George Eliot George Eliot

George Eliot, probably the most learned of Victorian novelists, studied French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew both at school and later. But her novels, almost without exception, concerned English life (1863's Romola is the only one set entirely outside of England).

Born Marian Evans in Warwickshire, her early life, though marked by a private education with tutors, was otherwise a typically provincial one. She lived with her brother and her carpenter-turned-land agent father. After her father's death in 1849, she traveled in Europe and settled in London, where she became associated with the Westminster Review. By the mid-1840s and into the 1850s, Eliot (still as Evans) worked extensively as a translator of contemporary philosophy, most notably of Feuerbach and Spinoza. Her life in London as an editor, reviewer, and translator brought her into contact with a rarefied intellectual community, including the empiricist Herbert Spencer, the feminist Barbara Bodichon, and the writer G.H. Lewes, with whom she lived from 1854 to 1878. (They never married at least in part because Lewes's wife would not grant him a divorce.)

She assumed the pseudonym "George Eliot" with the 1857 publication of Scenes of Clerical Life. As a young woman, Eliot had been an evangelical, but her novels bear the marks of her adult conversion to a secular rationalism; Adam Bede, published in 1859, deals with the questions of spiritualism and worldliness Eliot confronted in her early life. Typical of the mid-century realist novel, Eliot's writing turned away from what had come to be perceived as the self-interest of Romanticism -- typified by Wordsworth's poetry -- toward an outward-looking interest in social life and social reform.

Her interest in reform differed from that of her contemporaries Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, though. Eliot was not unconcerned with material reform (Felix Holt, Radical, from 1866, takes up the issue directly), but her greatest interest lay in the effects of social crisis on an individual's interior life rather than exterior condition. Set against the background of the 1832 Reform Bill, which reapportioned parliamentary representation and extended the franchise to any man owning a household worth 10 pounds, Eliot's masterwork Middlemarch (1871-1872) is more concerned with the shifting psychological allegiances and aspirations of the provincial town's inhabitants than it is with the machinery of political change.

After Lewes's death in 1878, Eliot surprised her acquaintances by marrying John Cross, an American 20 years her junior. Seven months later, in December 1880, George Eliot -- now Marian Evans Cross -- died.