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George Eliot

Mary Ann Evans made a name for herself as a novelist at a time when society viewed women writers as unacceptable, forcing her to write under the pen name of George Eliot.  She eventually went on to write numerous novels and to become a major influence on all of English literature.

Born in Warwickshire, England, on November 22, 1819, Eliot soon grew to become her father's favorite child.  He lavished her with tutors, who taught her several foreign languages and exposed her to the world's greatest literature.  When she turned 22, she told her father that she viewed Christianity as a mix of fact and fiction and that she no longer wanted to go to church.  He disavowed her, and the two stopped speaking for several weeks.  She eventually made up with him, although she refused to change her religious beliefs.

Following her father's death, Eliot traveled to Switzerland, where she wondered how she was going to support herself.  When she returned to England, she began editing a literary journal while writing fiction on the side.  She chose to write under the pen name of George Eliot because George was the first name of her lover and "Eliot was a good mouth-filling, easily-pronounced word."

Eliot's first book, Adam Bede (1859), was an instant best seller.  Unlike most books of the day that were filled with exaggerated characters, wild coincidences, and maudlin sentimentality, Eliot told the story of an ordinary carpenter who is betrayed by his love. Everyone praised the work.  People across Europe, including Leo Tolstoy in Russia, called it a work of genius, and everyone wondered who George Eliot was. 

Hardly an attractive woman (she was described by writer Henry James as "Magnificently, awe-inspiringly ugly"), she was remarkably influential on literature.  James went on to say that "What is remarkable, extraordinary--and the process remains inscrutable and mysterious--is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, English lady ... without adventures, without extravagance, assumption, or bravado, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multifold life of man."

Eliot's insightful psychological novels, along with those of contemporary Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, paved the way for modern character portrayals.  D. H. Lawrence wrote, "It was really George Eliot who started it all.  It was she who started putting action inside." 

Her liaison with married writer and editor George Henry Lewes arose against a background of strict Victorian Puritanism and slowed her progress toward literary fame. 

Eliot's first collection of tales, Scenes of Clerical Life, appeared in 1858.  It was followed by Adam Bede, in which the model for the title character was Eliot's father, who was noted for his great physical strength.  He was alleged to carry loads that three average men could barely handle.  When several literary impostors claimed authorship of the book, the publisher revealed the author to be Westminster reviewer Mary Ann (or Maryann) Evans.

Eliot's other major works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), a story of destructive family relations, and Silas Marner (1861).  In it, Marner, a linen-weaver who had been  falsely judged guilty of theft 15 years before and forced to leave his community, has managed to acquire a tidy fortune in gold.  It is a miserly pursuit in which he takes great pleasure.  When Squire Cass' son, Dunstan, steals Marner's gold and disappears, Marner is devastated.  Only his love for an orphaned girl named Eppie, whom he takes in and cares for, saves him from a lifetime of despair.

Middlemarch (1871-72), perhaps Eliot's greatest novel, was most likely inspired by her life at Coventry.  The story follows the sexual and intellectual frustrations of Dorothea Brooke.  Eliot weaves into it other narrative lines, which offer a sad but moving commentary upon human aspirations.

In 1880, following Lewes' death, Eliot married John Cross.  George Eliot died of a kidney ailment on December 22, only seven months later.

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