BORN: 1819, Warwickshire, England
DIED: 1880, London, England
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry
Adam Bede (1859)
The Mill on the Floss (1860)
Silas Marner (1861)
George Eliot's work has been praised for its realistic approach to character and skillful plot development. Staged against the backdrop of rural England, Eliot's novels explore moral and philosophical issues associated with the growing agnosticism and spiritual despair of nineteenth-century English society. Middlemarch is considered unsurpassed among novels of the period in intellectual depth, and it remains the work on which Eliot's reputation most firmly rests.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Deep Relationships with Father and Brother Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was the youngest child of
Robert Evans, agent for the estate of Sir Francis Newdigate, and Christiana Pearson Evans, his second wife. She grew up in the red-brick-and-ivy Griff House, overlooking the fields and canals of Warwickshire. She began school at five years old, and, like her brothers and sisters (two of the four half-siblings from her father's first marriage), she was a boarding student at an Evangelical school. Her fiction suggests that the most important relationships of her childhood were with her full brother Isaac, prototype of the difficult-to-please Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (1860), and her father, often described as a model for Adam Bede and Caleb Garth as well as for Mr. Tulliver, who is always willing to take his daughter's part in her emotional struggles.
By the time she was twenty-one, Evans's mother had died and her brothers and sisters were married and scattered. She left Griff and moved with her father into a house on the Foleshill Road in Coventry. Partly because of her friendship with Charles Bray, who had bought the paper in June 1846, Evans wrote some short reviews and essays for the Herald the following winter, pieces that would become her first publications.
A Nurse First and a Journalist Second Evans wrote little prose during the next few years, which she spent keeping house and nursing her father as he endured his last illness. Until she began writing for the Westminster Review in 1851, apparently her only publication was a rave review of James Anthony Froude's The Nemesis of Faith (1849). The review was so enthusiastic that it prompted mutual friends to set up a romantic—albeit fruitless—matchmaking scheme. The plan backfired when Froude failed to show up at the rendezvous point, and announced his engagement to another in his note of regret.
Having spent the winter after her father's death in 1850 alone in Geneva, Evans returned to England alone. She soon after made the move to leave behind the provinces permanently, except as settings for her fiction. Recruited by John Chapman to edit his newly acquired pet project, the Westminster Review, she moved into his publishing, bookselling, and lodging establishment at 142 Strand and became a member of London's lively literary and intellectual set. Among her new acquaintances was George Henry Lewes, who contributed articles on philosophical, scientific, and literary topics to the Westminster Review and other London periodicals. Despite Lewes's thoroughly failed—but still legal—marriage to Agnes Jervis, Lewes and Evans began in 1853 a mutually supportive intellectual, romantic, and emotional partnership that endured until his death in 1878.
A Life in Motion In eloping first to Germany in 1854, Evans and Lewes set a lifelong pattern by which they interspersed periods of hard work in London with travel that was part vacation, part field trip. On the initial trip to Weimar and Berlin, Lewes was completing a biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe while Evans
gathered material and background for articles. Her need to supplement the small income from her father's legacy resulted in the following two years of intense journalistic productivity. During this time, she wrote dozens of reviews, most of them for the Westminster Review and the Leader. In Germany, this was a period of intense upheaval. The Prussia-led unification of Germany into a modern nation state would not occur until France's final defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1871. And the French revolution of 1848 had sparked a series of revolutions in the German states, whose aftermath was far from resolved when Evans and Lewes first traveled there. Evans's German travel, together with the extensive religious reading of the Evangelical days of her youth, equipped her to write especially rapidly and well on books pertaining both to German history and culture and to religion.
