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George Eliot | Biography

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Early Life

George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans or Marian Evans. Eliot was born in the Midlands of England on November 22, 1819, on the estate of her father's employer, where Mr. Evans worked as the land agent (manager). She was the youngest of three children by her father's second wife.

Eliot 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 mother. The pain of children with absent or missing mothers is a key theme in Eliot's second novel, The Mill on the Floss (1860), and absent mothers are also prominent in her last novel, Daniel Deronda. In her preteen years, under the influence of a charismatic evangelical teacher, Eliot became extremely religious. When her mother died in 1836, Eliot returned home to keep house for her father. 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.

After reading the works of secular biblical scholars and translating two such important works that examined the life of Jesus and called biblical miracles into question, Eliot gave up the Christian religion for good. Eliot was a gifted linguist, not only fluent in German but also in other languages, and she knew enough Hebrew later in life to give her partner, George Henry Lewes (1817–78), lessons.

George Henry Lewes

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 (someone who prepares text for print) of The Westminster Review, a prestigious literary journal, where she met George Henry Lewes, a journalist, critic, and philosopher. The two became friends and literary partners. Lewes could not easily divorce his estranged wife, Agnes, who had given birth to her lover's children, although they legally belonged to Lewes. Lewes became Eliot's common-law husband in 1854. However, when Eliot's beloved brother learned of her liaison a few years later, he cut off all contact with his sister and encouraged the rest of the family to do the same. Eliot's pain over her absent brother is present in The Mill on the Floss.

Literary Output

Lewes suggested Eliot begin writing fiction and provided her with moral support to become a novelist. In addition to translations, 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).

When Eliot published Daniel Deronda, she was already an enormously successful writer and was recognized as an English dean of letters. Her last novel was both a successful and controversial book since it exposed Victorian anti-Semitism (discrimination against Jews) as well as the degenerative side of the English aristocracy. Eliot's inspiration for this novel was based on her warm friendship with a Jewish scholar, Emanuel Deutsch (1829–73). She met him in 1866, and that same she year visited a Jewish synagogue in Amsterdam where she witnessed the chanting and swaying of the congregants, which moved her as a manifestation of "a religion of sublime far off memories." Deutsch was a Zionist, like Mordecai, Daniel Deronda's spiritual mentor, wishing to reestablish a homeland for the Jewish people. Eliot studied Jewish history and related areas beginning in 1873 in preparation for writing the novel. She read a 11-volume History of the Jews along with an important book on Kabbalah, a form of mysticism (religious practice focused on absorption in a form of the deity) outside of mainstream Jewish practice. She was also influenced in her story and character development by the poetry of Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), a German Jewish poet.

Eliot's last novel sold better than Middlemarch, although it was met with mixed reviews by critics. Some later critics, such as F.R. Leavis, found the Jewish sections superfluous and Gwendolen's story most compelling. Others, such as Graham Handley, call the novel a great work with "moral and imaginative cohesion" and a "subtle and consistent presentation of character." Handley says the principle of "manifold association ... operates at a number of levels of reading consciousness," which might be what the author meant when she said, "I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there."

Later Life

Two years after the publication of Daniel Deronda, Lewes died. In the last year of her life, Eliot married a family friend, John Cross. She died on December 22, 1880, at age 61. Eliot is still considered one of the "leading writers of the Victorian era" and "one of the greatest writers of all time."

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