George Eliot

Gail Marshall

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online March 2011 | | DOI:
George Eliot


George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire in 1819. Before she died in 1880, she had become one of the most notable women of the century and one of its leading novelists. Eliot’s early life in Warwickshire was crucial to her life as a writer: her surroundings provided her with material and inspiration for her later work and instilled a sense of the importance of memory to the individual’s development. In 1828, she became a fervent Evangelical, but when Eliot and her father moved to Coventry in 1841, she encountered the free-thinking Bray family, who initiated in Eliot an intellectual inquiry into the tenets of evangelicalism, which led her to disavow her earlier faith. In this new intellectual context, Eliot began her translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (published anonymously in 1846). Following her father’s death in 1849, Eliot fully embraced a new life; she moved to London, where she began work editing and writing for the radical Westminster Review. In the same year, she met the married George Henry Lewes. In 1853 he and Eliot began a relationship that lasted until Lewes’s death in 1878. They left England in 1854 for an eight-month stay in Germany, during which they read together and fully immersed themselves in the cultural life of that country. In 1856, inspired by Lewes’s confidence in her, Eliot began to work on “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton.” Thus began a highly successful career as a writer of fiction, which was marred only by the difficulties initially caused by Eliot’s living as the wife of a man married to another. Fear of the implications of this situation for her work, and a general awareness—expressed in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”—of the ways in which women’s writing was often read, or misread, led Eliot to adopt her pseudonym. In 1859, however, her identity became widely known following the indiscretion of a friend, Herbert Spencer, and the efforts of an impoverished cleric to claim credit for the success of her early texts. Eliot was a prolific essayist, reviewer, poet, and letter writer, but it is for her full-length fiction that she is best known. Her long fiction includes Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–1863), Felix Holt (1866), Middlemarch (1871–1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). In her fiction Eliot developed the primary tenets of Victorian realism, and she insisted on the fundamental moral import of the text. By the end of her life she seemed to have overcome social resistance and was read and visited by the most respectable figures in the country, including members of the royal family. However, after Lewes’s death, she chose to marry the much younger John Cross in 1880 and reignited the sense of scandal that her earlier relationship had also provoked. She was married to Cross for only six months before her death in December 1880. She was buried next to Lewes in Highgate Cemetery. Her posthumous reputation initially suffered because of Cross’s efforts to whiten her memory, and the inevitable shift in reading tastes at the end of the century, but since the 1910 her reputation has flourished.

Article.  8795 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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