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George Eliot | Biography

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Mary Ann Evans, who published fiction as George Eliot, was one of the leading literary voices in Victorian England. In addition to fiction, she wrote poetry and essays. She also translated several German theological works. She was an influential—though unpaid—editor of The Westminster Review, a magazine that published the writings of the philosophical radicals. The philosophical radicals believed social, legal, economic, and political institutions should adhere to policies that foster the greatest good for the most people. Eliot's writing made her famous—and rich.

Eliot was born on November 22, 1819, on Arbury Estate in Warwickshire, England, where her father was a farmer and estate manager. She was sent to a series of religious boarding schools and, as a result, became a devout Christian. When she returned home, her father hired a tutor for her, and she was given access to the Arbury Hall library, which expanded her classical education. At age 21, Eliot and her father moved to the city of Coventry. There, everything changed. She met a number of freethinkers who introduced her to ideas about the relationship between science and religion that challenged her conservative Christian beliefs. Within a year, she informed her father she could no longer accompany him to church. Ultimately, she continued to attend church out of love for her father, but both knew she rejected its doctrines. After his death seven years later, Eliot was free to explore these new ideas, spending time in Geneva, Switzerland, before returning to Coventry. She finally settled in London, where she became a contributing writer and eventually a subeditor for The Westminster Review.

In London, Eliot met the married journalist George Henry Lewes. The two soon moved in together. Lewes encouraged Eliot to write fiction, for which she used her pen name. Publishing under the nom de plume, George Eliot had two benefits: (1) because women writers were often associated with romantic fiction, using a man's name made people take her writing more seriously, and (2) using a name other than her own distanced her books from the scandal of her relationship with Lewes and from her reputation as a freethinker. Eliot and Lewes remained together until his death 25 years later; they never married. Lewes's wife, in the meantime, was engaged in a long-term relationship with Lewes's business partner, Thornton Leigh Hunt, and had four children with him.

Silas Marner was George Eliot's third novel. Contemporary critics praised its "characteristic excellences with freedom from blemishes and defects" as well as its honesty in the depiction of its characters. A year before its publication, it had become known that "George Eliot" was, in fact, a woman. This may be why one critic, R.H. Hutton, wrote, "No book that we have ever read combines so completely the broadest masculine power with the most delicate feminine insight and finish."

After Lewes's death, Eliot sought financial advice from a mutual friend, the banker John Walter Cross. Their friendship developed over the next 18 months, and despite his youth—he was 40 and Evans was 60—the couple married in May of 1880 and moved to the area of London known as Chelsea. Eliot died just seven months later, on December 22, 1880, at age 61, from kidney disease.

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