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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.