On a late November morning in 1819, an exceptionally cold year, Mary Ann (informally, Marian) Evans was born the third child of Robert and Christiana Evans. Robert was a strong pragmatic man, who managed the large family estates of the Newdigate family (and already the father of two teenaged children by his first marriage), and Christina the daughter of a modestly affluent local family. The rural nature of Marian's childhood surroundings in the Nuneaton-Coventry area is recreated in some detail in her early novels, but she was also close to the industrial heartland of Warwickshire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire. Here a strong dissenting community worked hard to exploit the natural abundance of coal seams, forests, and rivers, and they cultivated knowledge and intellectual ability as practical components essential for industrial and commercial progress. Marian derived from such advanced educational opportunities her lifelong love of learning, especially in languages and music, but social convention still dictated that she be raised to be a practical man's practical wife valuing Christian piety, charity and good works above individual introspection. Nevertheless, many of her core beliefs about the primacy of the rational community over impulsive individuality, can be traced back to her schooling, especially in the influence of Maria Lewis, governess of Mrs. Wallingon's boarding school in Nuneaton (1828-32).
With her mother's death in 1836, she returned from her current boarding school in Coventry to run the family home (akin to running a small business) and to serve as personal companion to her father. Much of this period must be imagined as a daily round of regulating and overseeing the various domestic chores, punctuated by arguments with her father about the purpose and direction of her intense efforts at self-education. It did not take long for her father to realize that his daughter's filial obedience revealed not only a genuine respect and love for him, but also her steely conviction that love and respect had deeper roots than in merely subjective feelings. When they argued it was never just a case of his authority against her stubborn will, he usually ended up thinking that his was the stubborn will, a force that had to be obeyed for no better reason than that it was his will. So when his daughter noted that it was right and just that she took lessons in the traditionally masculine and scholarly languages of Latin and German, her traditionally-minded father thought this most un-ladylike, but got confused when he tried to give his reasons and yielded.
Clearly no tyrant, he seems to have been happier conceding a point than resisting his daughter's implacable convictions, but like King Lear, he must have found his daughter's love for him a strange thing, justifying itself in spite of accepted traditions of paternal authority, not because of them. Association with George Eliot would always force men to chose between the rejection of her in the name of social values and the rejection of social values in the name of reason. Like most men of her time, Robert Evans found himself ill-equipped even adequately to formulate the terms of this choice. The main cause of the difficulties between father and daughter centered on the new friends she had met after their move to Coventry in 1841. Charles Bray was a local manufacturer and dissenting radical and Charles Hennell had written a book that matched the Bible against the canons of reason, scandalously justifying the latter as the guide to the former. At the heart of the group were Cara Bray (wife to the former Charles, sister to the latter) and her sister Sara Hennell, both of who would become Eliot's lifelong friends and correspondents. With this close-knit group she came to associate her social convictions with the analysis of human nature rather than religious sanction, and through their extensive dissenting connections she would come to forge links with the intellectual elite of London.
In 1842, her poor father now found that his daughter felt she could no longer attend church, and several months of argument ended in compromise: she would formally comply with the church ritual while retaining her private freedom of thought. Over the next 3 years, between her domestic chores, she completed a translation of D. F. Strauss's Life of Jesus (1846), a compendious 3-volume work of biblical scholarship emphasizing the historical specificity of the New Testament narrative. In today's secular world, this book is practically unreadable, but at the time it was considered to be social dynamite. Strauss argued that the New Testament was constructed out of concepts and ideas drawn from traditional Greek and Hebrew lore, and that the Gospels were mutually and internally contradictory because they were fallible works of editorial judgement rather than divine inspired truths. For a small, but increasingly vocal group of freethinkers, this was the cutting edge of social research – if Strauss's claims were true, or, more particular, even if his method and empirical attitude were true, then shouldn't society be re-organized on rational rather than on irrational mythical values? Such “higher criticism” was the seedbed from which sociology, anthropology, and historical periodization grew, and such critical examination of the Bible was to have immediate implications for politics and ethics.
After her father's death in 1849, Marian became financially independent and she traveled with the Brays to Geneva to mourn and to continue her program of translation (Spinoza's biblical criticism) and reading, which was largely dedicated to philosophical and scientific works of new positivist school. Positivism was devised and codified by the somewhat eccentric French writer August Comte, and marries a scientific attitude to phenomena, with a mysterious faith in the possibility of a terrestrial utopia, which involves some curious sexual politics. One of his more fruitful ideas was his theory of human history, which he outlines as the stepwise progression of the human mind from primitive beginnings (the theological phase), to metaphysical theories of life, and on to the concrete precision of scientific realism. In its polemical mode, this school attacked the attempt to present the world as the expression of God's inscrutable will. Feuerbach (1804-1872), whom Eliot found more congenial, had argued that it was simply a psychological habit of man to refer to the will of god (or the gods) rather than to ascertain the physical and mechanical laws that governed the world. In its positive aspect Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the founder of the social sciences, treated human psychology as just one more fact of nature and developed a form of social statistics that aimed to uncover the laws of human society.
