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Middlemarch | Study Guide

George Eliot

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George Eliot | Biography


George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans or Marian Evans, born in the Midlands of England on November 22, 1819, on an estate of her father's employer. She was the youngest of five children and the daughter of her father's second wife, who died when Eliot was 17.

A precocious child, the author was sent to her first boarding school at the age of five. In her preteen years, under the influence of a charismatic Evangelical teacher, she became extremely religious. Like the main protagonist in Middlemarch, she dressed plainly and sought to do good works in the world. When her mother died she returned home to keep house for her father. She and her father moved to Coventry, where she made friends with religious freethinkers and began turning away from traditional Christian orthodoxy. Upon reading the works of secular Biblical scholars and translating two such important works (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined by D.F. Strauss and Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach), she gave up religion for good.

After her father died in 1849, Eliot moved to London to become a freelance writer. She became 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, who became her common-law husband in 1854. Lewes suggested that Eliot begin writing fiction and provided her with moral support to become a novelist. In addition to essays and criticism, Eliot wrote short fiction, poetry, and seven novels; Middlemarch is considered her masterpiece.

The novel's setting is Coventry and Warwickshire, the places where George Eliot grew up. Middlemarch originated in two separate and unfinished works, written in 1869 and 1870. Lydgate, a gifted young doctor in a country town, was the central character in "A Study of Provincial Life." Eliot often broke off from writing Lydgate's story to conduct extensive historical research on the medical profession and scientific discoveries for what she envisioned as an examination of the middle classes in the Reform era. Toward the end of 1870, she stopped writing this story and began "Miss Brooke," a work about a religious young woman. It then occurred to her to combine the two plot threads. When she did, her additions of the upper classes to the novel gave it even more breadth.

Eliot's remarkable grasp of so much background material, which allowed her to write expertly about politics, medicine, philosophy, land management, and many other subjects has led the critic Liz Maynes-Aminzade to label the narrator of Middlemarch as "omnicompetent" in Maynes-Aminzade's article "The Omnicompetent Narrator From George Eliot to Jonathan Franzen" in the Summer 2014 edition of Studies in the Novel. While critics often focus on the cross-section of classes in Middlemarch, it is equally important to think about the number of professions that are covered and written about in such accurate detail.

Middlemarch was both commercially and critically successful, although the novel was not universally praised by early critics. Over the years Middlemarch has picked up accolades from a number of famous writers. F.R. Leavis, one of the most important literary critics of the 20th century, included George Eliot as one of the four great English novelists in The Great Tradition (2015). More recently, Middlemarch has been praised by A.S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre in Imagining Characters: Six Conversations About Women Writers (1997) and is even the subject of a bio-memoir, Middlemarch and Me (The New Yorker, February, 14 & 21, 2011) by Rebecca Meade. In their own time Eliot and her partner Lewes mingled with the literati on both sides of the Atlantic, and their home was a meeting place for leading intellectuals of the day.

In 1878 Lewes died, and shortly after the author married a family friend, John Cross. She died on December 22, 1880, at the age of 61.

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