Who Was George Eliot?

250px-George Eliot by Samuel LaurenceGeorge Eliot, (Mary Ann, later Marian Evans, 1819-80) was the youngest surviving child of Robert Evans, agent for an estate in Warwickshire. In her girlhood, she was particularly close to her brother Isaac, from whom she was later estranged.

At school she became a convert to Evangelicalism; she was freed from this by the influence of Charles Bray, a free-thinking Coventry manufacturer (a development which temporarily alienated her father), but remained strongly influenced by religious concepts of love and duty; her works contain many affectionate portraits of Dissenters and clergymen.

She pursued her education rigorously, reading widely, and devoted herself to completing a translation of Strauss's Life of Jesus, which appeared without her name in 1846. In 1850 she met J. Chapman, and became a contributor to the Westminster Review; she moved to 142 Strand , London , in 1851, as a paying guest in the Chapmans', where her emotional attachment to him proved an embarrassment. She became assistant editor to the Westminster Review in 1851, and in the same year met Herbert Spencer, for whom she also developed strong feelings which were not reciprocated, though the two remained friends.

In 1854 she published a translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity; she endorsed his view that religious belief is an imaginative necessity for man, and a projection of his interest in his own species, a heterodoxy of which the readers of her novels only gradually became aware. At about the same time she joined G. H. Lewes in a union without legal form (he was already married) that lasted until his death; they traveled to the Continent in that year and set up house together on their return. He was to be a constant support throughout her working life and their relationship, although its irregularity caused her much anxiety, was gradually accepted by their friends.

"The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton," the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857, followed by "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story" and "Janet's Repentance"; these at once attracted praise for their domestic realism, pathos, and humor, and speculation about the identity of "George Eliot," who was widely supposed to be a clergyman or possibly a clergyman's wife. She began Adam Bede (1859) in 1858; it was received with great enthusiasm and at once established her as a leading novelist. The Mill on the Floss appeared in 1860 and Silas Marner in 1861. In 1860 she visited Florence , where she conceived the idea of Romola, and returned to do further research in 1861; it was published in the Cornhill in 1862-3.

John Blackwood, son of William Blackwood, was unable to meet her terms; by this time she was earning a considerable income from her work. Felix Holt, The Radical appeared in 1866. She traveled in Spain in 1867, and her dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy (conceived on an earlier visit to Italy , and inspired by Tintoretto) appeared in 1868. Middlemarch was published in installments in 1871-2 and Daniel Deronda, her last great novel, in the same way in 1874-6. She was now at the height of her fame, and widely recognized as the greatest living English novelist, admired by readers as diverse as Turgenev, Henry James, and Queen Victoria. In 1878 Lewes died. Her Impressions of Theophrastus Such appeared in 1879, and in 1880 she married the 40-year-old John Walter Cross, whom she had met in Rome in 1869 and who had become her financial advisor. The marriage distressed many of her friends, but brought the consolation of a congratulatory note from her brother Isaac, who had not communicated with her since 1857. She died seven months later.

After her death her reputation declined somewhat, and Leslie Stephen indicated much of the growing reaction in an obituary notice (1881) which praised the "charm" and autobiographical elements of the early works, but found the later novels painful and excessively reflective. Virginia Woolf defended her in an essay (1919) which declared Middlemarch to be "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," but critics like David Cecil and Oliver Elton continued to emphasize the division between her creative powers and supposedly damaging intellect. In the late 1940s a new generation of critics, led by F. R. Leavis (The Great Tradition, 1948), introduced a new respect for an understanding of her mature works; Leavis praises her "traditional moral sensibility," her "luminous intelligence," and includes that she "is not as transcendently great as Tolstoy, but she is great, and great in the same way."