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George Eliot: Writer

By April 1855, Eliot and Lewes were living together in London as a quasi-married couple. Eliot changed her name to Marian Lewes. With Lewes' encouragement (and with time on her hands following her social ostracism), Eliot decided to finally try fiction writing, something that she had always wanted to do. There was just the problem of her name. Eliot worried that her work would be dismissed as "women's" fiction, or clouded by her personal scandal, if she published under her own name. She came up with the name George Eliot. "George was Mr. Lewes's Christian name," she explained later, "and Eliot was a good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word."5

Lewes sent her first story, "Amos Barton," to his publisher with a phony explanation that George Eliot was a shy clergyman who wished to remain anonymous. On New Year's Day 1857, "Amos Barton" was published in Blackwood's Magazine. It became one of three tales published together that year as Scenes of Clerical Life, Eliot's first book of fiction. In 1859, she published her first novel, Adam Bede, a dramatic tale of thwarted love, betrayal, and murder. It was very successful, and readers began wondering who this George Eliot was. When an imposter named Joseph Liggins stepped forward claiming to be the author, Marian Lewes revealed herself as the true George Eliot.

In 1860, Eliot published The Mill on the Floss, the most autobiographical work she ever wrote. It was about a woman who falls in love with another woman's fiancé, subsequently enduring social disapproval and rejection by her older brother. Eliot dedicated the book to her "husband," George Henry Lewes. Lewes was crucial to Eliot's career, encouraging her and shielding her from bad reviews, which threw her into crippling depression. "It is my rule, very strictly observed, not to read the criticisms on my writings," Eliot wrote. "For years I have found this abstinence necessary to preserve me from that discouragement as an artist which ill-judged praise no less than ill-judged blame tends to produce in me."6 Mill was followed by Silas Marner, a novel about a tailor wrongfully accused of theft. For her next novel, she traveled to Italy to research the book Romola. Her books were so popular that people began to forget that they had very recently given their author the cold shoulder.

In 1869, Eliot began working on an epic novel set in England. She set the book aside in order to care for Lewes' son Thornton, who was seriously ill (he died in October). The work was eventually completed, and Middlemarch was published serially in 1871 and 1872. It is one of the most complex novels in English literature. The book followed several storylines centering on the idealistic, young Dorothea Brooke. It was enormously successful. Thanks to Middlemarch, Eliot became the one of the wealthiest women in England. She was hailed as the greatest living English novelist. Everyone wanted to attend her parties.

Readers loved Eliot's work for its realism. Her plots often centered on people falsely accused, or who were dealing with the consequences of difficult and unpopular decisions. She seemed to understand human nature in a way that other writers didn't. She was the most popular female writer since Jane Austen, but had life experiences from which to draw that Austen could never have imagined. "With larger experience that could be gathered by Jane Austen in a country parsonage, and with fuller culture of mind... George Eliot's genius takes a range over life as unbounded as Jane Austen's was circumscribed," wrote the New York Times in 1877.7 That was the same year that Eliot and Lewes were introduced to Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Louise, who let Eliot know that both she and her mother were fans of her work. The royal reception officially signaled the end of Eliot's social isolation.

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