Forsaking the Lying Truth for the True Lie Evans gave up journalism almost completely when she began writing fiction in the fall of 1856, and soon, for fear of finding negative comments on her own work, she stopped even reading book reviews. The excellent income from the novels freed her from financial need, and, unlike her journalism, her fiction could conveniently be written away from London. During the next twenty years, despite their permanent residence at The Priory near Regent's Park beginning in 1863, she and Lewes often fled the fog, the noise, and the sooty air of London. Eliot (who had assumed her pseudonym in 1857) wrote much of her fiction while traveling on the Continent or on holiday at the seaside. She chose a male pen name, although female authors published freely during that time, to distinguish herself from what American author Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to as that “damned mob of scribbling women,” the female authors of popular romances. At home she and Lewes were occupied with settling his three growing sons in suitable professions, taking care of each other's feeble health, and maintaining the literary social life that they developed as the fame of the novels increased. By the late 1870s Eliot's success as a novelist had brought her not only wealth and fame but also the simple social acceptance denied her since she and Lewes had begun living together openly. At the Priory they entertained friends and fans on Sunday afternoons, and they began a series of regular visits to the universities at Oxford and Cambridge.
After Lewes died in 1878, Eliot struggled with her grief for more than a year, then astonished her friends and her public by marrying John Walter Cross, a banker twenty years younger than she. They honeymooned on the continent and leased a new house in London, but only seven months after her wedding Eliot died suddenly—in December of 1880. The beloved novelist was buried in Highgate Cemetery on the north edge of London, a city she seldom represented in her novels but evoked consistently in her nonfiction prose.
Works in Literary Context
Science as Metaphor for Life The use of scientific metaphor is characteristic of George Eliot's work, and bespeaks a dominant tendency of her period. Eliot was associated with Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, and other “scientific philosophers,” and their influence upon her was great. Counterbalancing this, however, was a conservative tendency arising from her early acquaintance with rural life in the Midlands and Evangelical background. In her short story “Amos Barton,” that conflict is apparent in the alternating condescension and tenderness of her attitude toward her subject. But in the Scenes of Clerical Life, for example, her originality and insight are still obscured by conventional forms of expression, corresponding to conventional modes of feeling and thought. In general, Eliot's work may be described as psychological realism, a genre dependent on the application of scientific ways of seeing to the understanding of human relations, and one that included such greats as Jane Austen and, later, Henry James. Eliot's progress as an artist mirrored, then, the intellectual and social movement of her period toward scientific rationality—with all of its advantages and flaws.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Eliot's famous contemporaries include:
Charles Dickens (1812–1870): Famous British writer whose novels are often compared to Eliot's, perhaps due to their scope and intricate plots.
George Henry Lewes (1817–1878): English philosopher, critic, and Eliot's longtime partner.
Herbert Spencer (1820–1903): English philosopher who coined the term “survival of the fittest” after reading Charles Darwin's work on the evolution of species.
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865): Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was perhaps the most powerful antislavery advocate of all time, pushing for and signing into law the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.
Selflessness, Morality, and the Novel One common theme found in many of Eliot's works is selflessness. Silas Marner, the main character in her novel of the same name, experiences only misfortune when he works for his own wealth and happiness. However, when he takes in a young child whose opium-addicted mother has died, his life—and his place as a member of the community—is
transformed. In Daniel Deronda, the title character lives his life as selflessly as possible, which serves as an example to the self-involved Gwendolen Harleth, who shows signs of maturity by the end of the novel. In these and other works, Eliot is still negotiating the historical legacy of the novel as an art form. Particularly in England, the development of the novel was regarded with skepticism by many, and was often called on to justify its existence by providing solid moral instruction for readers. Insofar as her work does offer some moral instruction—though not without a degree of skepticism—Eliot follows in the footsteps of such British authors as Samuel Richardson, whose eighteenth-century bestseller Pamela (1740) has delighted and infuriated critics and moralists alike for centuries.
Works in Critical Context
While Eliot was regarded as the leading English novelist during the last years of her life, it was common at that time to differentiate between her early and late work and to prefer the former. Reviewers almost unanimously agreed that Eliot's later novels were overly philosophic and didactic, lacking the spontaneity and charm of her early autobiographical works. Consequently, the esteem in which she was held was already in decline at the time of her death in 1885, and was further diminished by the late-Victorian revolt against “the-novel-with-a-purpose” or “novel of conduct.” It was not until the 1940s that her novels, particularly the later ones, returned to favor, generating a resurgence of interest in her work and a body of criticism that rivals dedicated to her fellow Victorian, Charles Dickens. The variety and quantity of current critical response is perhaps the best measure of Eliot's complex genius. She continues to inspire analysis for her psychological insight, broad vision, and mastery of a realistic style.
