George Eliot: Scandal & Romance
Immediately after her father's death, Eliot traveled to Geneva with the Brays. When they returned to England, Eliot announced that she would be staying on in Geneva alone – a shocking choice for an unmarried woman. When she returned to England in 1850, she moved into a London boarding house known as The Strand. The boarders included John Chapman, a publisher who had printed some of Eliot's essays, as well as his wife and his mistress. Eliot and Chapman soon became involved as well. When the other two women found out, they conspired to force her out of the house. She moved back to Coventry. It was the first of several romantic relationships that ended poorly for Eliot. She had a habit of developing fierce, desperate crushes on unavailable men, often writing cringe-worthy love letters begging men who had rejected her to reconsider their feelings. People gossiped about her neediness.
In 1851, Chapman became owner of the Westminster Review, a left-wing journal that Eliot had written for previously. He asked her to be the editor, and after establishing that there would be no hanky-panky going on, she moved back to London and into The Strand. Chapman and Eliot kept her role at the Review quiet for fear that men would refuse to write for a female editor. Under her stewardship, the paper grew into a respected journal.
Among the many people in her social circle was the literary critic George Henry Lewes. Lewes was known as a witty, intelligent man. People snickered about his, um, unconventional looks – he was short, with an enormous head that seemed not to match his body. He was also in a very unconventional marriage. He and his wife Agnes were believers in free love. Five of their eight children had been fathered by another man, though Lewes raised them all as his own. The couple was unable to divorce due to a legal complication. By the time that Lewes and Eliot met, Lewes' relationship with Agnes was essentially over. Lewes and Eliot soon began an affair. In 1854, Eliot shocked London society by announcing that she would live with Lewes as his common-law wife.
An unmarried couple living together was socially unacceptable in Victorian England, even more so when one of its members was already married. Eliot's decision essentially made her an outcast. Friends stopped inviting her over. When her brother and sister found out in 1857, they cut off all contact with her. Still, Eliot held her ground. She was willing to accept the consequences for following her heart. "I do not wish to take the ground of ignoring what is unconventional in my position," she wrote John Chapman. "I have counted the cost of the step I have taken and am prepared to bear, without irritation or bitterness, renunciation of all my friends. I am not mistaken in the person to whom I have attached myself."4