Biography of George Eliot, English Novelist

The pen name of Mary Ann Evans, author of Middlemarch

George Eliot portrait

Library of Congress /  public domain

Born Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot (November 22, 1819 – December 22, 1880) was an English novelist during the Victorian era. Although female authors did not always use pen names in her era, she chose to do so for reasons both personal and professional. Her novels were her best-known works, including Middlemarch, which is often considered among the greatest novels in the English language.

Fast Facts: George Eliot

  • Full Name: Mary Ann Evans
  • Also Known As: George Eliot, Marian Evans, Mary Ann Evans Lewes
  • Known For: English writer
  • Born: November 22, 1819 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England
  • Died: December 22, 1880 in London, England
  • Parents: Robert Evans and Christiana Evans (née Pearson)
  • Partners: George Henry Lewes (1854-1878), John Cross (m. 1880)
  • Education: Mrs. Wallington's, Misses Franklin's, Bedford College
  • Published Works: The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–1863), Middlemarch (1871–72), Daniel Deronda (1876)
  • Notable Quote: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Early Life

Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans (sometimes written as Marian) in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, in 1819. Her father, Robert Evans, was an estate manager for a nearby baronet, and her mother, Christiana, was the daughter of the local mill owner. Robert had been married previously, with two children (a son, also named Robert, and a daughter, Fanny), and Eliot had four full-blooded siblings as well: an older sister, Christiana (known as Chrissey), an older brother, Isaac, and twin younger brothers who died in infancy.

Unusually for a girl of her era and social station, Eliot received a relatively robust education in her early life. She wasn’t considered beautiful, but she did have a strong appetite for learning, and those two things combined led her father to believe that her best chances in life would lie in education, not marriage. From ages five to sixteen, Eliot attended a series of boarding schools for girls, predominantly schools with strong religious overtones (although the specifics of those religious teachings varied). Despite this schooling, her learning was largely self-taught, in great part thanks to her father’s estate management role allowing her access to the estate’s great library. As a result, her writing developed heavy influences from classical literature, as well as from her own observations of socioeconomic stratification.

When Eliot was sixteen, her mother Christiana died, so Eliot returned home to take over the housekeeping role in her family, leaving her education behind except for continued correspondence with one of her teachers, Maria Lewis. For the next five years, she remained largely at home caring for her family, until 1841, when her brother Isaac married, and he and his wife took over the family home. At that point, she and her father moved Foleshill, a town near the city of Coventry.

Joining New Society

The move to Coventry opened new doors for Eliot, both socially and academically. She came into contact with a much more liberal, less religious social circle, including such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Martineau, thanks to her friends, Charles and Cara Bray. Known as the “Rosehill Circle,” named after the Brays’ home, this group of creatives and thinkers espoused rather radical, often agnostic ideas, which opened Eliot’s eyes to new ways of thinking that her highly religious education had not touched on. Her questioning of her faith led to a minor rift between her and her father, who threatened to throw her out of the house, but she quietly carried out superficial religious duties while continuing her new education.

George Eliot as a young woman, c1840.
Mary Ann Evans as a young woman, before she was known as George Eliot. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / Getty Images 

Eliot did return once more to formal education, becoming one of the first graduates of Bedford College, but otherwise largely stuck to keeping house for her father. He died in 1849, when Eliot was thirty. She traveled to Switzerland with the Brays, then stayed there alone for a time, reading and spending time in the countryside. Eventually, she returned to London in 1850, where she was determined to make a career as a writer.

This period in Eliot’s life was also marked by some turmoil in her personal life. She dealt with unrequited feelings for some of her male colleagues, including publisher John Chapman (who was married, in an open relationship, and lived with both his wife and his mistress) and philosopher Herbert Spencer. In 1851, Eliot met George Henry Lewes, a philosopher and literary critic, who became the love of her life. Although he was married, his marriage was an open one (his wife, Agnes Jervis, had an open affair and four children with newspaper editor Thomas Leigh Hunt), and by 1854, he and Eliot had decided to live together. They traveled together to Germany, and, upon their return, considered themselves married in spirit, if not in law; Eliot even began to refer to Lewes as her husband and even legally changed her name to Mary Ann Eliot Lewes after his death. Although affairs were commonplace, the openness of Eliot and Lewes’s relationship caused much moral criticism.