Adam Bede “There can be no mistake about Adam Bede,” wrote one reviewer for the London Times. “It is a first-rate novel, and its author takes rank at once among the masters of the art.” The novel was first published in three volumes in February of 1859. A year later it had gone through four editions with four printings of the last edition; had been translated into French, German, Dutch, and Hungarian; had spawned a sequel; and had brought forward a Warwickshire eccentric named Joseph Liggins who claimed to be the real George Eliot (since the true author had concealed herself behind a pseudonym). Adam Bede sold sixteen thousand copies in a year and earned Eliot a great deal of money. “In its influence,” the probably partial Lewes wrote to his son Charles, “and in obtaining the suffrages of the highest and wisest as well as of the ordinary novel reader, nothing equals Adam Bede.”
The Mill on the Floss Eliot's next novel, The Mill on the Floss, was published in 1860, and was subjected to scathing criticism: The main character Maggie is not of “the smallest importance to anybody in the world” but herself, said philosopher and critic John Ruskin. Ruskin's reaction was symptomatic of that of most critics of the novel: The Mill on the Floss affected them where they were weakest. They felt that Maggie's free will was unfairly overcome in a moment of crisis. Their simple categories of right and wrong were undermined by what later critics have described as a “complex web of heredity, physiology, and environment.” Consequently, as David Carroll remarks, “The Victorian reader's sympathies have been turned against his moral judgment and he feels aggrieved.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Eliot's Middlemarch is concerned not only with characters but with politics, as the events primarily center around the Reform Act of 1832. Her other novels also comment on political events and debates that were significant to Victorian England. Here are some other works that deal with political issues during tense times.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a novel by Charles Dickens. Set around the time of the French Revolution, this novel reaches its climax during the storming of the Bastille prison.
Lumumba (2000), a film directed by Raoul Peck. This movie depicts the movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo for independence from Belgium in 1960.
Hotel Rwanda (2004), a film directed by Terry George. The true tale of a hotel manager who helped save the lives of over one thousand Tutsi refugees during the genocidal rampage of Hutu extremists in 1994 is captured in this film, which earned Don Cheadle an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the main character.
Middlemarch Middlemarch, says A. S. Byatt, “is a novel, above all, about intelligence and its triumphs, failures, distractions, fallings-short, compromises and doggedness.” The greatness of Middlemarch was immediately acknowledged; the novel was a classic in its own time. In The Mill on the Floss Eliot had written a tragedy; in Middlemarch she wrote an epic. And Middlemarch could be accorded too much praise, claims Geoffrey Tollotson, only “by saying that it was easily the best of the half-dozen best novels in the world.”
Responses to Literature
- Discuss the symbolism of the coming of the new year in Silas Marner.
- Describe some common characteristics of Eliot's female characters. What are their primary concerns and goals? How do they reflect the society of nineteenth-century England?
- Research the Reform Act of 1832 and explain why Eliot thought it important enough to set her novel Middlemarch during the time prior to the passing of the act.
- Middlemarch is widely considered Eliot's best work. In your opinion, is this because of the power of her story and characters, or because she was the first to use certain techniques that have become commonplace in modern novels? Do you think certain works should be read and remembered because they represent landmarks in the development of literature, regardless of whether the writings themselves are viewed as timeless works of art? Why or why not?
- Why did the Victorians revolt against the “novel-with-a-purpose”? Do you think Eliot is partly to blame for this new trend? Why or why not?
Byatt, A. S. George Eliot 1819–1880. New York: Penguin,1980.
Carroll, David R., ed. George Eliot: The Critical Heritage. New York, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
Dodd, Valerie. George Eliot: An Intellectual Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Fulmer, Constance M. George Eliot: A Reference Guide, 1858–1971. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
“Introduction” in Introduction to Essays of George Eliot, Ed. Pinney, Thomas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.
Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965.
Redinger, Ruby V. George Eliot: The Emergent Self. NewYork: Knopf, 1975.
Taylor, Ina. A Woman of Contradictions: The Life of George Eliot. New York: Morrow, 1990.
Wiesenfarth, Joseph. George Eliot's Mythmaking. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universita¨tsverlag, 1977.
