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George Eliot | Biography

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School Years

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans or Marian Evans, born in the Midlands of England on November 22, 1819, on the estate where her father, Robert Evans, worked as the land agent (manager). She was the youngest of three children by her father's second wife. Eliot's mother died in 1836, when Eliot was still in her teens. The author was first sent to day school as an infant and toddler and then to boarding school at age five, primarily because her mother could not cope with her children at home. Thus, Eliot spent most of her early life separated from her. The keen pain of children with absent or missing mothers became an important theme in her second novel, The Mill on the Floss, while two important female characters in Adam Bede, Dinah Morris and Hetty Sorrel, grow up without their real mothers.

Farm Management and Move to Coventry

In her preteen years and away from home, George Eliot became extremely religious under the influence of Maria Lewis, a charismatic Evangelical teacher. When Eliot's mother died, the author returned home to keep house for her father. Her extensive knowledge of farm management and the running of a dairy shown in her first novel, Adam Bede, come from personal experience. As a teenager and young woman, George Eliot managed the dairy along with her other tasks, churning butter and making cheese. She and her father moved to Coventry in 1841, after her brother and his new wife took over Griff House, the family home. In Coventry she made friends with religious freethinkers and began turning away from traditional Christian orthodoxy. She gave up the Christian religion for good after reading the works of secular biblical scholars and translating two such important works from the German (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined by D.F. Strauss and Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach) that historically examined the life of Jesus and called biblical miracles into question. Eliot was a gifted linguist as well, fluent not only in English and German, but also in other modern and ancient languages.

Literary Career in London

After her father died in 1849, Eliot spent time abroad with friends and then moved to London in 1851 to become a freelance writer. She first worked as subeditor (person who prepares text for print) of the Westminster Review, a prestigious literary journal, and she met George Henry Lewes, a journalist, critic, and philosopher. The two became friends and eventually literary partners. Lewes could not easily divorce his estranged wife Agnes, since by a complicated arrangement he had legally taken responsibility for her lover's children too. Lewes became Eliot's common-law husband in 1854. A few years later when Eliot's beloved brother learned of her liaison, he cut off all contact with her and encouraged the rest of the family to do the same. She had no contact from them for the duration of her time living with Lewes, even though she became a well-known writer. Their disapproval of her unmarried life never ended.

Lewes suggested that Eliot begin writing fiction and provided her with moral support to become a novelist. In addition to translations (including the Ethics, the primary philosophical treatise of the famous philosopher Baruch Spinoza), essays, and criticism, Eliot wrote short fiction, poetry, and seven novels: Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–63), Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876).

Eliot's First Novel

Adam Bede, published first as Scenes of Clerical Life, followed her previous foray into short fiction. The dramatic core of Adam Bede is based on an anecdote told to the author by her religious Methodist Aunt Samuel, who had visited a condemned child murderess and then traveled with her by cart to the place of her execution. Although George Eliot claimed Dinah Morris—the Methodist minister in the novel—was not much like her aunt, they likely shared a similar fundamentalism. The character of Adam, according to the author, was inspired by her father's early life. Some of Adam Bede's skills are similar to Caleb Garth's, the estate manager in the later famous novel Middlemarch. Both characters share similarities with the author's father, Robert Evans, who like Adam began his working life as a carpenter. George Eliot even gave Adam's schoolmaster, Bartle Massey, the same name as her father's schoolmaster, from whom Evans obtained a basic education. Shortly after the publication of Adam Bede, George Eliot revealed herself to be a female author and continued to write all her works under that name.

At the time of its publication, critics praised Adam Bede as "a work of a true genius," according to literary critic John Rignall, noting the author's originality, keen observation, and realism, although objections were voiced as to the realistic details of Hetty's pregnancy and the "arbitrary melodrama of trials [and] scaffolds." When reading the novel, which he praised highly, Charles Dickens guessed its author was a woman and found the character of Hetty Sorrel "extraordinarily subtle and true."

Death and Legacy

While George Eliot lived a happy and satisfying life with Lewes, she continued to be a pariah in genteel circles as an unmarried woman living with a married man. Despite gaining a great deal of acclaim as an acclaimed author and intellectual, she could not be received by respectable women of that time according to the social standards they followed. George Eliot's lifelong partner Lewes died two years after the publication of Daniel Deronda (1876). In the last year of her life, Eliot married a long-time family friend, John Cross, finally gaining the acceptance of her conventional, hard-hearted brother, who resumed relations with his now "respectable" sister. Eliot died on December 22, 1880, at age 61, after her very short actual marriage with Cross.

She was one of those fortunate writers to have been financially rewarded and praised by critics and literati in her own lifetime, and these early assessments grew after her death. Still considered among the finest of the English novelists of the 19th century, Eliot is admired for her psychologically well-developed insights into characters and for her deep and comprehensive treatment of important social and political issues of her time.

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