Editorial Work (1850-1856)

  • The Westminster Review (1850-1856)
  • The Essence of Christianity (1854, translation)
  • Ethics (translation completed 1856; published posthumously)

After returning to England from Switzerland in 1850, Eliot began pursuing a writing career in earnest. During her time with the Rosehill Circle, she had met Chapman, and by 1850, he had purchased The Westminster Review. He had published Eliot’s first formal work – a translation of German thinker David Strauss's The Life of Jesus – and he hired her onto the journal’s staff almost immediately after she returned to England.

At first, Eliot was just a writer at the journal, penning articles that were critical of Victorian society and thought. In many of her articles, she advocated for the lower classes and criticized organized religion (in a bit of a turnabout from her early religious education). In 1851, after being at the publication for just one year, she was promoted to assistant editor, but continued writing as well. Although she had plenty of company with female writers, she was an anomaly as a female editor.

Between January 1852 and mid-1854, Eliot essentially served as the de facto editor of the journal. She wrote articles in support of the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and advocating for similar but more gradual reforms in England. For the most part, she did the majority of the work of running the publication, from its physical appearance to its content to its business dealings. During this time, she also continued pursuing her interest in theological texts, working on translations of Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics; the latter was not published until after her death.

Early Forays into Fiction (1856-1859)

  • Scenes of Clerical Life (1857-1858)
  • The Lifted Veil (1859)
  • Adam Bede (1859)

During her time editing the Westminster Review, Eliot developed a desire to move into writing novels. One of her last essays for the journal, titled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” laid out her perspective on novels of the time. She criticized the banality of contemporary novels written by women, comparing them unfavorably to the wave of realism sweeping through the continental literary community, which would eventually inspire her own novels.

As she prepared to take the plunge into writing fiction, she chose a masculine pen name: George Eliot, taking Lewes’s first name along with a surname she chose based on its simplicity and appeal to her. She published her first story, “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton," in 1857 in Blackwood’s Magazine. It would be the first of a trio of stories that eventually were published in 1858 as the two-volume book Scenes of Clerical Life.

book cover of volume 1 of Middlemarch by George Eliot
Middlemarch was written and published in eight installments, or volumes, beginning in 1871. The New York Public Library / public domain

Eliot’s identity remained a mystery for the first few years of her career. Scenes of Clerical Life was believed to have been written by a country parson or a wife of a parson. In 1859, she published her first complete novel, Adam Bede. The novel became so popular that even Queen Victoria was a fan, commissioning an artist, Edward Henry Corbould, to paint scenes from the book for her.

Because of the novel’s success, public interest in Eliot’s identity spiked. At one point, a man named Joseph Liggins claimed that he was the real George Eliot. In order to head off more of these imposters and satisfy public curiosity, Eliot revealed herself soon after. Her slightly scandalous private life surprised many, but fortunately, it did not affect the popularity of her work. Lewes supported her financially as well as emotionally, but it would be nearly 20 years before they would be accepted into formal society as a couple.

Popular Novelist and Political Ideas (1860-1876)

  • The Mill on the Floss (1860)
  • Silas Marner (1861)
  • Romola (1863)
  • Brother Jacob (1864)
  • "The Influence of Rationalism" (1865)
  • In a London Drawingroom (1865)
  • Two Lovers (1866)
  • Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)
  • The Choir Invisible (1867)
  • The Spanish Gypsy (1868)
  • Agatha (1869)
  • Brother and Sister (1869)
  • Armgart (1871)
  • Middlemarch (1871–1872)
  • The Legend of Jubal (1874)
  • I Grant You Ample Leave (1874)
  • Arion (1874)
  • A Minor Prophet (1874)
  • Daniel Deronda (1876)
  • Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879)

As Eliot’s popularity grew, she continued working on novels, eventually writing a total of seven. The Mill on the Floss was her next work, published in 1860 and dedicated to Lewes. Over the next few years, she produced more novels: Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), and Felix Holt, the Radical (1866). In general, her novels were consistently popular and sold well. She made several attempts at poetry, which were less popular.