Rust, James D. “The Art of Fiction in George Eliot's Reviews.” Review of English Studies, new series 7 (1956): 164–72.
Stange, G. Robert. “The Voices of the Essayist.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (December 1980): 312–30.
Pseudonym for Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans. Nationality: English. Born: Arbury, Warwickshire, 22 November 1819. Education: Miss Lathom's school, Attleborough; Miss Wallington's school, Nuneaton, 1828-32; Misses Franklins' school, Coventry, 1832-35. Family: Lived with George Henry Lewes from 1854 (died 1878); married John Walter Cross in 1880. Career: Took charge of family household after death of her mother, 1836; lived with her father in Foleshill, near Coventry, 1841-49; lived in Geneva, 1849-50. Moved to London, 1851. Contributor, Westminster Review, 1851 and 1855-57; assistant editor, Westminster Review, 1852-54. Lived in Germany, 1854-55. Lived in Richmond, Surrey, 1855-60 and London from 1861. Died: 22 December 1880.
Works. 21 vols., 1895.
Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings, edited by A.S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren. 1990.
Collected Poems, edited by Lucien Jenkins. 1990.
Great Novels of George Eliot. 1994.
George Eliot: Selected Works. 1995.
Scenes of Clerical Life. 1858; edited by Thomas A. Noble, 1985.
Adam Bede. 1859; edited by John Paterson, 1968.
The Mill on the Floss. 1860; edited by Gordon S. Haight, 1980.
Silas Marner, The Weaver of Raveloe. 1861; edited by Q.D. Leavis, 1967. Romola. 1863.
Felix Holt, The Radical. 1866; edited by Fred C. Thomson, 1988.
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. 1872; edited by David Carroll, 1986.
Daniel Deronda. 1876; edited by Graham Handley, 1984.
The Spanish Gypsy. 1868.
How Lisa Loved the King. 1869.
The Legend of Jubal and Other Poems. 1874.
Complete Poems. 1889.
Works (cabinet edition). 24 vols., 1878-85.
Impressions of Theophrastus Such. 1879.
Essays and Leaves from a Note-Book, edited by C.L. Lewes. 1884.
Early Essays. 1919.
Letters, edited by Gordon S. Haight. 9 vols., 1954-78; selections, 1985.
Essays, edited by Thomas Pinney. 1963.
Some Eliot Notebooks (for Daniel Deronda), edited by William Baker. 1976.
Middlemarch Notebooks, edited by John Clark Pratt and Victor A. Neufeldt. 1979.
A Writer's Notebook 1854-1879 and Uncollected Writings, edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth. 1981.
A George Eliot Miscellany: A Supplement to Her Novels, edited by F.B. Pinion. 1982.
George Eliot's Daniel Deronda Notebooks. 1996.
Translator, with Rufa Brabant (later Mrs. Charles Hennell), The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, by D. F. Strauss. 3 vols., 1846; edited by Peter C. Hodgson, 1973.
Translator, The Essence of Christianity, by Ludwig Feuerbach. 1854.
Translator, Ethics, by Spinoza, edited by Thomas Deegan. 1981.*
Eliot: A Reference Guide by Constance M. Fulmer, 1977; An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Eliot by George Levine, 1988; Eliot: A Reference Guide by Karen L. Pangallo, 1990.
Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals by John Walter Cross, 3 vols., 1885; Eliot: Her Mind and Art by Joan Bennett, 1948; The Great Tradition: Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad by F. R. Leavis, 1948; Eliot by Robert Speaight, 1954; The Novels of Eliot: A Study in Form, 1959, and Particularities: Readings in Eliot, 1982, both by Barbara Hardy, and Critical Essays on Eliot edited by Hardy, 1970; The Art of Eliot by W. J. Harvey, 1961; Eliot by Walter Allen, 1964; A Century of Eliot Criticism edited by Gordon S. Haight, 1965, and Eliot: A Biography by Haight, 1968; Experiments in Life: Eliot's Quest for Values by Bernard J. Paris, 1965; Eliot's Early Novels: The Limits of Realism by U. C. Knoepflmacher, 1968; Eliot: The Critical Heritage edited by D. R. Carroll, 1971; Eliot by A. E. S. Viner, 1971; Eliot: The Emergent Self by Ruby V. Redinger, 1975; Eliot: Her Beliefs and Her Art by Neil Roberts, 1975; This Particular Web: Essays on Middlemarch edited by Ian Adam, 1975; Will and Destiny: Morality and Tragedy in Eliot's Novels, 1975, and The Triptych and the Cross: The Central Myths of Eliot's Poetic Imagination, 1979, both by Felicia Bonaparte; Eliot's Creative Conflict: The Other Side of Silence by Laura Comer Emery, 1976; Who's Who in Eliot by Phyllis Hartnoll, 1977; The Novels of Eliot by Robert Liddell, 1977; Eliot's Mythmaking by Joseph Wiesenfarth, 1977; Eliot and the Novel of Vocation by Alan Mintz, 1978; Eliot and the Visual Arts by Hugh Witemeyer, 1979; Eliot: Centenary Essays and an Unpublished Fragment edited by Anne Smith, 1980; The Sympathetic Response: Eliot's Fictional Rhetoric by Mary Ellen Doyle, 1981; A George Eliot Companion by F. B. Pinion, 1981; Eliot, Romantic Humanist: A Study of the Philosophical Structure of Her Novels by K. M. Newton, 1981; Making UpSociety: The Novels of Eliot by Philip Fisher, 1981; Eliot: A Centenary Tribute edited by Gordon S. Haight and Rosemary T. Van Arsdel, 1982; Eliot by Herbert Foltinek, 1982; Eliot, 1983, and The Mill on the Floss: A Natural History, 1990, both by Rosemary Ashton; The Language That Makes Eliot's Fiction by Karen B. Mann, 1983; Middlemarch by Kerry McSweeney, 1984; Eliot and Community: A Study in Social Theory and Fictional Form by Suzanne Graver, 1984; Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science by Sally Shuttleworth, 1984; Eliot and Blackmail by Alexander Welsh, 1985; A Preface to Eliot by John Purkis, 1985; Eliot by Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, 1986; Eliot by Simon Dentith, 1986; Eliot and the Landscape of Time: Narrative Form and Protestant Apocalyptic History by Mary Wilson Carpenter, 1986; Eliot by Gillian Beer, 1986; Eliot by Jennifer Uglow, 1987; Social Figures: Eliot, Social History, and Literary Representation by Daniel Cottom, 1987; Middlemarch: A Novel of Reform by Bert G. Hornback, 1988; Reading Middlemarch: Reclaiming the Middle Distance by Jeanie Thomas, 1988; A George Eliot Chronology by Timothy Hands, 1989; Eliot: Woman of Contradictions by Ian Taylor, 1989; Vocation and Desire: Eliot's Heroines by Dorothea Barrett, 1989; Eliot: An Intellectual Life by Valerie A. Dodd, 1990; George Eliot: A Life by Rosemary Ashton, 1996; George Eliot by Josephine McDonaugh, 1997; The Power of Knowledge: George Eliot and Education by Linda Kathryn Robertson, 1997; Without Any Check of Proud Reserve: The Limits of Sympathy in George Eliot's Novels by Ellen Argyros, 1998.* * *
George Eliot came late to fiction writing; she was 37 years old when her first story appeared, though she had written widely before (intellectual journalism, reviews, translations). George Lewes, with whom she lived, himself a novelist and literary critic, assured her that she had "wit, description and philosophy—those go a good way towards the production of a novel." Unsure as ever about her creative powers, she decided first to try her hand with a short story. Its opening chapters convinced them of her ability in dialogue, but, as she wrote in "How I Came to Write Fiction," "there still remained the question whether I could command any pathos." Pathos was then a prerequisite, as Anthony Trollope's definition in his Autobiography (1883) shows: "A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos."
