Ahead of her time
Think Sarah Bernhardt, Betty Friedan, Sojourner Truth. Marian Anderson, Amelia Earhart, even Madonna. These women had so much talent and daring, they didn't care that the world wasn't ready for them. Add the name George Eliot to the list -- Mary Ann Evans, to be more precise. While her heroines led quiet lives of modest usefulness, the renowned social novelist followed a more provocative path, breaking the sexual, religious, and social taboos of Victorian England, transforming herself from Midlands evangelical to cosmopolitan intellectual, from obscure London literary editor to world-famous novelist.
The education of Mary Ann Evans
The youngest of Robert and Christina Evans's five children, Mary Ann Evans was born on November 22, 1819, on a Warwickshire estate where her father was a land agent. Reared in a strict atmosphere of evangelical Protestantism that she would later renounce, Evans was teaching Sunday school to local farm children by the age of 12. Her closest companion was her brother Isaac, until they were sent to different boarding schools in 1824. Missing his company, Evans turned to books as a source of companionship.
In 1828, she moved on to Mrs. Wallington's Boarding School, where Evans met Maria Lewis, a governess who took an immediate interest in the shy 9-year-old, fostering Evan's intellect and instilling her own strong evangelical beliefs. At 13, Evans left Mrs. Wallington's, but maintained a close relationship with Lewis for another 14 years. Miss Franklin's School in Coventry, the last stop in Evans's education, gave her the chance to exorcise her Midlands accent and cultivate the low, musical voice that would become her hallmark.
Upon her mother's death in 1839, Evans left school and returned home to care for her father. Proud of his smart daughter, Robert Evans bought her any book she desired and arranged for Italian and German lessons. During this period, Evans became acquainted with religious free thinkers and began to question her faith. Meanwhile, she spent evenings reading Sir Walter Scott to her ailing father.
Leap of faith
On November 2, 1841, Evans was invited to Rosehill, the home of Charles and Cara Bray, who would become her most intimate friends. Open-minded intellectuals, the couple brought her out of her shell, expanding her social circle and introducing her to such important thinkers of the time as the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who remarked on the 22-year-old's "calm and serious soul."
The following year, Evans stopped going to church. Her longtime friend Maria Lewis was disappointed by her pupil's defection, and their correspondence ended. Evans's heresy troubled her father even more; he refused to speak to her. The two worked out a compromise: he conceded that she could think what she pleased as long as she went to church. During this period of religious questioning, Evans was translating David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1846), one of the most influential books on religious thought in England at the time. While her name did not appear on the final publication, the work would bring her fame later in London, when people learned it was hers. (The name "Marian Evans" only appeared her 1841 translation of Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity.)
In 1849, few months shy of her 30th birthday, Evans's father died. After a trip to Europe with the Brays, Evans returned to live with them at Rosehill, where she met John Chapman, a London publisher and bookseller. Having read her translation of Strauss, he asked her to write for the Westminster Review. She delivered the article herself to his home in London, where he lived with his wife and mistress, and where Evans would subsequently take up residence. The handsome charmer and notorious philanderer showed more than a passing interest in Evans, provoking the jealousy of both his wife and mistress, who soon joined forces to evict her from their home.
Evans and Chapman maintained their relationship, however, and in 1851 he bought the Westminster Review and invited Evans to be its editor. Her behind-the-scenes industriousness was the perfect foil to his pride; she was willing to do the hard work and let him take the credit. Chapman negotiated Eliot's return to the house, and she continued on for two years as a writer and editor for his Westminster Review. Under her direction, the Review again became the important intellectual journal it had been under John Stuart Mill.
In London, Evans's social circle continued to grow. Described by some as "plain" -- Evans characterized herself as "a withered cabbage in a flower garden" -- she nonetheless charmed people with her expressive face, beautiful voice, and sharp intellect. She found her physical and mental match in George Henry Lewes, a critic, philosopher, and actor, whom friends referred to alternatively as "Ape" and "the ugliest man in London." The two moved quickly from colleagues to friends to live-in lovers. Though Lewes was married with children, he and his wife, Agnes, were believers in "free love," and Agnes had been living with another man for several years.
In 1854, Lewes and Evans decided to live together openly. While divorce was impossible, Evans did stipulate that Lewes separate permanently from Agnes. After Lewes obtained this assurance from his wife, the couple took rooms in London as Mr. and Mrs. Lewes and officially began their "marriage." The Leweses soon found themselves much criticized by both family and friends. The couple received few callers. Evans waited nearly three years to reveal the union to her family. Upon hearing the news, Isaac, once her closest confidant, enjoined his sisters to renounce her actions, and Evans was ostracized by her own family. "I have counted the cost of the step I have taken and am prepared to bear, without irritation or bitterness, renunciation of all my friends," she wrote Chapman. "I am not mistaken in the person to whom I have attached myself."
