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Eliot, George (Mary Ann Evans)

George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans on November 22nd 1819. From her childhood in rural Warwickshire to her death as a renowned writer in London, her life was a fascinating rollercoaster. She produced some of the most acclaimed novels of Victorian literature. Yet, she was just a woman, desperate to be loved.

Perhaps because her father lacked formal education, she ended up being a fairly well educated compared to other girls of the time. She first went to school with her brother, whom she adored, and then moved to other schools up to the age of 16 when her mother died and she had to leave school to look after her father’s household. Influenced by school principals and teachers and possibly in her desire to be the best and please others, Mary Ann became a devout evangelical Christian. So fervent was her faith that she even took to wearing a cap on her head to conceal her looks, even though she had never been considered a beauty. However, something happened at the age of 21 that changed her religious beliefs forever.

In 1841, Mary Ann and her father moved to Coventry. It was there that Mary Ann started to meet educated liberal intellectuals, amongst whom she must have felt more at home. Always fascinated by religion and theology, she finished a translation of Strauss’ Leben Jesu from the German that had been started by a friend’s fiancée, Miss Barbant. This work questioned the truth of the Gospels so Mary Ann began to have a reputation as a free thinker; her religious beliefs made a radical turn and she stopped going to church. This upset her father very much. Mary Ann who had always wanted to please her father was devastated with his reaction but felt she had to follow her heart and mind. Again, an unusual thing to do for a girl of her times.

When her father died in 1849, Mary Ann and her Bohemian friends, the Brays, visited Italy. She fell in love with Geneva, where she lived for a year. With her father dead, Mary Ann seemed to need desperately the company of men and she became infatuated with her landlord. Sadly, he did not reciprocate her feelings as he was a married man. Between this time and the time when she met the love of her life, Mary Ann is said to have had a number of relationships with men who were not a good match for her for various reasons. There was even a rumour that she proposed to one of her friends, the philosopher Henry Spencer. Unfortunately, although he liked Mary Ann’s brains, he was put off by her lack of beauty and rejected her on a couple of occasions. Another admirer of her intelligence was John Chapman, owner of the liberal journal Westminster Review. He offered Mary Ann, or Marian as she chose to call herself, the post of assistant editor in 1851. Marian accepted the post and helped the paper gained success. Of course, they had to hide the fact she was a woman or many male writers would have refused to write for them! It was during this time in London that Marian met more intellectuals. Amongst them were Lord Tennyson, Darwin and Dickens.

In 1854 at last Marian found love. However, love did not come easy for her. George Henry Lewes; a writer, playwright, linguist, editor and philosopher; became the object of her affection. He was married to a publicly unfaithful woman but he could not get a divorce. Marian made perhaps the most difficult decision of her life and eloped with Lewes to Germany. This decision led them to be isolated and the object of wicked gossip and criticism. Marian was to suffer immensely but she stuck to her decision to risk all for love. Happily, their isolation did not last forever. Lewes encouraged Marian to write fiction, which she did under the pen name George Eliot. Both Lewes and Marian were aware of their bad reputation and they did not want it to tarnish Marian’s work. Besides, the work of a man would be better regarded by the public of the time. Yet, when her first work was published (Scenes of a Clerical Life 1858), people became desperate to know who this wonderfully insightful writer was. A young man Joseph Liggins claimed to be Eliot for some time but Marian’s true identity became public soon after she published Adam Bede in 1859. Now that she was a successful famous writer, Marian began to be accepted and her illicit relationship with Lewes was no longer condemned.

Lewes and Evans lived happily together until his death in 1878. In a letter to her solicitor, Marian said about her relationship with Lewes; “our marriage is not a legal one, though it is regarded by us both as a sacred bond.” It was during this time that Eliot wrote and published all her work. She was admired, respected and recognised as one of the best authors of the time. Her characters were different from those of other Victorian writers in as much as they were not heroic. Unlike her contemporaries, she wrote about ordinary life in local accents.

When Lewes died, Marian was distraught; which is why people found it difficult to understand that in 1880 she married John Walter Cross, an American admirer who was 20 years younger than her. Rumour has it that she discovered that Lewes had been unfaithful to her but maybe it was just the want for male company that had characterised her all her life.

On December 22nd 1880, eight months after her marriage to Cross, Marian Evans died in London. She is buried in in Highgate Cemetery next to the love of her life, George Henry Lewes.

