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,
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.
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,
Eliot's first book, Adam Bede (1859), was an instant
best seller. Unlike most books of the day that were filled with
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
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.
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.
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
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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