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George Eliot

George Eliot

George Eliot was the pen name used by the English novelist Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), one of the most important writers of European fiction. Her masterpiece, Middlemarch, is not only a major social document but also one of the greatest novels in the history of fiction.

Mary Ann Evans was born in Warwickshire, the daughter of an estate agent or manager. Her education was a conventional one, dominated by Christian teachings and touched by the enthusiasm generated by the Evangelical movement of church reform. In her 20s she came into contact with a circle of freethinkers and underwent a radical transformation of her beliefs. Influenced by the so-called Higher Criticism—a largely German school of biblical scholarship that attempted to treat sacred writings as human and historical documents—she devoted herself to translating its findings for the English public. She published her translation of David Strauss's Life of Jesus in 1846 and her translation of Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity in 1854.

In 1851 Evans became an editor of the Westminster Review, a rationalist and reformist journal. In that capacity she came into contact with the leading intellectuals of the day, among them a group known as the positivists. They were followers of the doctrines of the French philosopher Auguste Comte, who were interested in applying scientific knowledge to the problems of society. One of these men was George Henry Lewes, a brilliant philosopher, psychologist, and literary critic, with whom she formed a lasting relationship. As he was separated from his wife but unable to obtain a divorce, their relationship challenged Victorian ideas of respectability. Nevertheless, the obvious devotion and permanence of their union came to be respected.

Adam Bede

In the same period Evans turned her powerful mind from scholarly and critical writing to creative work. In 1857 she published a short story, "Amos Barton," and took the pen name "George Eliot" in order to obviate the special aura then attached to lady novelists. After collecting her short stories in Scenes of Clerical Life (2 vols., 1858), Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede (1859). The plot was drawn from a reminiscence of Eliot's aunt, a Methodist preacher, whom she idealized as a character in the novel. The story concerns the seduction of a stupid peasant girl by a selfish young squire, and it follows the stages of the girl's pregnancy, mental disorder, conviction for child murder, and transportation to the colonies. A greater interest develops, however, in the growing love of the lady preacher and a village artisan, Adam Bede. The religious inspiration and moral elevation of their life stand in contrast to the mental limitations and selfishness that govern the personal relations of the other couple.

Eliot's next novel, The Mill on the Floss (1860), shows even stronger traces of her childhood and youth in small-town and rural England. It follows the development of a bright and attractive heroine, Maggie Tulliver, among the narrow-minded provincials who surround her. Through the adversities that follow her father's bankruptcy, Maggie acquires a faith in Christian humility, fostered by her reading of Thomas à Kempis. But events become more complex than her ascetic way of life can respond to, and the final pages of the novel show the heroine reaching toward a "religion of humanity," which it was Eliot's aim to instill in her readers.

Silas Marner

In 1861 Eliot published a short novel, Silas Marner, which through use as a school textbook is unfortunately her best-known work. It concerns the redemption from misanthropy of the lonely, long-suffering Silas Marner by a child who comes accidentally to his door and whom he adopts. The fairy-tale qualities of the plot are relieved by the realism with which Eliot invested the rural setting and by the psychological penetration with which she portrayed her somewhat grotesque characters.

In 1860 and 1861 Eliot lived abroad in Florence and studied Renaissance history and culture. She wrote a historical novel, Romola (published 1862-1863), set in Renaissance Florence. This work has never won a place among the author's major achievements, yet it stands as a major example of historical fiction. The story follows the broad outlines of The Mill on the Floss—a young woman's spiritual development amid the limitations of the world around her—but the surroundings of Florentine history are considerably more complex than those of provincial English life. Romola experiences Renaissance humanism, Machiavellian politics, and Savonarola's religious revival movement. She moves beyond them all to a "religion of humanity" expressed in social service.

Despite some lapses into doctrinaire writing, Eliot always aimed at creating conviction in her readers by her honesty in describing human beings, refraining from the tendency to make them illustrations of her ideas. In her next novel, Felix Holt (1866), she came as close as she ever did to setting up her fiction in order to convey her doctrines. In this work, however, it is not her ethical but her political thought that is most in evidence, as she addressed herself to the social questions that were then disturbing England. The hero of the novel is a young reformer who carries Eliot's message to the working class. This message is that their advancement beyond widespread misery could be made by the inner development of their intellectual and moral capacities and not alone through political reforms or union activities. In contrast to Holt, the conventional progressive politician is shown to be tainted by political corruption and insincere in his identification with the working class. The heroine validates this political lesson by choosing the genuine, but poor, reformer rather than the opportunist of her own class.