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Mary Ann Evans was born in Arbury Farm, near Nuneaton in Warwickshire on 22nd November

Her early memories of her birthplace are reflected in the many rural settings that George Eliot created in her novels.

Mary Ann attended Mrs Moore’s dame school in a nearby village with her brother Isaac

Mary Ann was very close to her brother as they spent every day together at school.

Mary Ann attended Miss Lanthom’s boarding school with her sister Christiana

Mary Ann hated being separated from her brother. At school, she tried to be the best at everything, maybe to impress her father and brother.

Mary Ann changed schools again

The principal of this school in Nuneaton was a believer in Evangelical Christianity, and this had a great influence on Mary Ann. Her family were conventional Anglicans but she became more fervent and conventional when it came to religion.

Mary Ann attended school in Coventry

This school was even more religious than the previous one.

Mary Ann’s mother, Christiana, died so she had to leave school and look after her father’s household

Mary Ann continued to study on her own at home. She read foreign languages, which was not usual for a girl of 16 at the time.

Mary Ann and her father went to Coventry

It is here that Mary Ann meets intellectuals such as the Brays and the Hennels. Her religious ideas changed and she became more liberal, like her friends. She stopped going to church, but this truly upset her father and she was heartbroken.

Mary Ann’s and Miss Barbant’s translation of Strauss's Leben Jesu from the German (The Life of Jesus) was published

Mary Ann was part of a movement towards new religious ideas. These ideas influenced her work and she continued to nurture an interest in theology and philosophy.

Robert Evans, Mary Ann’s father died after she nursed him for three years

After this event, Mary Ann was devastated. She went to Italy with her friends the Brays. She lived in Geneva for a year and was infatuated with her landlord but he was a married man who did not share her feelings.

John Chapman, who is said to have had an affair with Mary Ann, offered her the post of assistant editor of his liberal Westminster Review

This was a very unusual role for a woman. Chapman admired Mary Ann but did not find her attractive. He gave her the job because of her intelligence. They had to keep secret the fact that the assistant editor was a woman or some male writers would not have written for the journal. This role allowed Mary Ann, who now called herself Marian, to meet even more intellectuals.

Marian was said to have a series of relationships with 'unsuitable' men

Marian was considered ugly. She herself felt so. She is said to have proposed to a social philosopher called Herbert Spencer. However, he rejected her. He said she was 'the most admirable woman mentally' but did not want to be her husband because of her 'lack of beauty'. The famous American writer Henry James described her as 'magnificently ugly' and 'deliciously hideous'.

Marian eloped to Germany with George Henry Lewes

Marian fell in love with Lewes but although his wife had been publicly unfaithful to him, he could not get a divorce. Marian's decision to run away with him was highly unusual for a woman at the time and caused her to live in isolation, away from her friends and family. This was very hurtful for her, especially her separation from her beloved brother Isaac.

Marian published some stories in Blackwood’s magazine

Lewes encouraged Marian to start writing fiction.

Marian published 'Scenes from Clerical Life' under the pseudonym 'George Eliot'

Marian decided to use a pseudonym as she had a fairly scandalous reputation after her affairs and elopement. She also knew a male writer was always more successful. Her true identity was soon discovered but she decided to keep her pen name.

Adam Bede was published

Her first full length novel. Eliot based the character of Adam on her father.

Mill on the Floss was published

By this time, Marian was not isolated anymore and had settled in Wimbledon. She was famous and admired by many. In fact, many intellectuals and famous writers such as Dickens and Browning visited them often. This novel is considered to be the most autobiographical of her works.

Silas Marner was published

The setting of this novel, Raveloe, is a fictional rural town very similar to the place where she grew up. This novel is the last one of Eliot’s early period.

Romola was published

In 1861, Marian and Lewes went to Florence. She was fascinated by the place and this led her to write the historical novel Romola.

Daniel Deronda was published

Eliot’s last novel was probably her most controversial one as it deals with issues related to Judaism and Zionism.

Read more about Daniel Deronda


George Henry Lewes died

They had lived happily together, and Lewes's death left Marian devastated.

Marian married John Walter Cross, an American admirer who was 20 years younger than her

It is said that Marian had found out that Lewes had been unfaithful to her and, therefore, she remarried fairly soon after Lewes's death. Others think that she was, as always, desperate for male company.

Marian died on 22nd December and was buried next to George Henry Lewes in Highgate Cemetery

John Walter Cross soon became her main biographer.