocrisy of its upper-class proponents. The combination of this regular reminder of the imbalance between classes, her growing up in a liberal Anglican low church environment and the burgeoning atmosphere of dissent which was brewing in the Midlands at that time saw her drawn towards a liberalisation of the church structure and, by extension, the class structure and its precepts. However, this unofficial residence in the Newdigate library was cut short when she was twenty-one, as Isaac married and took over the family home, forcing Evans and her father to move to Foleshill, a village near Coventry.
Her proximity to Coventry enabled her to regularly visit various members of its more educated society, most notably Charles and Cara Bray, whose wealth was made in the ribbon manufacturing industry and spent in philanthropy, building schools and housing. It was in their Rosehill Circle that she made acquaintance with, among others, the publisher John Chapman, the social reformer Robert Owen, the philosopher, biologist and sociologist Herbert Spencer, the social theorist and Whig writer Harriet Martineau and the American essayist, lecturer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. This connection with such liberal and literary society naturally preceded an introduction to the liberal theologies of David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach. In fact, her first major work was a translation of Strauss’s Life of Jesus, a work which had been started by another member of the Rosehill circle and which Evans strove to complete, published in 1846 by John Chapman. The liberalisation she experienced while in their company led to her questioning her faith which almost caused her father to throw her out of her home. His anger subsided though, and she respectfully continued to attend church and keep his house until his death in 1849, when she was thirty. Five days after his funeral, finding herself without immediate purpose, she travelled to Switzerland with the Brays, choosing to reside alone in Geneva for a while at a succession of addresses before moving in with François and Juliet d’Albert in a second floor apartment on the Rue de Chanoines, a residence she described as “a downy nest high up in a good old tree”. She read avidly and took inspiration from long walks in the surrounding forest, treating the time as recuperative.
She returned to England the following year seeking work as a writer and with the intention of publishing under the name Marian Evans. Staying at the house of John Chapman, who had published her translation of Life of Jesus, in 1851 she became the assistant editor of the Westminster Review, a campaigning left-wing journal which Chapman had recently bought. Chapman was the named editor, though it was Evans who effectively ran it, contributing many of its essays and reviews and editing many more, form the January 1852 issue until the dissolution of her professional arrangement with Chapman in early 1854. This position is especially noteworthy, for despite the recent increase in numbers and credibility of women writers, a woman running a literary enterprise in so obvious a fashion was unheard-of. The end of her working relationship with Chapman is attributed to an embarrassing, unreciprocated emotional attachment to him, a married man. During her time at the Westminster Review she met the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes, and by 1854, perhaps prompted by the embarrassment surrounding her feelings towards her employer, he and Evans decided to live together despite his marriage to Agnes Jervis. The terms of this marriage were complex; it was an open marriage, and alongside the three children Lewes and Jervis had together, she had four with Thornton Leigh Hunt, of whom Lewes was aware and, moreover, named as the father on their birth certificates. However, in knowing this to be false, he was considered complicit in adultery and subsequently unable to divorce Jervis to make way for Evans.
At this time Evans continued exploring and developing her interest in theological work, translating Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity in 1854, and this interest led to her and Lewes travelling to Weimar and Berlin together for research. While there she wrote various essays and worked on a translation of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics which, though completed in 1856, she did not live to see published. The trip served another purpose beyond mere academia though, for Evans and Lewes treated it as a honeymoon, and their relationship as a marriage. Indeed, she introduced herself as Marian Evans Lewes and called Lewes her husband. Although it was not uncommon for men and women to have affairs in this way (notably, Charles Bray and John Chapman both did), it was unheard of for the affair to be so openly acknowledged by the parties involved.
While she continued to contribute pieces to the Westminster Review, Evans had by 1856 resolved to become a novelist. One of her last essays for the Review, ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, acts as a scathing indictment of the popular lighthearted romance which rendered women’s names and work so largely unregarded in higher intellectual circles, criticising their tedious, predictable and often ridiculous plots, while also serving as something of a manifesto for her own writing. Simultaneously she was praising the move towards realism seen in many European novels at that time, and she finally adopted her more well known nom-de-plume, George Eliot. She was thirty-nine when Amos Barton, the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, wax published in 1858 in the famous and highly respected Blackwood’s Magazine. It, along with various other Scenes, was well received. Following this success, her first full novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859, prompting further high critical praise and a wave of intrigue as to who this new, hitherto unknown author might be; while Scenes had widely been assumed the work of a country pastor, the publishing of Adam Bede whipped the speculators into something of a frenzy, and within that environment of curiosity, praise and speculation there came a pretender to the authorship, named Joseph Liggins. In the light of this, Mary Anne Evans finally stepped forward and, though this shocked many of her admiring readers who considered her turbulent private life inconsistent with such realistic, morally righteous work, she did not lose popularity for it, though she and Lewes were received with reservation in polite society for some time.
The stability her relationship afforded her gave her the self-confidence she needed to ease a prevailing sense of self-doubt, and she followed Adam Bede with The Mill on the Floss, inscribing the manuscript: “To my beloved husband, George Henry Lewes, I give this MS. of my third book, written in the sixth year of our life together, at Holly Lodge, South Field, Wandsworth, and finished 21 March 1860”. Furthermore, following the revelation that the Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, was an avid reader and a particular fan of Adam Bede, she and Lewes were introduced. This proved something of a royal seal of approval, after which she and Lewes were welcomed back into the upper circles of society. The Princess was such a fan that she commission the artist Edward Henry Corbould to paint scenes from the book. The last of her novels was Daniel Deronda, after which she and Lewes moved to Witley, Surrey, marking the end of her professional career and serving as a means of easing Lewes’s ill-health. It was to be short-lived, though, for he died two years later on 30th November 1878. His final work, Life and Mind, succeeded him, and Eliot spent the next two years editing it for publication.
Following Lewes’s death, Eliot found solace with John Walter Cross, a Scottish commission agent whose mother had recently died. Their unity was in their bereavement, and on 16th May 1880 Eliot caused further controversy by marrying him. Though he was twenty years her junior, the legality of the marriage pleased Eliot’s brother Isaac, who had ceased communication with her during her relationship with Lewes but recommenced it now, offering warm congratulations. They honeymooned in Venice and, despite Cross inexplicably falling from the balcony of their hotel on the Grand Canal, they returned to England in one piece and moved into a new house in Chelsea. This, however, would not last long; she had been suffering from kidney disease for the past few years, and now on arrival in London she caught a throat infection which, coupled with her previous ailment, caused her death on 22nd December 1880. She was sixty-one. Her denial of the Christian faith and the ‘irregularity’ of her relationship with Lewes precluded her from burial at Westminster Abbey, so she was instead interred at Highgate Cemetery East in the area reserved for religious dissenters, alongside Lewes. Nearby lies Karl Marx’s monument, and Herbert Spencer is also interred there. On the centenary of her death, a memorial stone was installed in her name in the Poets’ Corner in the South Transept of Westminster Abbey. Although her religious beliefs, or lack therein, were controversial enough to deny her such honoured recognition in the nineteenth century, the enormously liberated nature of the church system, perhaps due in part to her literary legacy, finally allowed her the honour of an act of recognition she so rightly deserves.