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||George Eliot (1819-1880) - pseudonym for Mary Ann Cross, also Marian Evans, original surname Evans|
Victorian writer, a humane freethinker, whose insightful psychological novels paved way to modern character portrayals – contemporary of Dostoevsky (1821-1881), who at the same time in Russia developed similar narrative techniques. Eliot's liaison with the married writer and editor George Henry Lewes arise among the rigid Victorians much indignation, which calmed down with the progress of her literary fame.
"Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic – the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years as a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common." (in Middlemarch, 1871-72)
Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) was born in Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire. Her father was a carpenter who rose to be a land agent. When she was a few months old, the family moved to Griff, a 'cheerful red-brick, ivory-covered house', and there Eliot spent 21 years of his life among people that he later depicted in her novels. She was educated at home and in several schools, and developed a strong evangelical piety at Mrs. Wallington's School at Neneaton. However, later Eliot rejected her dogmatic faith. When her mother died in 1836, she took charge of the family household. In 1841 she moved with her father to Coventry, where she lived with him until his death in 1849. During this time she met Charles Bray, a free-thinking Coventry manufacturer. His wife, Caroline (Cara) was the sister of Charles Hennel, the author of a work entitled An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838). The reading of this and other rationalistic works influenced deeply Eliot's thoughts. After her father's death, Eliot travelled around Europe. She settled in London and took up work as subeditor of Westminster Review, England's leading intellectual journal. Her pay was meager: room and board at publisher John Chapman's home
In Coventry she met Charles Bray and later Charles Hennell, who introduced her to many new religious and political ideas. Possibly she lost her virginity to Bray or Robert Brabant, a surgeon, whose daughter married Charles Hennell. Brabant invited Eliot to visit him in Devizes in 1843. Eliot had also an affair with a young painter, who proposed her. She was not a beauty in the classical sense – Eliot had an elongasted face and a very large, slightly crooked nose. The positivist philosopher Herbert Spencer praised her as "the most admirably woman, mentally, I ever met."
Under Eliot's control the Westminster Review enjoyed
success. She became the centre of a literary circle, one of whose
members was George Henry Lewes, who would be her companion until his
death in 1878. Lewes's wife was mentally unbalanced and she had already
had two children by another man. Lewes registered the children as his
own. In 1854 Eliot went with Lewes to Germany, where they met the
composed Franz Listz. Their unconventional, but happy union
caused some difficulties because Lewes was still married and he was
unable to obtain divorce. Eliot did not inform her close friends
Caroline and Sarah Hennell about her decision to live with Lewes – the
both friends were shocked and angry because she had not trusted them.
To her confidante Barbara Leigh Smith she told that Lewes was a tender
lover and they had decided against having children.
While in Berlin, she completed the first English translation of Baruch Spinoza's Ethics.
Both Eliot and Lewes were drawn to the radical Dutch Jewish
philosopher, who argued "Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can exist
or be conceived without God." Eliot said in a letter that Spinoza "says
from his own soul what all the world is saying by route." ('An Introduction' by Clare Carlisle, in Spinoza's Ethics, translated by George Eliot, 2020, p. 7) Her translation remained unpublished for decades, until
the University of Salzburg printed a few hundred copies for an academic
Eliot's first collection of tales, Scenes of Clerical Life, came out in 1858 under the pseudonym George Eliot – in those days writing was considered to be a male profession. It was followed by her first novel, Adam Bede, a tragic love story in which the model for the title character was Eliot's father. He was noted for his great physical strength, which enabled him to carry loads that three average men could barely handle. When impostors claimed authorship of Adam Bede, it was revealed that Marian Evans, the Westminster reviewer, was George Eliot. The book was a brilliant success. Her other major works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), a story of destructive family relations, and Silas Marner (1861). Silas Marner, a linen-weaver, has accumulated a goodly sum of gold. He was falsely judged guilty of theft 15 years before and left his community. Squire Cass' son Dunstan steals Marner's gold and disappears. Marner takes care of an orphaned little girl, Eppie and she becomes for him more precious than the lost property. Sixteen years later the skeleton of Dunstan and Marner's gold is found. Godfrey Cass, Dunstal's brother, admits that he is the father of Eppie. He married the girl's mother, opium-ridden Molly Farren secretly before hear death. Eppie and Silas Marner don't wish to separate when Godfrey tries to adopt the girl. In the end Eppie marries Aaron Winthorp, who accepts Silas Marner as part of the household.
