Study Guide

George Eliot

George Eliot Introduction

Pop quiz time: which of the following is true about George Eliot?

A) Eliot was called England's greatest living novelist.
B) Eliot was a woman.
C) Eliot was embroiled in one of the most scandalous love triangles in Victorian England.
D) Why are you asking us this, we literally don't know anything about George Eliot, that's why we're reading this guide...

The correct answer, of course, is E) all of the above. 

What's that? That wasn't a given answer choice? Hey, news flash: life isn't fair, and then you die. Get over it. 

Anyway. George Eliot, a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans, was said to be the greatest living English novelist of her time, and is still considered one of the finest writers in all of English literature. She was also considered a "fallen woman" due to her twenty-five year relationship with George Henry Lewes, a married literary critic. Eventually, however, people were so curious to see what Eliot would write next that they forgot they were supposed to be shunning her.

Novels like Middlemarch, Silas Marner, and The Mill on the Floss were beloved by readers for their realistic portrayal of life's complexities. Eliot refused to succumb to melodrama or stereotype. Having confronted life's challenges herself, Eliot understood how complicated and messy the business of living could be. By the time she died, the former social pariah was one of the wealthiest and most popular women in England. Even Princess Louise introduced herself to Eliot as a fan of her work, and let her know that her mother, Queen Victoria, also loved her books.

Mary Anne Evans was born 22 November 1819, just six months after Queen Victoria. Several scholars have pointed out that the two women lived complementary lives. Victoria was the standard of decorum; Eliot was the standard of indecency. Victoria made rules, and Eliot broke them. Victoria and her daughters were fans of Eliot's novels, and Eliot was indelibly shaped by Victoria's England. Victoria outlived Eliot, who died in 1880 at the age of 61. However, they both left their mark on history.

George Eliot Trivia

As a young woman, Eliot lived in a London boarding house occupied by publisher John Chapman (her boss at The Westminster Review), his wife, and his mistress. The other two women conspired against Eliot to force her out of the house when it became clear that Chapman was involved with her as well. In his diary, Chapman placed tiny symbols next to the various women's names to remind himself with whom he had slept on each day.

Eliot had to keep her position at The Westminster Review quiet because few men would agree to write for a magazine edited by a woman.

After the philosopher Herbert Spencer rejected Eliot's romantic advances, he wrote a series of articles on female ugliness, specifically over-large noses. The too-close-to-home stories devastated Eliot, who nonetheless maintained a fierce, desperate crush on him.

Eliot's partner George Henry Lewes raised eight children with his legal wife Agnes Jervis, but only actually fathered three of them. Both George and Agnes believed in free love. Eight years into their marriage, Agnes began an affair with the couple's friend, Thornton Hunt, and bore him five children. Lewes agreed to raise them all as his own.

Although he wasn't attracted to her physically, Herbert Spencer admired Eliot's intellectual gifts. He proposed that the London Library ban all fiction except for Eliot's novels.

Eliot's scandalous personal life clouded her reputation even after her death. Despite her literary achievements, Eliot was not allowed a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner. She finally received recognition there in 1980, one hundred years after her death.

George Eliot Resources

Books

George Eliot, Middlemarch (1874)
This is Eliot's magnum opus. Though its spine is dauntingly thick, Middlemarch has earned its place as one of the greatest novels in English literature. Eliot wanted to write an "English" novel after setting her previous book in Italy. Subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life," Middlemarch follows the idealistic young woman Dorothea Brooke during a period of social change in England.

George Eliot, Silas Marner (1861)
This engaging novel is the story of a tailor falsely accused of stealing from his church congregation. The book takes several jabs at organized religion, an institution Eliot resisted all of her adult life.

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860)
This is Eliot's most autobiographical novel. Main character Maggie Tulliver falls in love with her cousin's fiancé; she then endures her family's rejection and social isolation when they learn what she has done. Sound familiar?

Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot (1968)
Haight, an English professor at Yale University, was the pre-eminent scholarly authority on George Eliot when he died in 1985. His 1968 biography of her, though a little dry, is considered the gold standard. He also compiled a massive nine-volume anthology of Eliot's letters that was published over the course of 24 years.

Kathryn Hughes, George Eliot: The Last Victorian (1999)
Born just six months apart, George Eliot and Queen Victoria lived polar-opposite lives. Victoria was the standard of decorum and propriety; Eliot was a symbol of sin. Yet the two women impacted one another's lives. Victoria and her daughters were fans of Eliot's work, and Eliot was undeniably shaped by Victoria's England. This book looks at the relationship between the two women.

Deborah Weisgall, The World Before Her (2009)
In this novel, author Weisgall follows two parallel stories about women traveling in Venice with their husbands. On one side is a fictional American artist vacationing in 1980. On the other side is an aging George Eliot honeymooning with her much-younger husband. Given that Venice is where Eliot's new husband chose to throw himself into the canal, the setting offers ample dramatic opportunities.

Music

Richard Wagner
The German composer Richard Wagner was a good friend of George Eliot's. He often visited the home she shared with George Henry Lewes. Wagner would not have been one to judge Eliot's unique personal life – it was never known whether his actual father was Friedrich Wagner, who died just after Richard was born, or Ludwig Geyer, an artist friend of his mother's.

Various Artists, Victorian Parlour Evening
Women of good breeding were expected to know how to sit down and play piano for company. Eliot learned to play at boarding school. She doubtlessly spent a few evenings playing the piano or gathered around someone else's piano, listening to songs like these.