On her return, Marian decided to move to London and lodged with another political and intellectual radical, John Chapman, a friend of the Hennell's (142, The Strand). Although his wife accused them of having an affair and sent Marian back to Coventry, Chapman soon became the owner of the Westminster Review and Eliot returned to become sub-editor, overseeing a revival in the once great journal's fortunes. Now she began to move in the same circles with the leading freethinkers in Britain, meeting J. S. Mill, T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and G. H. Lewes, who was separated, but not divorced from his wife and their three sons. At this busy time she published her translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity (German publication 1841; translation published 1854) and then headed off to Germany with Lewes, with whom she passed the rest of his life, living as man and wife. Her beloved brother, Isaac, found this flouting of traditional morality so scandalous that he ceased correspondence with her and even refused to acknowledge her as his sister, a situation he would only rectify when she finally married 26 years later.
In Germany, Lewes prepared his pioneering Life of Goethe (1855) while she translated Spinoza's Ethics (published posthumously, 1981) and wrote her most brilliant articles for the Westminster Review, effortlessly exploiting her scientific and philosophic expertise to generate insights into the world of literature. Her journals reveal this to be the happiest time of her life, exploring Goethe's Weimar with “Herr Lewes”, playing duets with Franz Lizst, and living a life free from social recrimination. Back home, they established themselves in Richmond. Lewes, who had became aware of her hidden literary talents, encouraged her to start writing short stories for Blackwood's Magazine. Her first 3 efforts were collected together and published in book form as Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), under the pseudonym George Eliot. In 1859, she published Adam Bede in the canonical three-volume format, and its vivid portrayal of detail and masterful evocation of psychology caused a minor sensation. There was widespread speculation as to who George Eliot really was. Local Warwickshire folk began to recognize in her writings their own dialect, local folktales worked up into plots, and some of their community thinly disguised as characters within the stories. Soon George Eliot's real identity was an open secret, and her publisher, John Blackwood, began to worry that her relationship with Lewes would harm sales.
Nevertheless 1860 saw the successful publication of The Mill on the Floss, another rural tale of the troubled relation between brother and sister, loosely based upon the nature of her relation to Isaac. Their childhood is revealed as a series of significant episodes that force the siblings apart until an elemental and apocalyptic flood permits a reciprocal reconciliation in extremis. On a trip to Florence, timed to coincide with the release of her new book, Lewes suggested she write a historical novel set in the time of Savonarola, the ascetic priest, whose Republic of virtue briefly checked the progress of the flamboyant Renaissance. Eliot began gathering material while she wrote and published the simple yet powerful tale of a miserly hermit redeemed for humanity through his loving care for the foundling child, Eppie (Silas Marner, 1861). This book completed, she returned to Florence for more local research, rounding it out with long stints in the British Library. The resulting novel, Romola, was serialized in Cornhill Magazine from July 1862 to August 1863, garnering for its author a vast sum of money (£7,000) and an almost equal inflation of popular, though not critical acclaim. Eliot had now joined Dickens as one of a new breed of magazine novelists who had accumulated substantial riches out of their writing. Her newfound wealth allowed her to buy one of the palatial mansions that elegantly surround Regent's Park, though still not to enter into polite society.
After the success of Romola, Eliot began to produce novels of a more deliberately epic scope, depicting communities in their full social variety: an interrelated and dynamically evolving body of households, rather than just a single one. These novels stress the intimate connection between values at the personal and social levels, and are thus more overtly political than her previous works. Felix Holt, Radical (1866), and Middlemarch (1873), were set in the years of the first Reform Bill (1832) and greedily devoured by a public that was making the great leap into the democratic beyond that constituted the second Reform Bill (1867). Her continued public success and the eminently Victorian morality of her writing finally broke down the wall of social conformity, and the parlours of society opened up to her – a shift in attitudes led by Queen Victoria, who had even commissioned paintings of scenes from her novels. In 1876 she published Daniel Deronda, which confronted the issue of anti-semitism and the Zionist cause to which she gave a sympathetic and scrupulously informed voice.
In 1878 Lewes died and George Eliot married her banker, J. W. Cross, and lived with him in Chelsea, just around the corner from Thomas Carlyle. She died in 1880 after only a few months of marriage.
George Eliot's novels are characterized by the psychological acuity with which her characters' feelings and mental dilemmas are delineated, and the detail of interpersonal relationships on the domestic and social level. Like many Victorian writers, she linked selfishness and greed to tragic destruction, and she valued those characters who place the harmony and well-being of their community above their own self-interest. More specifically, she asserts that such selfless love is a cosmically sanctioned duty, and that self-regard is an aberrant form of life that may tempt us, but ultimately must be confronted and rejected. Those egotists who turn their backs on loving kindness merely initiate their own tragic downfall, which pursues them with a ruthless inevitability. A leading voice of rational humanism, she linked this individual psychological struggle between impulse and duty to the historical struggle for mankind to reconnect with its true essence and achieve a truly human community here on earth. Her knowledge of contemporary scientific developments across a range of disciplines was impressive, no less than her creative ability to see the human struggle involved in applying such breakthroughs to the chaos of real life.
Citation: Uglow, Nathan. "George Eliot". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 March 2002 [https://staging.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=1408, accessed 01 June 2023.]