Eliot soon demonstrated her ability in this, with Milly's death in "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton," which appeared in the prestigious Blackwood's Magazine. It was followed by "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story" and "Janet's Repentance" (January to November 1857); the three stories were collected as Scenes of Clerical Life. Adam Bede was to have provided a fourth "scene" but became a full-length novel. All four stories drew heavily on places, personalities, and episodes from her early life and from local tradition in the Midlands, as was promptly recognized there. Thus, the Shepperton of the first two stories is based on the village of her birth, Chilvers Coton, and Cheverel Manor in "Mr. Gilfil" is based on Arbury Hall, the nearby seat of the Newdigate family (her father's employer). Clergymen in Chilvers Coton and Nuneaton, and their generally "sad fortunes," suggested central situations in all three "scenes." As in the subsequent novels—Middlemarch is subtitled A Study of Provincial Life—Eliot is at pains to present in detail the local community, but in these early stories she uses memory and observation more and her imagination less. Fitfully, she here tries to live up to her male pseudonym by having the narrator refer to "remembering" from "his" youth some of the personalities.
"Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story" is the least impressive and least clerical of the stories: Maynard Gilfil's being a young clergyman is inessential to his function as a frustrated and then very briefly happy lover. It is a conventional tale of a love-triangle—worthy boy (Gilfil) loves girl (Caterina) who loves another (the higher-born but unworthy Captain Wybrow)—which becomes a quadrangle when Wybrow courts the wealthy Miss Assher and the sparks begin to fly, predictably. Miss Assher rightly suspects that "some-thing more than friendship" exists between her suitor and Caterina, who, incensed by Wybrow's disloyalty, and being of Italian origin and thus of more passionate and impulsive nature than an English-rose heroine, decides to do something about it. Intent on murdering Wybrow, she is providentially saved from crime by his having just dropped dead. After anguish, illness, and repentance, she accepts Gilfil's love but dies soon after, leaving him to a life of sad ingrowing singleness. (Much of this situation is retreated in Adam Bede more fully and with greater depth.) This narrative, set in the late eighteenth century, is given perspective and fuller meaning by the opening and closing frame chapters, set "thirty years ago," when Gilfil is seen as a crusty if decent old clergyman with "more of the knots and ruggedness of poor human nature than there lay any hint of in the open-eyed loving Maynard."
That characteristic Eliot adjective "poor" works hard in this story, notably for the fragile and bewildered "little Tina." Other characteristic skills appear in the expansive, affectionate if ironical, presentation of old Gilfil's rural parishioners and of the local grandees Sir Christopher and Lady Cheverel, and the sharper presentation of Miss Assher and her loquacious mother (who "went dribbling on like a leaky shower-bath") and of the tensions underlying country-house life. The introduction of "Janet's Repentance" is even more leisurely: the eponymous Janet is first heard of in Chapter 3 and first seen at the end of Chapter 4, the opening chapters having been concerned with the local men and their booze and local ladies over their teacups and a lively and sociologically intelligent account of the social, economic, and religious state of Milby (based on Nuneaton, though, defending herself for not offering a more cheerful story, Eliot remarked that the actual town was more vicious and the characters taken from it were more disgusting and had sadder fates in real life).
The first we hear of Janet is that she is a secret drinker (not common in Victorian heroines), though her more kindly neighbors hold that "she's druv to it" by her husband-lawyer Dempster's open drunkenness and brutality. We never see Janet drinking or drunken, though her eyes had "a strangely fixed, sightless gaze" on her first appearance. The topic is handled delicately; but also we see how, Janet, though generally admirable, may have contributed to the failure of the marriage and "druv" Dempster further into viciousness. Similarly original is the treatment of Evangelicalism, a religious movement antipathetic to most Victorian novelists (as killjoy, sanctimonious, hypocritical). Eliot knew it from the inside, from her youth, and presents it sympathetically though not uncritically ("Yes, the movement was good, though it had that mixture of folly and evil which often makes what is good an offense to feeble and fastidious minds"—Eliot is free with authorial comments). Her emphasis as ever is on loving direct fellow-feeling, and against "that facile psychology which prejudges individuals by means of formulae."