Middlemarch

Eliot did not publish any novel for some years after Felix Holt, and it might have appeared that her creative vein was exhausted. After traveling in Spain in 1867, she produced a dramatic poem, The Spanish Gipsy, in the following year, but neither this poem nor the other poems of the period are on a par with her prose. Then in 1871-1872 Eliot published her masterpiece, Middlemarch, a comprehensive vision of human life, with the breadth and profundity of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. The main strand of its complex plot is the familiar Eliot tale of a girl's awakening to the complexities of life and her formulation of a humanistic substitute for religion as a guide for her conduct. But the heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is here surrounded by other "seekers in life's ways," a man of science and a political reformer, whose struggles and discoveries command almost equal attention. Moreover, the social setting in which the heroes' challenges are presented is not merely sketched in or worked up from historical notes but rendered with a comprehensiveness and subtlety that makes Middlemarch a major social document as well as a work of art. The title— drawn from the name of the fictional town in which most of the action occurs—and the subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life, suggest that the art of fiction here develops a grasp of the life of human communities, as well as that of individuals.

Eliot's last novel was Daniel Deronda (1874-1876). It is perhaps her least-read work, although recent critical attention has revealed its high merits in at least one half of its plot, while raising still unanswered questions about its less successful half. The novel contrasts and interweaves two stories. One is a marriage for personal advantages by a young woman of keen intelligence who discovers that she has given herself to a scoundrel. The other story is the discovery by a young British gentleman that he is of Jewish origin and his subsequent dedication to the Jewish community by espousal of the Zionist resettlement of Palestine. The ethical relationship of these widely divergent situations and characters is one of the chief interests of the author, but although her intention is clear, her literary success is less so.

In 1880, after the death of Lewes, Eliot married a friend of long standing, John Walter Cross. She died in the same year, having reached an influence on many of her contemporaries amounting almost to the position of a prophetic teacher.

Further Reading

Gordon S. Haight edited the comprehensive edition of The George Eliot Letters (7 vols., 1954-1955). Haight's George Eliot (1968) is likely to become the standard biography of Eliot, although the "official" biography by her husband, J. W. Cross, ed., George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (3 vols., 1885), is still useful. Two preeminent critical studies of Eliot's novels are Barbara Hardy, The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form (1959; rev. ed. 1963), and W. J. Harvey, The Art of George Eliot (1961). For a discussion of the intellectual currents underlying her works see Bernard J. Paris, Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values (1965). □

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"George Eliot." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Eliot, George

George Eliot

Born: November 22, 1819
Warwickshire, England
Died: December 22, 1880
London, England

English author and novelist

George Eliot was the pen name (a writing name) used by the English novelist Mary Ann Evans, one of the most important writers of European fiction. Her masterpiece, Middlemarch, is not only a major social record but also one of the greatest novels in the history of fiction.

Mary Ann's youth and early career

Mary Ann Evans was born November 22, 1819, in Warwickshire, England, to Robert Evans, an estate agent, or manager, and Christiana Pearson. She lived in a comfortable home, the youngest of three children. When she was five years old, she and her sister were sent to boarding school at Attleborough, Warwickshire, and when she was nine she was transferred to a boarding school at Nuneaton. It was during these years that Mary discovered her passion for reading. At thirteen years of age, Mary went to school at Coventry. Her education was conservative (one that held with the traditions of the day), dominated by Christian teachings.

Mary Ann completed her schooling when she was sixteen years old. In her twenties she came into contact with a circle of people whose thinking did not coincide with the opinions of most people and underwent an extreme change of her beliefs. Influenced by the so-called Higher Criticisma largely German school that studied the Bible and that attempted to treat sacred writings as human and historical documentsshe devoted herself to translating these works from the German language to English for the English public. She published her translation of David Strauss's Life of Jesus in 1846 and her translation of Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity in 1854.

