Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans was born on 22nd November 1819. Mary’s father, Robert Evans, was a writer – his most famous work being Caleb Garth.
Mary had a good, well-educated upbringing, although it was somewhat puritanical. At the age of 22, she had a ‘relationship’ with Dr Brabant, who was aged 62 (she always seemed attracted to older male father figures). Brabant saw Mary as his ‘second daughter’ (which made the relationship even more controversial), after she had been bridesmaid at his own daughter’s wedding. Other women in the families around Mary were totally against any development of this relationship and Mary’s father stopped them meeting.
Thwarted in love, Mary turned to work and her writing. But we often see reflections of those early romantic experiences, not only in the people she had met, but through her leading female characters, who overcome similar obstacles in life.
Mary translated a lot of foreign writing, including Strauss (1846) and Feuerbach (1854), and became Assistant Editor of the well-known John Chapman’s Westminster Review between 1851 and 1853. She began to write fiction in 1856, by which time she had already received much acclaim as a critic and essayist. Her private life was quite unconventional. She spent time with radicals and free thinkers and then she met and lived with George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death in 1879. Encouraged by him, at the age of 37 she found herself a novelist and decided to hide her identity behind the pseudonym of ‘George Eliot’. Then, in 1880, she married John Walter Cross (who was 20 years her senior), although she tragically died only seven months later, on 22 December 1880.
George Eliot wrote five novels in ten years and was consistent in getting work published and bought by many readers. She also wrote verse.
Here is an overview of her work.
Scenes of Clerical Life (1857)
Hiding her true identity (as, of course, did many other Victorian female writers), George Eliot’s first novel was published anonymously in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.
It was immediately recognised as ‘the production of a peculiar and remarkable writer’, and some of its many admirers included Dickens and Thackeray. The three stories within the novel are:
The Sad Fortunes of Rev Amos Barton, Mr Gilfil’s Love Story and Janet’s Repentance
We soon see signs of Eliot’s use of humorous irony, the truthfulness of a new presentation of the lives of ordinary men and women and the compassionate acceptance of human weakness. These stories are often overlooked but shouldn’t be as they show Eliot’s early promise as a writer. Their success helped her to become the later, more confident English novelist who was thankfully to be admired as herself.
The Mill on the Floss (1860)
Spanning a period of 10-15 years, this novel depicts the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, siblings, growing up at Doricote Mill on the River Floss. But when lawyer Wakem takes over the mill from their father, Edward Tulliver, whose ancestors have owned and lived there for over 300 years, Wakem becomes the enemy of the family. Our heroine, Maggie, who worships her brother, and is desperate to win the approval of her parents, is torn when she befriends Philip, the son of wicked Wakem and then falls in love with a dangerous suitor.
This is an interesting portrayal of sibling relationships (again, often a theme of Victorian novels) and a strong, passionate and fiercely intelligent young woman as the main character. The rural scenes are beautifully described as the River Floss, which is central to the story, winds its way through the landscape and frames the lives of those who live beside it.
Silas Marner (1861)
Also known as The Weaver of Raveloe this appears to be a simple tale of a linen weaver living alone with only his work and a precious hoard of money. But Silas has a secret past in which he was exiled from a religious community and accused of stealing money.
When his money is then stolen and an orphaned child, Eppie, finds her way into his home, Silas’s life is transformed. Apparently, this was one of Eliot’s favourite novels. It once again combines quiet humour and love but this time alongside rich symbolism and strong social criticism. It’s a wonderfully affectionate study of rural life and simple relationships but does not become sentimental. I loved re-reading it! There was also a wonderful 1985 movie with Ben Kingsley as Silas and a young Patsy Kensit that’s worth a watch!
This was something of a departure as it is an historical novel set in the 15th century which is a deep study of Renaissance Florence from the perspective of the intellectual Savanarola. It is a wonderfully described world of vibrant and colourfully exotic life against evil and tumult after the expulsion of the powerful Medici family.
Romola is the devoted daughter of a blind scholar, married to the clever but ultimately treacherous Tito, whose duplicity in both love and politics threatens to destroy Romola. Eliot described it as “written with my best blood”. There is definitely heart and soul in the characters and plot. It’s a brave, successful and compelling portrayal of this young Utopian heroine set in a brilliantly turbulent historical period. The famous early actress Lilian Gish starred as Romola in a wonderful 1924 screen version. The costumes were sumptuous and it is surely worth a revival for the 21st century?
Felix Holt (1866)
In full, Felix Holt, The Radical, the novel was published in three volumes. Set in England in the early 1830s it reflects the time of agitation and national concerns surrounding the extension of the vote and the Great Reform Act of 1832. Felix is educated, but works humbly as an artisan with local people, his austerity and passionate idealism contrast with the politically ambitious Harold Transome. He has returned home to claim his family’s estate and stand as a candidate for the Radicals in the forthcoming election. The heroine, Esther, falls in love with Felix, but has to choose between him and Transome when Felix is imprisoned.
