Eliot, George (1819–1880)

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Born Marian (or Mary Ann) Evans, George Eliot was the assumed name of the English novelist, poet, essayist, and translator. She was reared near Coventry and in her early years attended a school run by a fervent evangelical mistress. From this woman she acquired intense religious beliefs, but she gradually lost her faith. In 1842 she wrote that she thought Christian dogmas "dishonorable to God" and pernicious to human happiness. Within a few months, however, she had come to regard the dogmas in themselves as of little importance. "Speculative truth begins to appear but a shadow of individual minds, agreement between intellects seems unattainable, and we turn to the truth of feeling as the only universal bond of union," she wrote in a letter in October 1843; a belief in the importance of feeling remained central to her life and work.

In Coventry she had a group of friends with literary and philosophical interests, and under their influence she undertook, in 1844, a translation of D. F. Strauss's Das Leben Jesu ; the translation was published in 1846. She went to London in 1851 to work for John Chapman as assistant editor of the Westminster Review. She published occasional essays and read much. Among her numerous friends in London were Herbert Spencer, to whom she was falsely rumored to be engaged, and George Henry Lewes, the philosopher and critic. Lewes was married but separated from his wife. In October 1854 Eliot and he decided to live together. They never married, but they lived a life of exemplary domesticity until Lewes's death, in 1878. On May 6, 1880, to everyone's surprise, she married John W. Cross, long a family friend. She died that same year, after a short illness.

In 1854 Eliot's translation of Ludwig Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christentums was published. She also translated Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza but did not publish the translation. Upon Lewes's urging, she tried writing fiction; her first story was published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857. She was immediately successful as a writer of fiction. To her fictionnotably Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (18711872), and Daniel Deronda (1876)rather than to her poetry or her essays, she owed her fame and her considerable influence as a moral teacher.

Eliot's views on moral, religious, and metaphysical problems pervade and profoundly shape her writings, but they are never presented in abstract, systematic form. She had no faith in general moral principles: "to lace ourselves up in formulas," she wrote, is to repress the "promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy." Like Strauss, Feuerbach, and Auguste Comte, she thought of religious and metaphysical doctrines as projections and symbols of feelings, and as valuable only to the degree that the feelings they express and reinforce are valuable. Her "most rooted conviction," she told a friend in 1859, was that "the immediate object and the proper sphere of all our highest emotions are our struggling fellow-men in this earthly existence," and she declared that one of her main aims in her writing was to show that human fellowship does not depend on anything nonhuman. Christianity can foster many valuable emotions, she held, but the insistence of some Christians that all action must be for the glory of God stifles benevolence and love and directs feelings away from men. The idea of God has been beneficial only insofar as it has been "the ideal of a goodness entirely human."

Eliot thus belongs with those Victorian writers who tried, in different ways, to work out a humanistic morality capable of satisfying the deep human needs that they thought the older, religiously based morality could no longer satisfy. Her view is naturalistic and deterministic; men are seen as being as much under the dominion of the laws of nature as are other parts of the world, though the comparisons are usually with organic growth and decay rather than with purely mechanical processes. Hereditary and social influences on character are heavily emphasized, as is the effect one's repeated actions or evasions will have on one's own character and hence on one's future actions.

The morality that springs from this view is primarily one of sympathy and compassion. The complexity and obscurity of motives and the mixture of good and evil in personality and in deed are constantly displayed in the novels. It is usually difficult, Eliot suggested, to know what one ought to do in particular cases; one must rely ultimately on one's deepest feelings when these are enlightened by sympathy and by knowledge of circumstances and consequences. Wrongdoing is usually traced to stupidity, callousness, or thoughtlessly excessive demands for personal satisfaction, rather than to deliberate malice or conscious selfishness. Vice and crime are shown as eventually bringing retribution, but the reward of virtue is at best the peace that comes with acceptance of one's lot. Eliot saw quiet renunciation and patient selflessness as the chief virtue. She frequently traced the career of an unusually sensitive and intelligent person who hopes to do great things for others but after painful defeats ends by settling into a life of unheroic and routine benevolence. She suggested that this is the only feasible way of achieving lasting good. In the thought that what we do will have some good effect on future generations and we shall be remembered by them with love, she held, there was a sufficient motive to virtue and a sufficient replacement of the belief in personal immortality and personal reward.

See also Comte, Auguste; Feuerbach, Ludwig; Religion and Morality; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Strauss, David Friedrich.


Two essays reprinted in George Eliot's Essays and Leaves from a Notebook "Evangelical Morality: Dr. Cummings" (1855) and "The Poet Young" (1857)are especially relevant to her moral views.

The standard biography is John W. Cross, The Life of George Eliot, 3 vols. (London, 18851887); it is composed mainly of her letters, heavily censored. Marian Evans and George Eliot, by Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), is more accurate and contains a good bibliography. The George Eliot Letters, edited by Gordon Haight, 7 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 19541955), is a masterpiece of scholarship. Two essays by R. H. Hutton, reprinted in his Modern Guides to English Thought (London: Macmillan, 1887), give an assessment by a younger contemporary from an orthodox Christian standpoint.

There are numerous studies of Eliot's life, intellectual development, and writings. See especially Joan F. Bennett, George Eliot: Her Mind and Her Art (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1948); Gordon Haight, George Eliot and John Chapman (New Haven, CT, and London, 1940); Barbara Hardy, The Novels of George Eliot (London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1959); and Leslie Stephen, George Eliot (London, 1902).

J. B. Schneewind (1967)