In 1851 Evans became an editor of the Westminster Review, a sensible and open-minded journal. Here, she came into contact with a group known as the positivists. They were followers of the doctrines of the French philosopher (a seeker of knowledge) Auguste Comte (17981857), who were interested in applying scientific knowledge to the problems of society. One of these men was George Henry Lewes (18171878), a brilliant philosopher, psychologist (one who is educated in the science of the mind), and literary critic, with whom she formed a lasting relationship. As he was separated from his wife but unable to obtain a divorce, their relationship was a scandal in those times. Nevertheless, the obvious devotion and long length of their union came to be respected.

Becomes George Eliot

In the same period Evans turned her powerful mind from scholarly and critical writing to creative work. In 1857 she published a short story, "Amos Barton," and took the pen name "George Eliot" in order to prevent the discrimination (unfair treatment because of gender or race) that women of her era faced. After collecting her short stories in Scenes of Clerical Life (2 vols., 1858), Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede (1859). The plot was drawn from a memory of Eliot's aunt, a Methodist preacher, whom she used as a model for a character in the novel.

Eliot's next novel, The Mill on the Floss (1860), shows even stronger traces of her childhood and youth in small-town and rural England. The final pages of the novel show the heroine reaching toward a "religion of humanity" (the belief in human beings and their individual moral and intellectual abilities to work toward a better society), which was Eliot's aim to instill in her readers.

In 1861 Eliot published a short novel, Silas Marner, which through use as a school textbook is her best-known work. This work is about a man who has been alone for a long time and who has lost his faith in his fellow man. He learns to trust others again by learning to love a child who he meets through chance, but whom he eventually adopts as his own.

In 1860 and 1861 Eliot lived abroad in Florence, Italy, and studied Renaissance (a movement that began in fourteenth-century Italy, that spread throughout Europe until the seventeenth century, with an emphasis in arts and literature) history and culture. She wrote a historical novel, Romola (published 18621863), set in Renaissance Florence. This work has never won a place among the author's major achievements, yet it stands as a major example of historical fiction.

Eliot aimed at creating confidence in her readers by her honesty in describing human beings. In her next novel, Felix Holt (1866), she came as close as she ever did to setting up her fiction in order to convey her beliefs. In this work, however, it is not her moral but her political thought that is expressed as she addressed the social questions that were then disturbing England. The hero of the novel is a young reformer who carries Eliot's message to the working class. This message is that they could get themselves out of their miserable circumstances much more effectively by expecting more of themselves both morally and intellectually and not just through reform of the government or through union activities. In contrast to Holt, the conservative politician is shown to be part of the corrupt political process and a person who is dishonest with the working class people that he represents. The heroine of the novel supports this political lesson by choosing the genuine, but poor, reformer rather than the opportunist (a person who takes advantage of any situations for personal gain with no regard for right or wrong) of her own class.

Middlemarch

Eliot did not publish any novels for some years after Felix Holt, and it might have appeared that her creative thread was gone. After traveling in Spain in 1867, she produced a dramatic poem, The Spanish Gipsy, in the following year, but neither this poem nor the other poems of the period are as good as her nonpoetic writing.

Then in 1871 and 1872 Eliot published her masterpiece, Middlemarch, a broad understanding of human life. The main strand of its complex plot is the familiar Eliot tale of a girl's understanding of life. It tells of her awakening to the many complications involved in a person's life and that she has not used the true religion of God as a guide for how she should live her life. The social setting makes Middlemarch a major account of society at that time as well as a work of art. The titledrawn from the name of the fictional town in which most of the action occursand the subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life, suggest that the art of fiction here develops a grasp of the life of human communities, as well as that of individuals.

Eliot's last novel was Daniel Deronda (18741876). It is perhaps her least-read work, although recent critical attention has revealed its high value in at least one half of its plot, while raising still unanswered questions about its less successful half. The novel contrasts and interweaves two stories. One is a marriage for personal advantages by a young woman of sharp intelligence who discovers that she has given herself to a cheat. The other story is the discovery by a young British gentleman that he is of Jewish origin. This inspires in him to dedicate and commit his life to furthering the cause of the Jewish community to create a Zionist resettlement in Palestine. The moral relationship of these widely different situations and characters is one of the chief interests of the author, but although her intention is clear, her book and its message is not.

