George Eliot

From Academic Kids

George Eliot
George Eliot

Mary Ann Evans, better known by the pen name George Eliot (22 November 1819 - 22 December 1880), was an English novelist. She is one of the leading writers of the Victorian era, whose novels, largely set in provincial England, are well known for their realism and psychological perspicacity.

She used a male pen name, she said, to ensure that her works were taken seriously. Female authors published freely under their own names, but Eliot wanted to ensure that she was not seen as a writer of romances. An additional factor may have been a desire to shield her private life from public scrutiny and to prevent scandals attending her relationship with George Henry Lewes.



Mary Ann Evans was the daughter of an estate agent in Warwickshire, born on a farm near Nuneaton. She was brought up with a narrowly low church religion. Charles Bray, a Coventry manufacturer, brought her into contact with more liberal theologies. She translated Strauss' Life of Jesus (1846) and began contributing to the Westminster Review in 1850 and became its assistant editor in 1851. The Westminster Review had been founded by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham and was the leading journal for philosophical radicals. In 1854, she published a translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, and it was at that time that she began to live with George Henry Lewes in an extramarital cohabitation.

In 1857, she published "Amos Barton," the first of the "Scenes of Clerical Life" in Blackwood's Magazine. The collected "Scenes" were well received and launched Evans on a novelistic career. Evans' cohabitation with Lewes was a scandalous matter. Lewes' wife refused to be divorced, and so he remained married to her in name only, while he made house solely with Evans.

Two years after the death of Lewes, on May 6, 1880 she married a friend, John Cross, an American banker, who was 20 years her junior. They honeymooned in Venice and, allegedly, Cross jumped from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal on their wedding night; he survived. She died at the age of 61 in London of a kidney ailment and was interred in Highgate Cemetery (East), Highgate, London.

Friend and author Henry James once wrote of her:

She had a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth and a chin and jawbone qui n'en finissent pas... Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.

Literary assessment

Eliot's most famous work, Middlemarch, is a turning point in the history of the novel. Making masterful use of a counterpointed plot, Eliot presents the stories of a number of denizens of a small English town on the eve of the Reform Bill of 1832. The main characters, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, each long for exceptional lives but are powerfully constrained by their own unrealistic expectations as well as conservative society. The novel is notable for its deep psychological insight and sophisticated character portraits.

Throughout her career, Eliot wrote with a politically astute pen. From Adam Bede to The Mill on the Floss and the frequently-read Silas Marner, Eliot presented the cases of social outsiders and small town persecution of that which they consider alien. No author since Jane Austen had been as sharp in pointing out the hypocrisy of the country squires and socially conscious. Felix Holt, the Radical and The Legend of Jubal were overtly political novels, and political crisis is at the heart of Middlemarch. By the time of Daniel Deronda, Eliot's sales were falling off, and she faded from public view to some degree.

As an author, Eliot was not only very successful in sales, but she was, and remains, one of the most widely praised for her style and clarity of thought. Eliot's sentence structures are clear, patient, and well balanced, and she mixes plain statement and unsettling irony with rare poise. Her commentaries are never without sympathy for the characters, and she never stoops to being arch or flip with the emotions in her stories. Villains, heroines and bystanders are all presented with awareness and full motivation.

Select bibliography

She also wrote a considerable amount of fine poetry. (Collected Poems - ISBN 1871438403)

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