George Eliot: Ugly Beauty
Once settled in Foleshill, Eliot met neighbors Charles and Cara Bray. The shy, socially awkward Eliot became close friends with the progressive couple. Through the Brays, Eliot met a circle of like-minded friends. Her shyness fell away. People spoke of her intelligence, her wit, her lovely, well-modulated voice – and her very unfortunate physical appearance.
Let's get this out there right now: George Eliot was not a pretty woman. She was painfully aware of her undeniably unique looks and the effect they had on her romantic prospects. Yet her personality and charm were such that men still found themselves drawn to her, even if they did not find her physically attractive. "Behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking," Henry James wrote of Eliot. "I don't know in what the charm lies, but it is thoroughly potent. But in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty."3
Eliot was relieved and astounded to discover that her new friends shared the doubts about religion that she had long harbored, but had been afraid to speak aloud. From her place in the rural Midlands, Eliot could not have known that a quiet revolution was taking place in England's intellectual circles. For centuries the Anglican Church had dominated English society, with its principles guiding every day life. Now people were beginning to question their faith. The church was losing its stranglehold over society, but it wasn't yet clear what would take its place. Intellectuals like the Brays were among those questioning whether free will might include life outside the church.
In 1842, Eliot stopped going to church. Her father was furious and nearly disowned her. Close friends like Maria Lewis were so appalled they stopped writing to her. Nevertheless, Eliot boldly moved ahead on the path she had chosen. She began work on an English translation of The Life of Jesus by German philosopher David Friedrich Strauss, whom she met through the Brays. The translation was published in 1846. It did not bear Eliot's name (she was still going by Mary Anne Evans then) but earned her respect as word got around London that she had done the translating.
In June 1849, Eliot's father Robert Evans died after a long illness. The loss of her father was deeply upsetting to Eliot, but in many ways it was liberating. With the dominating figure of her father out of the picture, she was at last free to live the life she wanted.