In 1880, after the death of Lewes, Eliot married a friend of long standing, John Walter Cross. She died in London on December 22, 1880, having gained the extreme respect and admiration from her peers and fellow novelists.

For More Information

Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. London: Penguin Books, 1997.

Hughes, Kathryn. George Eliot: The Last Victorian. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999.

Karl, Frederick R. George Eliot, Voice of a Century: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

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Eliot, George

George Eliot, pseud. of Mary Ann or Marian Evans, 1819–80, English novelist, b. Arbury, Warwickshire. One of the great English novelists, she was reared in a strict atmosphere of evangelical Protestantism but eventually rebelled and renounced organized religion totally. Her early schooling was supplemented by assiduous reading, and the study of languages led to her first literary work, Life of Jesus (1846), a translation from the German of D. F. Strauss. After her father's death she became subeditor (1851) of the Westminster Review, contributed articles, and came to know many of the literary people of the day. In 1854 she began a long and happy union with G. H. Lewes, which she regarded as marriage, though it involved social ostracism and could have no legal sanction because Lewes's estranged wife was living. Throughout his life Lewes encouraged Evans in her literary career; indeed, it is possible that without him Evans, subject to periods of depression and in constant need of reassurance, would not have written a word.

In 1856, Mary Ann began Scenes of Clerical Life, a series of realistic sketches first appearing in Blackwood's Magazine under the pseudonym Lewes chose for her, George Eliot. Although not a popular success, the work was well received by literary critics, particularly Dickens and Thackeray. Three novels of provincial life followed—Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861). She visited Italy in 1860 and again in 1861 before she brought out in the Cornhill Magazine (1862–63) her historical romance Romola, a story of Savonarola. Felix Holt (1866), a political novel, was followed by The Spanish Gypsy (1868), a dramatic poem. Middlemarch (1871–72), a portrait of life in a provincial town, is considered her masterpiece. She wrote one more novel, Daniel Deronda (1876); the satirical Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879); and verse, which was never popular and is now seldom read. Lewes died in 1878, and in 1880 she married a close friend of both Lewes and herself, John W. Cross, who later edited George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (3 vol., 1885–86). Writing about life in small rural towns, George Eliot was primarily concerned with the responsibility that people assume for their lives and with the moral choices they must inevitably make. Although highly serious, her novels are marked by compassion and a subtle humor.

See her letters (ed. by G. S. Haight, 7 vol., 1954–56); her collected essays (ed. by T. Pinney, 1964); biographies by L. and E. Hanson (1952), G. S. Haight (1968), J. Uglow (1987), F. R. Karl (1995), R. Ashton (1997), and K. Hughes (1999); studies by E. S. Haldane (1927), J. Thale (1959), B. Hardy (1967), D. Carroll, ed. (1971), T. S. Pearce (1973), and G. Beer (1983).

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Eliot, George

Eliot, George (1819–80). Novelist whose real name was Mary Anne (later Marian) Evans. Born in Warwickshire, she was the daughter of a land agent whose moral qualities are reflected in those of the upright Adam Bede. The landscapes and rhythms of daily life in the (fictionalized) towns of the English midlands are reflected in much of her best work, notably in her two novels set at the time of the first Reform Bill, Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) and the masterly Middlemarch: A Tale of Provincial Life (1871–2). In 1854 she established a lasting partnership with George Henry Lewes, the ‘scandal’ of her open liaison obliging her to publish her fiction under an assumed masculine name. Her reading of the works of Feuerbach, Hegel, Comte, and later, Darwin informs the arguments of her fiction with a decidedly ‘historical’ base, a positivist theme being especially noticeable in Romola (1863), a novel set in Savonarola's Florence.

Bruce Coleman

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Eliot, George

Eliot, George (1819–80) English novelist, b. Mary Ann Evans. Her unconventional relationship with G. H. Lewes began in 1853. Eliot's first work of fiction was the collection, Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). Three novels of provincial life followed: Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861). Romola (1862–63) was her only historical romance. Middlemarch (1871–72) is regarded as Eliot's masterpiece. Her last novel was Daniel Deronda (1874–76).

http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/eliot

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