George Eliot

aka Mary Ann Evans(1819-1880), English. Novelist, poet, translator, and critic.

George Eliot is a pseudonym for Mary Ann Evans, an English writer born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England in 1819. She was an accomplished polyglot who translated sensational books like David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu kristisch bearbeitet from German to English in 1846. But it was her career as a novelist that launched her to fame, her first novel Adam Bede, published in 1859, was so well received in Britain and across Europe that even Queen Victoria herself read and commended it to other members of the royal family.

In addition to her short stories, poems, translations, and other writings, George Eliot would come to write a total of seven novels in her lifetime including Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and A Mill on the Floss, all of which were consistent with her manifesto of realism in literature.

Life Facts

  • She was born on 22 November 1819 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England.
  • She grew up in the English midlands of Nuneaton and Coventry.
  • She was intelligent and eager to learn. Therefore, her father gave her quality education uncharacteristic of the education given to girls at the time.
  • She lived with George Lewis as a couple which was very unconventional at the time as they were unmarried. After George Lewes’s death in 1878, she later married John Walter Cross on 16 May 1880.
  • She died on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61.

Interesting Facts

  • She was a polyglot who was proficient in English, French, and German from being taught by tutors but her proficiency in Latin was self-taught
  • She was estranged by her family due to her cohabitation with George Lewes as a couple
  • Apart from her pen name George Eliot, she was known by over three variations of her name including Mary Anne Evans, Mary Ann Evans, and Marian Evans
  • She battled with kidney disease for many years of her life.
  • She was buried in a cemetery meant for religious dissenters and her grave is in the Highgate Cemetery same place where scholars like Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer were buried.
  • The Griff house where she spent her childhood is now known as the Griff Hotel.
  • There are landmarks that mark her existence after her death. for instance, there is a statue of her in a street in Nuneaton. Also, there is a plaque that commemorates her stay in Switzerland in a building in rue de Pelissier, Geneva.

Early Life and Education

George Eliot, with the birth name Mary Ann Evans, was born to Robert Evans and Christiana Evans on 22 November 1819 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England. She was the third child of the couple and had a brother Isaac and a sister Chrissy before her. Mary Ann Evans also had a half-sister and a half-brother from her father’s previous marriage. Her father was an estate manager who managed the Arbury Hall Estate for the wealthy Newdigate family in Warwickshire. In 1820, the Evans family moved to a lovely brick house called the Griff House and it was home to Mary Ann Evans until the age of twenty-one. She began formal education at the age of five years beginning with Miss Latham’s School at Attleborough. At nine years old, she switched to Mrs. Wellington’s School in Nuneaton then at thirteen, she went to Miss Franklin’s school in Coventry where she schooled until she was sixteen. Mary Ann Evans’s formal schooling ended at the age of sixteen but she never stopped learning. Owing to her father’s position as the Arbury Hall Estate manager, she had access to the Arbury Hall Library and continued to read and learn. She even taught herself Latin and became quite proficient in many languages. Mary Ann Evans started acting as the Griff House housekeeper for her family in the year 1836 when her mother died and this she did for about five years until she moved to Foleshill near Coventry with her father in 1841. It was while living in Foleshill that Mary Ann Evans made the acquaintance of the wealthy ribbon manufacturer Charles Bray and his wife Cara Bray who had a circle of radical friends referred to as the “Rosehill Circle”. The Brays often hosted the Rosehill Circle in their home in Coventry and through them, Mary Ann Evans made the acquaintance of notable freethinkers like Herbert Spencer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Robert Owen. Her interaction with this crop of free thinkers influenced Mary Ann Evans’s religious views and she began to incline towards agnosticism which resulted in some tensions between her and her father. In the end, they both reached a compromise and she agreed to attend church to keep up appearances.

Literary Career

Mary Ann Evans’s career in writing started with book translation. She completed the translation of David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu kristisch bearbeitet from German to English, a translation project that had been left incomplete by Elisabeth Brabant. The completed translation was first published in 1849 with the title, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined.

She traveled to Switzerland for a change of scenery when her father died in 1849. Upon her return to England in 1850, she moved to London in search of a job, and in 1851, she took up the position of an assistant editor for the Westminster Review that had been purchased by her friend, John Chapman. Her writings for the Westminster Review were mostly her opinions on the lifestyle and culture of the Victorian society of the time.

She stopped working with the Westminster Review in 1854 but continued writing essays that got published in the Review. One of such essays she wrote for the Westminster Review after her time there was published in 1856 with the title, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” where she condemned the unrealistic characters and plots of contemporary fiction by female writers. In the essay, she made known her stance on realism as the best form of art.

In 1857, she wrote three short stories that were published in the Blackwood magazine, and later in 1858, the same stories were published in book form as a collection of short stories under the title Scenes of Clerical Life. Then in 1859, she published her first novel Adam Bede and it got acclaim from the literary world. Eliot published a total of seven novels in her lifetime which are: Adam Bede(1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871) and Daniel Deronda(1876).

Relationship and Marriage

Mary Ann Evans’s relationship life was unconventional and particularly radical for her time. In 1851, she met George Henry Lewes a critic and philosopher with whom she started a relationship. George Henry Lewes was separated from his wife at the time but was not granted a divorce by the courts and so remained a married man in name. Mary Ann Evans and George Lewes kept their relationship a secret at first but in 1854, they moved in together as a couple after returning from a trip to Germany together. When she made her relationship with George Henry Lewes known, it brought a lot of societal disapproval on her, her brother Isaac cut off relations with her and she was not received in polite society even among her former friends. However, in 1877, she met Princess Louise who introduced her to Queen Victoria, and this royal acknowledgment coupled with George Lewes estranged wife declaring that her marriage to Lewes was only in name, brought her societal acceptance again. In 1878, George Henry Lewes died and Mary Ann Evans officially adopted his surname. In May 1880, she married John Walter Cross who was 20 years younger than her. This marriage, though short-lived, finally brought an acknowledgment from her brother Isaac Evans.

Literary Influences

Mary Ann Evans was an avid reader of philosophical books, particularly in English and German. She read the works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, and other popular authors too. This would come to shape her literary prowess and she began to reflect her views in her writing and create a niche for herself with her versatile writing style.

Later Life and Death

She married John Walter Cross at the age of sixty-one. The marriage had some struggles as Mary Ann Evans was already battling kidney disease at the time. Seven months after wedding John Walter Cross, Mary Ann Evans died of a throat infection on December 22, 1880, at the age of sixty-one. She was buried at the Highgate Cemetery, London after the Westminster Abbey refused to allow her to be buried in the Poet Corner because of her radical religious views. However, in 1980 on the centenary of her death, a memorial stone was erected for her in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Literature by George Eliot

Explore literature by George Eliot below, created by the team at Book Analysis.