Bookish Birthdays: George Eliot

22nd Nov 2011

George Eliot

As a child, Marian lived at Griff House and used the library at Arbury Hall. She was enriched by the literature of Ancient Greece, but also became keenly aware of the social differences between her neighbours.

Marian’s father sent her to a succession of local boarding schools from the age of five to sixteen. One of her first teachers was an Evangelical Christian, Maria Lewis. Marian was raised in a conservative, Anglican household, while religious dissent spread across the Midlands.

In 1836, Marian’s mother, Christina, died. Her brother, Isaac, took over the family business, while Marian – the last unmarried daughter – moved with her elderly father to Coventry.

She became a regular guest at the home of a local manufacturer and philanthropist, Charles Bray, and his wife. Immersed in their free-thinking circle, Marian renounced her faith. Always broad-minded, in 1846 she translated David StraussLife of Jesus from German.

After her father died in 1849, Marian – now thirty – travelled to Geneva with the Brays. On her return, she moved to London. With an allowance of £100 per year, she had a degree of independence unavailable to many other single women.

In 1851, Marian Evans became the first female assistant editor of the radical Westminster Review. Her relationship with the philosopher and critic, George Henry Lewes, created a scandal.

Lewes was estranged from his wife, who had three children by another man. But when Marian began living with Lewes in 1854, she was deemed a ‘fallen woman’, cast out of the literary milieu and disowned by her family.

This difficult period prompted Marian to anonymously submit her first short story, Amos Barton, to Blackwood’s Magazine. A collection, Scenes of Clerical Life, was published in 1857, and her first novel, Adam Bede, followed in 1859, under a male pen-name, George Eliot.

Eliot’s success led to speculation about her identity, which was finally revealed by publisher John Chapman. Often mocked for her ‘ill-favoured’ appearance, Eliot now found herself the target of malicious gossip among other supposedly progressive women, including Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell.

The eponymous hero of Adam Bede is thought to be inspired by Eliot’s father. The Mill on the Floss (1860), her most autobiographical novel, centred on Maggie Tulliver, described by biographer Kathryn Hughes as ‘one of those great literary heroines whom bookish girls grow up wanting to be.’ Eliot’s own favourite work, Silas Marner, followed in 1861.

She received an advance of £7,000 – the highest paid to an English novelist at the time – for Romola, a historical romance admired by Henry James, and her only novel set outside the provincial England of the recent past.

Her political courage surfaced once again in Felix Holt: The Radical (1866.) She spent the remainder of the decade working on Middlemarch, often considered her masterpiece. On first reading it, Emily Dickinson commented, ‘What do I think of glory?’ Eliot continued to push boundaries, tackling anti-semitism in her final work, Daniel Deronda (1876) after befriending the Jewish scholar, Emmanuel Deutsch.

George Henry Lewes died in 1878. Two years later, Eliot caused another stir when she married John Walter Cross, an American banker twenty years her junior. Eliot’s brother Isaac sent her a letter of congratulations on having at last made a ‘respectable’ marriage.

During their honeymoon, Cross fell (or jumped) from a balcony into the Venice Canal. He survived, but Eliot – now over sixty, and an invalid – died suddenly on December 22, 1880.

In her provocative 1856 essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, Eliot distanced herself from the literary affectations of some peers. Her psychological realism has been compared to that of a Russian contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

It has also been suggested that Eliot’s writing was a precursor of modernism. ‘It was really George Eliot who started it all. It was she started putting action inside,’ wrote D.H. Lawrence, while Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.’

Eliot’s novels have frequently been adapted for cinema and television, with Ben Kingsley starring as Silas Marner, and Emily Watson playing Maggie in Mill on the Floss.

‘Greatly respected, she was still not respectable,’ Lisa Appignanesi wrote for The Guardian in 2011. ‘Though she comes to us wrapped in swaths of Victoriana, George Eliot was a radical of the boldest kind.’

Tara Hanks


  • b says:

    Hi, I just love your picture of George Eliot! It’s not hideously unflattering, like her photo, nor unbelievably -er, airbrushed, like some of the other portraits. She looks like a real, live, intelligent human being. I haven’t seen this picture on any other websites. Is it your own? and if so, would you mind me using it (probably about “wallet sized”) in a project I’m doing on the roots of Zionism? (It’s hard to believe Theodor Herzl hadn’t read Eliot’s remarkable “Daniel Deronda”- I couldn’t, with justice, leave her out)

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment, B! I’m afraid the picture isn’t ours, but I’ll try and find out where it’s from and let you know – that way you’ll be able to find out if it’s one you can use.