If you haven't read her novels and don't know anything about her background, then the name George Eliot likely connotes dauntingly thick novels and, perhaps, boring reading assignments. However, if you'd been alive in Victorian England, the mention of Eliot's name would have made you clap your hands over the children's ears and shoo them out of the room so that you could hear the latest gossip.
The life of George Eliot – the pen name of the woman born in 1819 as Mary Anne Evans – was as scandalous as could be in an era before sex tapes and tabloid news. When she was a young woman, her father nearly disowned her after she had the gall to announce that she would no longer attend church. As an unmarried woman, she lived and worked among men – men with whom she may have had romantic and sexual relationships. Most damning of all, in 1854 Eliot moved in with literary critic George Henry Lewes. They lived together as husband and wife until Lewes' death in 1878, despite the fact that he was already legally married to someone else. (Lewes and his legal wife provoked scandal of their own when she bore several children by another man in the course of their open marriage.)
George Eliot's books were so good, however, that eventually people forgot (or just stopped caring) about the scandal that had once sullied her name. Her novels are still ranked among the finest in English literature. They contain no melodrama. Nor do they contain false moralizing, saints, angels, or demons. They reflected the complexities of real life, the same ones that their author had been unafraid to confront.
Eliot's writing saved her. From her start as a social pariah she became one of the wealthiest and most popular women in England. Charles Dickens came to her parties. Queen Victoria and her daughters counted themselves as fans. Sure, "proper" society matrons may still have whispered nasty things about her, but what did they matter? George Eliot had discovered the power of the truth. It's a gift she leaves behind for us, even today.
The writer George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans on 22 November 1819. Her father, Robert Evans, was the manager of the Arbury estate in Warwickshire, England. Mary Anne was the third child born to him and his wife Christiana. Evans also had two older children from a previous marriage. The Evans household was dominated Mary Anne's father and her older brother Isaac, with whom she was close. Robert Evans was a God-fearing, authority-respecting man. "I was accustomed to hear him utter the word 'Government' in a tone that charged it with awe and made it part of my effective religion in contrast with the word 'rebel,' which seemed to carry the stamp of evil in its syllables," Eliot recalled later of her father. As a student at Mrs. Wallington's Boarding School in Nuneaton, Mary Anne grew close to teacher Maria Lewis. Lewis identified the young woman's gifts and took her under her wing. The two remained close friends for years, corresponding long after Mary Anne had completed her studies. She learned piano, spoke French, and was known as an excellent writer.
When Mary Anne was nineteen, her mother died. The young woman left school and moved back to Warwickshire to care for her father. In 1841, Robert Evans retired from Arbury and moved with his daughter to Foleshill, a town not far away. It was there that George Eliot's life would really begin.
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."
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.
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."
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." 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.
Eliot published her final novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876. She and Lewes then moved from London to Surrey. On 30 November 1878, George Henry Lewes died at their home after a long illness that Eliot nursed him through. Eliot was devastated by the loss of her life partner and closest companion. As a tribute to Lewes, she completed the editing on his final work, a philosophical tome called Life and Mind.
She began spending more time with John Cross, an American banker who had been a friend and financial adviser to the couple. Cross proposed marriage to Eliot three times before she accepted. The couple wed on 16 May 1880. Eliot was 60 years old; Cross was twenty years her junior. On their honeymoon in Venice, Cross plunged from the balcony of their hotel suite into the canal below. It was not clear whether he fell or jumped, but the vicious rumor was that Cross would rather die than make love to his aged and ugly wife. Cross was fished out of the canal, soaking but alive, and the couple never spoke of the ill-fated trip again.
Whatever their marital problems, the Cross marriage didn't last long. Less than eight months after their wedding, after a very brief illness, George Eliot died on 22 December 1880 in London, at the age of 61. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery next to George Henry Lewes. On the hundredth anniversary of her death, a memorial marker was placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, the section of the famous cathedral where England's greatest writers are honored. Eliot was initially refused recognition there because of her unconventional personal life. But as she showed us, the truth always wins in the end.
Father: Robert Evans (1773-1849)
Mother: Christiana Pearson Evans (1788-1836)
Half-brother: Robert Evans (1802-1864)
Half-sister: Fanny Evans (1805-1882)
Sister: Christiana Evans (1814-1859)
Brother: Isaac Evans (1816-1890)
Brothers: 1821 (twin boys who lived only a few days)
Partner: George Henry Lewes (1817-1878)
Miss Latham's Boarding School (1824-1828)
Mrs. Wallington's Boarding School (1828-1832)
Miss Franklin's School (1832-1839)
Assistant editor, The Westminster Review (1851-1856)
Life of Jesus (1846) translation from the German
The Essence of Christianity (1854) translation from the German
Scenes of Clerical Life (1858)
Adam Bede (1859)
The Mill on the Floss (1860)
Silas Marner (1861)
Felix Holt, The Radical (1866)
The Spanish Gypsy (1868)
Daniel Deronda (1876)
Impressions of The ophrastus Such (1879)