BBC Concert Orchestra, The Mill on the Floss Soundtrack
This is the soundtrack that accompanied the 1997 Masterpiece Theatre version of The Mill on the Floss. Have this playing in the background while you read the book, and it's like a movie in your brain.

He Can Jog, Middlemarch
So perhaps George Eliot and electronica don't really have much in common – especially since Eliot died before electronics were invented. Nonetheless, the computer musician He Can Jog (an anagram of John Cage) has an album named after her epic novel. Remember Pop Rocks and Coke? Read Middlemarch while listening to "Middlemarch" and see if your head explodes.

Paper Airplane, Middlemarch
This Ohio-based group has released an album named after Middlemarch. Are their lyrics as eloquent, honest and memorable as George Eliot's sentences? Listen and decide for yourself.

Images

George Eliot
A portrait of Eliot by her friend Sir Frederick Burton. It hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London and is said to be the most accurate likeness of her.

George Eliot, Take Two
A photograph of Eliot.

George Eliot, Take Three
Another portrait of George Eliot.

George Henry Lewes
Eliot's longtime partner.

Birthplace
South Farm at the Arbury estate in Warwickshire, the site of Eliot's birth.

No. 4 Cheyne Walk
Eliot's home in London during the last years of her life.

Grave
George Eliot's grave at Highgate Cemetery, London.

Movies & TV

George Eliot: A Scandalous Life (2002)
This dishy documentary from the BBC is surprisingly scandalous. In an age where starlets distribute their own sex tapes, it's hard to understand just how shocking Eliot's life was to her Victorian peers. Her decision to live with a married man was enough to brand her as an outcast, but her unconventional views on religion and sexuality were equally unusual.

Middlemarch (1994)
Masterpiece Theatre takes on Eliot's complicated novel, a tapestry of stories centered on protagonist Dorothea Brooke. It's a six-part miniseries. You might as well just read the book.

Middlemarch (2011)
This upcoming film, scheduled for release in 2011, would be the first feature film adaptation of Eliot's epic (other directors have chosen to break the complicated book into the bite-sized pieces of a miniseries). Sam Mendes will direct. Rumor has it that his wife Kate Winslet may star, though Mendes has not announced casting decisions.

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1985)
This Australian made-for-television film tells the story of Eliot's hapless tailor. It stars Ben Kingsley as Silas and won a boatload of awards.

The Mill on the Floss (1937)
One of the earliest film adaptations of Eliot's work, this black-and-white movie may be hard to find now. (FYI, the Floss in Eliot's book is a river, not a dental hygiene tool.)

The Mill on the Floss (1997)
Emily Watson stars as Maggie Tulliver in this Masterpiece Theatre version of The Mill on the Floss. The novel was Eliot's most autobiographical work, reflecting on the tense relationship between desire and social convention. It's an excellent movie.

Websites

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
This site, dedicated to Eliot's epic novel Middlemarch, is a great overview of Eliot's life and career. Big round of applause to Diana Block, Genevieve Davis, Dorothy Gribbin, Abby Hertzmark, Jennifer Kremer, and Bryan Wagner for their hard work.

Victorian Web – George Eliot
Victorian Web is a useful Internet resource that shows the relationships between the big players of the Victorian era. Eliot's entry is a great introduction to her life, and it shows her connections to other notables of the time.

Literature Network
This site features a pithy bio of Eliot, along with the online texts of her novels and poems. It also contains the text of Impressions of The ophrastus Such, a series of essays Eliot wrote in the voice of the Greek philosopher.

Masterpiece Theatre
Masterpiece Theatre loves George Eliot. The series has made films of Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Daniel Deronda. This website is the companion to Daniel Deronda, the film version of Eliot's final novel.

Women in the Literary Marketplace
This site from Cornell University looks at the history of women as commercial writers. It focuses on the case studies of Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, two women who found great success as female writers publishing under men's names.

George Eliot in Coventry and Warwickshire
Travel like George Eliot! The BBC has created this site as sort of a travel guide to Eliot's England. She was born in Warwickshire, a county in central England. The houses where Eliot was born and raised still stand.

Video & Audio

George Eliot: A Scandalous Life
Clips of this 2002 BBC documentary are available on YouTube. With Russian subtitles.

Middlemarch and MJ
This is a scene from the 1994 film version of Middlemarch, with a Michael Jackson soundtrack. Look, we don't put this stuff on the Internet. We just tell you about it.

George Eliot Quotations
A montage of Eliot's best-known quotations.

Written Britain
A mini-documentary about George Eliot.

Mill on the Floss
A scene between Maggie and Thomas in a film version of Eliot's autobiographical novel.

Middlemarch
A scene from a 1994 adaptation of the book.

Primary Sources

Middlemarch
E-text of the novel.

Silas Marner
E-text of the 1861 novel.

Adam Bede
E-text of Eliot's first novel.

The Mill on the Floss
E-text of the novel.

"O May I Join the Choir Invisible"
Poetry by Eliot.

"The Ethics of George Eliot's Works"
A critical essay on Eliot published in 1874.

"Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"
Eliot's manifesto on fiction written by women.

The Life of George Eliot by John Morley
E-text of a 1904 biography of the writer.

Athenaeum Review
An 1860 review of The Mill on the Floss by a popular literary magazine.

Letter
An 1840 letter George Eliot wrote to her uncle Samuel Evans.