Riots, politics and principles. Lots of these more radical themes are being explored against the main love story as they set the scene for Eliot’s next work – Middlemarch. But Felix is a worthy character too in his own right and a good read. Interestingly I discovered there is a Blues song group called Felix Holt and the Radicals who aren’t bad either!
Forget Downton Abbey, this really is a huge family saga! Sir James Cheetham called it “the greatest, because it is the most fully adult, English novel of its time.”
Exploring all her past work even more fully, here Eliot expands the diversity of provincial manners and the significance of ordinary lives to a wider canvass across national and sometimes international themes. Obviously, Jane Austen wrote about provincial manners, but she never ranged beyond the smallness of the house, the village and the near vicinity (unless, of course, travelling to Bath!). It was, with so much of Victorian literature, published in monthly sections to add to the suspense. Quite rightly too, as it’s a huge piece of work! It was soon seen as a ‘masterpiece’ with many characters (the family tree including all those involved in the book is vast and could be off-putting!) and introduces wider cultural and political themes present in those years.
Our main heroine is Dorothea Brooke (and she is surely based on Eliot herself). She lives with her sister Celia at Tipton Grange with their uncle (a kindly man aged nearly 60) in a privileged and wealthy environment. Dorothea is an heiress (unlike many a Victorian heroine) and her son would inherit the Tipton estate with £3,000 a year. Money, as usual, is very important as a theme and here especially in the respect of a woman who has the prospect of some. Her inheritance and comfort frees up Dorothea to be able (or so she thinks) to follow her own ideals. She ‘does good’ in the local community, setting up an infant school and is far less shallow than her sister Celia, who is more interested in life’s ‘fripperies’. Dorothea has strong characteristics, which she often pits against many of the male characters. Although beautiful, she is ardent, idealistic, opinionated, innocent perhaps in some things, saintly, with some humour and she understands irony. But is she perhaps a bit of a snobbish prig as many have criticised her for being?
The novel is set between 1829 and 1832 in which final year the Reform Bill was passed as law and this is important because of the contrasting views of many of the characters. Subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, it looks into what was happening nationally, but also its impact on small towns and their inhabitants. Dorothea becomes involved with the older Rev Edward Casaubon, who she admires intellectually. But he treats her badly and his corrosive bitterness chips away at Dorothea as others also fear for her. Will her humiliation destroy her and her ideals? We also have the disappointment of the young idealistic Dr Lydgate wanting to cure all ills – physical, emotional and spiritual – and then, of course, a romantic and hopeful character in the handsome Will Ladislaw. There are many other people to add to the scenes as you will discover!
Eliot was writing of the continuing constraints of women in male-dominated worlds, but with Dorothea we are drawn to an immensely engaging woman who’s knowledge and growing awareness also open our eyes that it will not only be ‘goodness’ that will prevail. It’s a huge work but as Eliot stated, “nothing could be left out!” There is a sustained energy to the writing and many scenarios to keep you guessing as a reader. Dip in and see what you think!
Daniel Deronda (1867)
Eliot’s last and most controversial novel. Perhaps she felt she had fame and proved her worth and wanted to explore her own views on the world?
It portrays yearning and repression in the upper classes, but even Eliot’s lover (George Henry Lewes) predicted “The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody”.
The central romance between Daniel and Gwendolen is not a problem but Eliot took on through the plot the position of Jews in British and European society and their likely future prospects. Why? In the 1860s she had met Emanuel Deutsch, a Jewish scholar and early Zionist. The character of Mordecai in the book seems partly based on him.
Eliot even corresponded with Harriet Beecher Stowe in America (the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin) after the critical reviews following the publication. Talking to Stowe, she reflected on her own interest in all religions and said “towards the Hebrews we western people who have been reared in Christianity have a peculiar debt, and whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar fellowship in religious and moral sentiment.”
Eliot remained interested in Zionism (although she often took a one-sided view) and later published an essay against antisemitism. But she still had used a typical stereotype of the times – the Cohen family were headed by ‘a shiny-faced pawnbroker’ and much like Fagin in Oliver Twist by Dickens these were uncomfortable characters by our contemporary view.
But we must not let George Eliot’s final work overwhelm this breadth of immense talent and courage through her novels. Often the seemingly simple scenes become profound and she produced memorable characters who had touching family relationships. These were not rural picturesque productions on paper but realistic stories that still engage with the reader. Some 200 years on from her birth they are still brilliant to read and were she to still be writing today would find the current problematic and divisive politics just as topical as they were in her 19th century books.