It is never too late to be what you might have been.
George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), one of the leading writers of Victorian times. Like many of her contemporary female writers, she published her books using a male name in order to be taken seriously. Her novels, including ‘Adam Bede’, ‘The Mill on the Floss’ and ‘Middlemarch’, have remained perennially popular and the subject of numerous television adaptations.
The writer and woman we now think of as George Eliot was born on November 22nd,1819; her given name was Mary Anne Evans, her forename often shortened within the family, and later among her friends, to Mary Ann. Her father Robert Evans was the agent for the Arbury Hall Estate in Warwickshire; her mother was Christiana Pearson, Evans’ second wife, his first having died in 1809. Mary Ann was the third of Christiana’s children, and she also had two half-siblings, Robert and Frances, who were already adolescents when she was born. Early in her life, the family moved to Griff House, a pleasant red-brick house, where she was to spend the formative years of her life. The countryside roundabout formed the basis of the landscape she imaginatively recreates in The Mill on the Floss, where she also draws on her mother’s family as the inspiration for some of the characters. Her close early relationship with her nearest brother, Isaac, is generally thought to have provided the material for the relationship between Maggie and Tom in that novel.
Robert Evans invested in education for both Mary Ann and her older sister, something not always afforded to women. She went to three separate schools, all of them boarding, and in each, her considerable intellect developed. Through the influence of one of her schoolmistresses, Miss Maria Lewis, she was, for a time, an enthusiastic Evangelical, but later rejected this faith. In 1835 her formal education ended and she returned home; when her mother died in 1836, Mary Ann was left in charge of the household, but at the same time had private tutoring in Italian, and German and also learnt some Greek and Latin, and her father’s employers gave her the free use of their library. She had started writing – at this stage, poetry. Otherwise, her life was that of any unmarried daughter of the time: local good works, time with her married siblings, a wide correspondence, and visits with friends. In 1841 her father passed on his role as a land agent, and the occupancy of Griff House, to his now married son Isaac, and he and Mary Ann moved to Coventry, where she continued looking after the household until her father’s death in 1849.
In her new home, and aged 21, Mary Ann had her own study and pursued a considerable course of reading. It was during this time that she developed a close friendship with Charles and Caroline Bray, free-thinkers. This was the catalyst to her challenging organised religion, and specifically to stating ‘I regard [Jewish and Chistian Scriptures] … as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction’, which led to a clash with her father through her refusal to go to church. This might have ended in complete estrangement, but eventually, she relented and accompanied him to church, though her inner views had not changed. It should be emphasised here that she did not at this stage become a non-believer; God was still very much a central part of her thinking life, but the structures man had built around God were not.
In 1844 Mary Ann took over the translation of David Friedrich Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), which labour led to her first prose publication in 1846, though her name was nowhere attached to it, only that of the German author. At this time her father began to be ill and she devoted much time to his care; in the lead-up to his death in 1849 she wrote to Charles Bray, ‘The one deep strong love I have ever known has now its highest exercise and fullest reward – the worship of sorrow is the worship of mortals.’ During his last hours, she wrote ‘What shall I be without my Father?’ After this significant death, she travelled around Europe with the Brays and then spent several months alone in Geneva – a time to think ahead to how she would now live her life, and the point at which she began the Journal that she would keep for the next eleven years.
In 1851 Eliot moved to London and took up an editorial post at the Westminster Review, assisting its owner and publisher John Chapman; at this time she adopted permanently yet another form of her christened name, this time Marian. Through her work at the Review, she met George Henry Lewes, who would remain her much loved and much loving companion until his death in 1878. Lewes was married but he and his wife Agnes were both believers in an open relationship; while they were together, Agnes had two children by Thornton Hunt, the first of whom Lewes took on as his own. By the time he met Marian Evans, the relationship with Agnes had broken down, though, true to their principles, they remained friends and he continued to support her throughout their lives. However, his recognition of her child by another man meant that adultery was not a ground he could claim for divorce. He could not marry Marian Evans; and so they took the momentous decision to live together openly, marking this first by spending several months together in Germany in 1854, then settling in East Sheen in 1855 to pursue their writing and reviewing careers. And now Marian Evans becomes a novelist and George Eliot is born.
She begins with a short story, ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’, which becomes the first of a series to make up her first fictional publication, Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) under the pseudonym of George Eliot. This was followed by her first novel, Adam Bede (1859), which sold 16,000 copies in its first year. In quick succession came The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), Felix Holt (1866), and her greatest work and crowning achievement, Middlemarch (1872). Her last major novel, Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876. George Lewes died in 1878, and Eliot spent the next two years editing and completing Lewes’s final work, Problems of Life and Mind, seeing it through to publication. In May 1880 she married John Cross, who had been her friend and her financial adviser when Lewes was alive. Following a honeymoon in Venice, they returned to London, where Eliot died of kidney failure on December 22nd, 1880. Cross was left alone in the house at Cheyne Walk into which they had only just moved with happy expectations of their married life together.
It is easy to read this outline of Marian Evans’/George Eliot’s life and gloss over its extreme unconventionality. At every key moment of decision in her life, she showed great courage in defying society’s expectations of her. In her views on religion, she risked the loss of her father’s love. In her defiance of social norms by living with Lewes openly (in 1848 she had expressed contempt for Jane Eyre’s refusal to live as Rochester’s wife without marriage), she sacrificed the good opinion of and any contact with her brother, Isaac, whom she had loved so devotedly as a child. (He restored relations only when she married John Cross.) In her radically complex accounts of human nature in her fiction, her imaginative sympathy extends our own as readers. And by marrying a man 20 years younger than her, not much more than a year after Lewes’ death, she challenged the expectations even of her own circle. But Cross understood her greatness; finishing off a letter which Eliot had left in midstream, he wrote ‘Here the letter is broken off. The pen which had carried delight and comfort to so many minds and hearts, here made its last mark. The spring, which had widened out into so wide a river of speech, ceased to flow.’