She wrote only two other short fictions—her strange paranormal "The Lifted Veil" (1859) and "Brother Jacob," a "trifle," as she called it, written in 1860 and published anonymously in the Cornhill Magazine (1864). Though its provincial settings are characteristic and its money-lust theme was a growing preoccupation of Eliot's then, "Brother Jacob" exhibits few of her strengths. Heavy polysyllabic persiflage and harsh irony predominate, with little of her gentler humor, let alone sympathy for poor errant humanity. The protagonist David Faux—his surname, like his later alias Freely, and many other proper names in the story, indicates its mode—is a wholly mean, mendacious, unscrupulous, ambitiously self-seeking young man, a confectioner by trade, who steals his mother's nest egg to finance his immigration to the United States. Later he returns to England and begins to flourish in trade and in mercenary courtship in Grimworth town, but his past catches up with him and his world collapses—"an admirable instance of the unexpected forms in which the great Nemesis hides herself." Nemesis takes the form of David's embarrassingly clinging and vocal idiot brother Jacob, who had nearly frustrated his earlier plans. Elements of this material had been retreated in Silas Marner.
See the essay on "The Lifted Veil."
ELIOT, GEORGEearly works
ELIOT, GEORGE (Mary Anne Evans; 1819–1880), English novelist.
Born Mary Anne Evans in 1819, George Eliot lived the first thirty years of her life in rural Warwickshire, England, part of the English Midlands that later became the setting for her novels. The youngest of five children, she took over the duties of housekeeping soon after her mother, Christiana Pearson, died in 1835, when Mary Anne was still in her teens. Her father, Robert Evans, managed Newdigate Estate, and when he retired to the nearby provincial center of Coventry in 1841, she went along, caring for him until his death in 1849. During that time, she worked on her fluency in foreign languages—which included Latin, Greek, German, Italian, French, and Hebrew—studied literature, and began reading German higher criticism of the Bible. She was encouraged in this self-imposed intellectual regimen by Charles and Caroline Bray, the centers of the local circle of intellectuals. Through them, she was introduced to the much larger community of London intellectuals who visited the Brays. In 1851 she changed her name to the less provincial sounding "Marian Evans," and moved to London, where she would reside until her death. She wrote for and, beginning in 1852, became the anonymous editor of the influential Westminster Review, a position that brought her into contact with new developments in European philosophy, science, and literature.
The following year, at age thirty-four, the fledgling writer fell in love with George Henry Lewes (1817–1878), then editor of a radical London weekly, the Leader. A protégé of the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and an important popularizer of Auguste Comte's (1798–1857) philosophy of positivism; he became well known for his Life and Works of Goethe (1855) and published widely as a critic, scientist, and philosopher. Unfortunately Lewes was married, and though separated from Agnes Lewes, divorce was an impossibility. After 1854, he and Eliot lived openly together in a companionship that scandalized English society. As a result Marian Evans Lewes (as she now signed her name) was largely excluded from polite society, although later in life her reputation as a writer of considerable wisdom gave her a renewed social acceptability. Their life together was characterized by annual trips to the Continent, with visits to Germany, France, Spain, and Italy until Lewes's death in 1878. Two years later Eliot caused another scandal when she married the much younger John Cross (1840–1924), who later wrote her first biography. She died less than a year after the wedding, on 22 December 1880, and is buried next to Lewes in London's Highgate Cemetery.
Her first published volume was not fiction but a translation of the German philosopher David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (1846; The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined). Eliot was much interested in higher criticism, which appealed to her realist values by historicizing the Bible, and in 1854 she published a translation of Ludwig Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christenthums (The Essence of Christianity). Intermittently, she translated from Latin the works of Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677), the Renaissance philosopher and forerunner of higher criticism. Her version of his Ethics went unpublished until 1981.
Eliot developed her own views on realism and fiction in her writing for the Westminster Review during the 1850s, before her relatively late appearance as a novelist toward the end of the decade, at age thirty-seven. "We want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness," she wrote in 1856, expressing an insistence on factual accuracy that became a key element in her realism (1963, p. 271). She began writing fiction that same year and three stories in Blackwood's Magazine signed "George Eliot" were the immediate result, soon republished as Scenes from Clerical Life (1858). The pseudonym was in part a tribute to her partner, but the choice of a male pen name is thought to be a pragmatic response to the practices of reviewers at the time, who rarely took works by women seriously, a problem she discussed in an important Westminster Review article in 1856, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." Her stories were praised as the voice of a major new writer, and because of their success the identity of the author (along with her unsanctioned marriage) was soon unmasked.
