So who was George Eliot?
This, her chosen pen name, was one of many names this remarkable novelist had throughout her life. Born Mary Anne Evans in 1819, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, she was the third child of Robert and Christiana Evans. Her father was the much respected land agent to the aristocratic Newdigate family at Arbury Hall. Christiana gave birth to twin sons fourteen months after Mary Anne was born, but they died shortly after birth. Christiana never fully recovered and died from breast cancer when Mary Anne was sixteen years old, forcing her to leave formal education and become her father’s housekeeper at Griff.
We know very little about Mary Anne’s relationship with her mother. Eliot was later to write in Felix Holt:
And many of us know, how, even in our childhood, some blank, discontented face on the background of our home has marred our summer mornings. Why was it, when the birds were singing, when the fields were a garden, and when we were clasping another little hand just larger than our own, there was somebody who found it hard to smile?’
Maybe Christiana had found it hard to love her last plain child, for Mary Anne was born with her father’s heavy features – his large nose, long chin and prominent jaw. Growing up she felt keenly her lack of beauty. But she was loved and appreciated especially by her father who was proud of his clever daughter and ensured she had tutors long after she left school. She was also allowed to use the great library at Arbury Hall. It was when she was about sixteen that she started to spell her name, Mary Ann.
Growing up at Griff Mary Ann adored her older brother, Isaac; this relationship is at the heart of her semi-autobiographical novel, The Mill on the Floss. Her family and her rural upbringing were a great inspiration for her literary work throughout her life. Her mother’s sisters, the Aunts are most comically embodied into the Dodson sisters in The Mill on the Floss. Her father was the inspiration for the eponymous Adam Bede.
In 1841 Isaac married and took over the house and business at Griff. Robert Evans and his daughter moved to Coventry where Marian, as she now called herself, came into contact with radicals, dissenters and intellectuals. She undertook work as a translator and wrote for the local newspaper owned by her friend the ribbon manufacturer and philanthropist, Charles Bray.
When her father died in 1849 Marian moved to London to make her living as a journalist, taking up lodgings in her publisher John Chapman’s home at 142 Strand. Chapman had published her translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu in 1846 – one of the most influential books of the century. He had shown great interest in her academic talents and knew he needed this clever woman to be his assistant editor of the Westminster Review, in reality, though not in name, she became the editor of this prestigious journal. At 142 Strand she was to meet many leading intellectuals, scientists, artists and political thinkers of the day. Friendship with Herbert Spencer led to rumours of an engagement; but through him she was to meet George Henry Lewes. A published author, a playwright, an actor, he was great fun too: a raconteur and wit, full of jokes and pranks. He was already married; but he and his wife were separated, his wife having had several children with his best friend and fellow editor, Thornton Hunt. Because Lewes had registered the children under his name, under Victorian divorce laws he was seen to condone the adultery and therefore was never able to obtain a divorce. Marian Evans and Lewes therefore made the decision to live together, a scandalous thing in Victorian England, but not in the eyes of their more liberal friends in Europe where they eloped to in 1854.
Calling herself Marian Lewes, or Mrs Lewes, thus began one of the most enduring and fruitful partnerships in literary history. It was Lewes who encouraged Marian (or ‘Polly’ - Lewes’ affectionate name for her) to try her hand at fiction. Scenes of Clerical Life was published in 1857 using the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’, quickly followed by Adam Bede in 1858 which was rapidly translated into French, German, Dutch, Russian, German and Hungarian, outselling Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities. ‘George Eliot’ was on her way to becoming, after the Queen, the richest and most famous woman in England. The Mill on the Floss (1860) was followed by Silas Marner (1861) Romola (1863), Felix Holt (1866) and Middlemarch (1872). In New England, Emily Dickenson wrote to her cousin: ‘What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?’ Eliot’s final book was Daniel Deronda (1876).
George Henry Lewes died in 1878. Marian was inconsolable. But with the support of friends and her stepson, Charles Lewes, in 1880 she married their old family friend and accountant – John Walter Cross, a man twenty years younger than her. She was finally ‘legal’: Mrs John Cross; and her brother Isaac in Nuneaton who had disowned his sister for the previous twenty-four years, finally acknowledged his sister. They wrote to each other but were never to meet for she died in December of the same year. He attended her funeral.
Mary Ann/ Marian/ George Eliot/Polly is buried in Highgate Cemetery close to her beloved George Henry Lewes, and with other dissenting friends such as Herbert Spencer and John Chapman. They are buried in the unconsecrated section of Highgate Cemetery which seems appropriate as she felt an outsider all her life, and in her fiction and poetry she wrote about outsiders with tenderness and compassion. She was a woman ahead of her time.