Eliot also wrote and spoke openly about political and social issues. Unlike many of her compatriots, she vocally supported the Union cause in the American Civil War, as well as the growing movement for Irish home rule. She was also heavily influenced by the writings of John Stuart Mill, particularly with regards to his support of women’s suffrage and rights. In several letters and other writings, she advocated for equal education and professional opportunities and argued against the idea that women were somehow naturally inferior.

Eliot’s most famous and acclaimed book was written towards the later part of her career. Middlemarch was published in 1871. Covering a wide range of issues, including British electoral reform, the role of women in society, and the class system, it was received with middling reviews in Eliot’s day but today is considered one of the greatest novels in the English language. In 1876, she published her final novel, Daniel Deronda. After that, she retired to Surrey with Lewes. He died two years later, in 1878, and she spent two years editing his final work, Life and Mind. Eliot’s last published work was the semi-fictionalized essay collection Impressions of Theophrastus Such, published in 1879.

George Henry Lewes. Woodcut by S. T., 1878
Eliot's relationship with George Henry Lewes was both influential and scandalous. Wellcome Collection / CC BY

Literary Style and Themes

Like many authors, Eliot drew from her own life and observations in her writing. Many of her works depicted rural society, both the positives and the negatives. On the one hand, she believed in the literary worth of even the smallest, most mundane details of ordinary country life, which shows up in the settings of many of her novels, including Middlemarch. She wrote in the realist school of fiction, attempting to depict her subjects as naturally as possible and avoid flowery artifice; she specifically reacted against the feather-light, ornamental, and trite writing style preferred by some of her contemporaries, especially by fellow female authors.

Eliot’s depictions of country life were not all positive, though. Several of her novels, such as Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, examine what happens to outsiders in the close-knit rural communities that were so easily admired or even idealized. Her sympathy for the persecuted and marginalized bled into her more overtly political prose, such as Felix Holt, the Radical and Middlemarch, which dealt with the influence of politics on “normal” life and characters.

Because of her Rosehill-era interest in translation, Eliot was gradually influenced by German philosophers. This manifested itself in her novels in a largely humanistic approach to social and religious topics. Her own sense of social alienation due to religious reasons (her dislike of organized religion and her affair with Lewes scandalized the devout in her communities) made its way into her novels as well. Although she retained some of her religiously based ideas (such as the concept of atoning for sin through penance and suffering), her novels reflected her own worldview that was more spiritual or agnostic than traditionally religious.

Death

Lewes’s death devastated Eliot, but she found companionship with John Walter Cross, a Scottish commission agent. He was 20 years younger than her, which led to some scandal when they married in May 1880. Cross was not mentally well, however, and jumped from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal while they were on their honeymoon in Venice. He survived and returned with Eliot to England.

She had been suffering from kidney disease for several years, and that, combined with a throat infection she contracted in late 1880, proved too much for her health. George Eliot died on December 21, 1880; she was 61 years old. Despite her status, she was not buried alongside other literary luminaries at Westminster Abbey because of her vocal opinions against organized religion and her long-term, adulterous affair with Lewes. Instead, she was buried in an area of Highgate Cemetery reserved for the more controversial members of society, next to Lewes. On the 100th anniversary of her death, a stone was placed in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey in her honor.

Stone obelisk in a garden bearing an inscription commemorating Eliot
A memorial marks George Eliot's grave in Highgate Cemetery in London.   self-made/Wikimedia Commons

Legacy

In the years immediately following her death, Eliot’s legacy was more complicated. The scandal of her long-term relationship with Lewes had not entirely faded (as demonstrated by her exclusion from the Abbey), and yet on the other hand, critics including Nietzsche, criticized her remaining religious beliefs and how they impacted her moral stances in her writing. Soon after her death, Cross wrote a poorly received biography of Eliot that portrayed her as nearly saintly. This obviously fawning (and false) portrayal contributed to a decline in sales and interest in Eliot’s books and life.

In later years, however, Eliot returned to prominence thanks to the interest of a number of scholars and writers, including Virginia Woolf. Middlemarch, in particular, regained prominence and eventually became widely acknowledged as one of the greatest works of English literature. Eliot’s work is widely read and studied, and her works have been adapted for film, television, and theater on numerous occasions.

Sources

  • Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. London: Penguin, 1997.
  • Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Henry, Nancy, The Life of George Eliot: A Critical Biography, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.