She cemented her critical reputation with her first two novels. Set in the English Midlands, Adam Bede (1859) focuses on a rural carpenter who is hopelessly in love with a local farm girl. Beautiful, shallow, and none too smart, Hetty Sorrel is the first of a female type that reappears throughout Eliot's fiction. The character nonetheless receives a compassionate treatment, and the narrator's sympathy for Hetty as she commits infanticide illustrates a hallmark of Eliot's style as a realist. In The Mill on the Floss (1859), Eliot adds a historical dimension to rural life that was absent from Adam Bede. The action illustrates the broader pattern of social change caused by England's transition from an agricultural to a commercial society. The novel's "spit-fire" heroine, Maggie Tulliver, is Eliot's first extensive engagement with the limited possibilities available to women and a model for subsequent Eliot heroines.
Her two middle novels distance themselves in different ways from the English Midlands. Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe (1861) injects a dose of lyrical fantasy into the story of a rural outcast who finds a new home in another village. Romola (1862–1863) is a historical fiction of a young woman's disastrous marriage set in fifteenth-century Italy.
The late novels see a return to the familiar Midlands setting. Felix Holt: The Radical (1866) the matizes the effects of the electoral reform bill of 1832 on a working-class community, but emotionally it centers on the tragic and rich portrait of Mrs. Transome. Middlemarch: A Story of Provincial Life (1872) revisits the same historical setting, but employs a larger canvas to paint Victorian social issues, particularly that of the Woman Question, a more extreme problem in England than on the Continent. Middlemarch was also a technical breakthrough for the writer, who successfully masters the intricacies of a double-plotted novel, in which two independent stories intersect to convey a broader sense of community than either could do alone. The strategy reappears in her last novel Daniel Deronda (1876). Together with Middle-march, this work marks the high point of the Victorian realist novel. While partially set in the Midlands, this last novel is also her first to use London, a city she knew well, as a setting. Deronda is a young man of unknown birth who slowly discovers and then embraces his Jewish heritage. Gwendolyn Harleth is a beautiful, headstrong, and spoiled young woman whose family loses its fortune; her choice to marry for money, rather than love, proves unbearable.
In addition to novels, essays, and reviews, Eliot also published poetry; her novel-length The Spanish Gypsy: A Poem (1868) has thematic similarities to Daniel Deronda as an exploration of Victorian racial theory. Few know how to classify her final work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), a fascinating series of character sketches that can readily be seen as her most innovative work of fiction.
Eliot, George. Essays. Edited by Thomas Pinney. New York, 1963. The standard collection of her essays and reviews.
——. The Journals of George Eliot. Edited by Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. The first complete edition of the journals she maintained from 1854 to her death.
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. London, 1996. An authoritative critical biography in which Eliot emerges as more independent and strong-willed than in earlier biographies.
Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Bloomington, Ind., 1986. A thoughtful examination of Eliot's major novels as the products of a woman writer.
Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994. An important study that finds her novels more revealing of her emotional life than her letters.
Levine, George, ed. The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. An informative series of essays by prominent Eliot scholars on her novels and ideas about science, religion, politics, philosophy, and gender.
Rignall, John, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to George Eliot. Oxford, U.K., 2001. A fact-filled encyclopedia of biographical, historical, and critical information.
Peter Melville Logan
Born: November 22, 1819
Died: December 22, 1880
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 Criticism—a largely German school that studied the Bible and that attempted to treat sacred writings as human and historical documents—she 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 (1798–1857), who were interested in applying scientific knowledge to the problems of society. One of these men was George Henry Lewes (1817–1878), 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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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). □
(1819 - 1880)
(Pseudonym of Mary Ann—or Marian—Evans) English novelist, essayist, poet, editor, short story writer, and translator.GEORGE ELIOT: INTRODUCTION
GEORGE ELIOT: PRINCIPAL WORKS
GEORGE ELIOT: PRIMARY SOURCES
GEORGE ELIOT: GENERAL COMMENTARY
GEORGE ELIOT: TITLE COMMENTARY
GEORGE ELIOT: FURTHER READING