Will the real George Eliot please stand up?
Editing the Belle Lettres section of the Westminster Review and writing countless book reviews, Evans began to think of writing fiction herself. Although her only prior publications had been translations, Lewes encouraged her efforts. In September 1856, Evans began Scenes from Clerical Life, a collection of stories about the people of Warwickshire published in Blackwood's magazine. At this time, she adopted the pen name George Eliot -- George after her partner and Eliot because it was "a good mouth-filling word."
Eliot's first novel, the tragic love story Adam Bede (1859), in which she modeled the title character on her father, was a popular and critical success, prompting speculation about the author's true identity. Several people claimed the honor, but in the end Evans stepped forward. Fame brought with it a growing public knowledge of her private life. While people loved her books, they frowned on her relationship with Lewes. She was seen as a violator of the marriage vow while George's wife, Agnes, was cast as a long-suffering victim.
Writing sustained Eliot throughout these personal trials. Adam Bede was quickly followed by The Mill on the Floss (1860), a story of destructive family relations. Silas Marner (1861), based on a childhood memory of a linen-weaver with "a stoop and expression of face that led me to think that he was an alien from his fellows," aimed to show the restorative power of human relationships. After the publication of Silas Marner, Eliot left for Italy to research her next novel, Romola (1863), which would be published serially in Cornhill magazine. Serial publication was hard for Eliot. Depressed by reviews of early chapters, she had trouble working on later ones. Lewes eventually began to withhold negative criticism, a policy often blamed for Eliot's later, more ambiguous novels.
"Adding to the heap of books"
Romola was a departure for Eliot, who turned away from rural England to depict life in Renaissance Florence. But she would soon return to the Midlands, dramatizing social and political reform in Felix Holt the Radical (1866), The Spanish Gypsy (1868), and her most acclaimed novel, Middlemarch (1872). To ensure the realism of Middlemarch, she investigated provincial hospitals, medical practices, and physicians rather than accepting conventional stereotypes. When its serialization began in 1871, she had finished only three chapters. Upon completion, Middlemarch brought Eliot both fame and fortune.
This time, renown brought acceptance. Evans was no longer scorned for her unorthodox relationship with Lewes. In fact, by 1876 when her final novel, Daniel Deronda, was published, the public seemed to have forgotten her unofficial marital status altogether. Rumors circulated that her marriage had been made official by the death of Agnes (who, contrary to popular belief, was still alive and well in Kensington). The Leweses' home became a meeting place for the era's intellectuals, including Emerson, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, German composer Richard Wagner, and American banker John Cross, who served as the couple's business manager and whom they referred to as "dear nephew."
Writing Daniel Deronda, Eliot's worried that she was just "adding to the heap of books." Lewes did his best to comfort her. Set in the present, Deronda left behind the middle-class merchants of Middlemarch to follow the fortunes of a globe-trotting upper class. Weaving together Deronda's search for his roots and Gwendolen Harleth's marriage for money, Eliot explores both the hidden lives of English Jews and the rigors of the traditional English society. Upon Deronda's publication, Eliot was regarded as "the greatest living English novelist" and received fan mail from all over the world.
A final chapter
In 1878, after a steep decline in health, Lewes died in his sleep. Devastated by the loss, Eliot did not leave her room for a week, even to attend his funeral. She refused visitors and immersed herself in work, writing to Cross that "each day seems a new beginning -- a new acquaintance with grief." In March 1879 began to see friends again, but Cross remained her most trusted advisor and confidant. In August he proposed marriage; he would have to ask three times before Eliot accepted. They were married in May 1880, when Evans was 61 and Cross was 40, and lived together until December of that year, when Evans died after catching a cold. In her will, Eliot expressed her wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but the dean refused, saying Eliot had not lived by the rules of the church. The author was buried instead in a plot near George Lewes in Highgate Cemetery. A century after her death, a memorial stone was erected in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner.
A pioneer until the end, Eliot's interest in the life of the mind anticipated the interior narratives of modern literature. D.H. Lawrence wrote of her: "It was really George Eliot who started it all. It was she started putting action inside." Then up-and-coming author Henry James spoke for many when he characterized her greatness in an 1885 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:
"What is remarkable, extraordinary -- and the process remains inscrutable and mysterious -- is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures, without extravagance, assumption, or bravado, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multifold life of man."
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