Middlemarch (1871-72), her greatest novel, was probably inspired by her life at Coventry. Eliot combined the work from a tale of a young doctor, which she started in 1869, and then abandoned, and the satirical story of the frustrations of Dorothea Brooke. Eliot weaves into her story several narrative lines, which throw light on the aspirations of the central characters. Middlemarch tells of English provincial life in the early nineteenth century, just before the Reform Bill of 1832. The book was called by the famous American writer Henry James a 'treasure-house of detail.' One of Eliot's main concerns is the way which the past moulds the present and the attempts of various characters to control the future. Harold Bloom has noted in The Western Canon (1994) the implicit but clear relation of the work to Dante's Comedy. Dorothea, an idealistic young woman, marries the pedantic Casaubon. After his death she marries Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's young cousin, a vaguely artistic outsider. Doctor Tertius Lydgate is trapped with the egoistic Rosamond Vincy, the town's beauty. Lydgate becomes involved in a scandal, and he dies at 50, his ambitions frustrated. Other characters are Bulstrode, a banker and a religious hypocrite, Mary Garth, the practical daughter of a land agent, and Fred Vincy, the son of the mayor of Middlemarch.
Middlemarch has been a disappointment for modern feminist readers: Dorothea was not prepared to give up marriage. "'I know that I must expect trials, uncle. Marriage is a state of higher duties, I never thought of it as mere personal ease,' said poor Dorothea." However, Eliot's lament for Dorothea left no doubts about her views: "Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the nature of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, the the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's coiffure and the favorite lovestories in prose and verse." For decades, this book has been required reading in university English courses.
In 1860-61 Eliot spent some time in Italy collecting material for her historical romance Romola. It was published serially first in the Cornhill Magazine and in book form in 1863. Eliot received for Romola £7,000, the highest advance paid for an English novel. Henry James considered it the finest thing she wrote, "but its defects are almost on the scale of its beauties." In 1871 she mentioned to Alexander Main: "I have the conviction that excessive literary production is a social offence." When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote admiringly of Silas Marner in 1869 Eliot began a correspondence with her. In a letter from 1876 she wrote about Daniel Deronda (1876): "As to the Jewish element in 'Deronda', I expected from first to last in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance and even repulsion than it has actually met with. But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is – I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to. Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us."
Eliot's translation works include D.F. Strauss's Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (published anonymously in 1846), Ludwig Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christentum, and Spinoza's Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata. Eliot's thoughts of religion were considered at that time advanced. When she visited Cambridge University in 1873 and discussed with F.W.H. Mayers of "the words of God, Immortality, and Duty", she pronounced "with terrible earnestness how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable was the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third."
Lewed died in 1878. Broken by her grief, she could not attend his funeral. After Lewes's death Eliot married twenty years younger friend, John Cross, an American banker, on May 6, 1880. They made a trip to Italy and according to a story, he jumped in Venice from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal. Cross was then carried back to the hotel suite. He was unharmed. After honeymoon they returned to London, where Eliot died of a kidney ailment on the same year on December 22. Just before went unconscious, she whispered to her husband: "Tell them I have great pain in the left side." Cross never married again. In her will she expressed her wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but Dean Stanley of Westminster Abbey rejected the idea and she was buried in Highgate Cemetery. Eliot's interest in the interior life of human beings, moral problems and strains, anticipated the narrative methods of modern literature. D.H. Lawrence once wrote: "It was really George Eliot who started it all. It was she started putting action inside." The young Henry James described her "magnificently, awe-inspiringly ugly," but also studied her work carefully, critically, and acknowledged her greatness as a writer: "What is remarkable, extraordinary – and the process remains inscrutable and mysterious – is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, 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." (Henry James in The Atlantic monthly, May 1885)
For further reading: Life by G.S. Haigh (1940); The Art of George Eliot by B. Hardy (1959); George Eliot: Her Life and Art by J. Bennett (1962); George Eliot by Gordon Haight (1968); George Eliot: The Emergent Self by Ruby Redinger (1976); George Eliot by J. Uglow (1987); George Eliot by Alan W. Bellringer (1993); George Eliot: Voice of a Century by While Frederick Karl (1995); George Eliot: A Life by Rosemary Ashton (1997); George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes (1999); George Eliot: Novelist, Lover, Wife by Brenda Maddox (2009); George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections, edited by K.K. Collins (2010); A Companion to George Eliot, edited by Amanda Anderson and Harry E. Shaw (2013); George Eliot for the Twenty-first Century: Literature, Philosophy, Politics by K. M. Newton (2018); George Eliot's Moral Aesthetic: Compelling Contradictions by Constance M. Fulmer (2019) . Museums: Arbury Hall in Warwickshire, Nuneaton CV10 7PT, former home of George Eliot. George Henry Lewes (1817-1878). Born in London. Left school early. Started writing for the Penny Encyclopaedia and other journals, edited the Leader and the Fortnightly. His works include The Spanish Drama, Life and Works of Goethe, and Problems of Life and Mind. Note: Eliot's hobby, tennis, was not ususal in literary circles. For further information: www.george-eliot.com