George Eliot, 1819-1880

Biographical note

Evans, Mary Ann or Marian (“George Eliot”) (1819–1880). — Novelist, was born near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, daughter of Robert E., land agent, a man of strong individuality. Her education was completed at a school in Coventry, and after the death of her mother in 1836, and the marriage of her elder sister, she kept house for her father until his death in 1849. In 1841 they gave up their house in the country, and went to live in Coventry. Here she made the acquaintance of Charles Bray, a writer on phrenology, and his brother-inlaw Charles Hennell, a rationalistic writer on the origin of Christianity, whose influence led her to renounce the evangelical views in which she had been brought up. In 1846 she engaged in her first literary work, the completion of a translation begun by Mrs. Hennell of Strauss’s Life of Jesus. On her father’s death she went abroad with the Brays, and, on her return in 1850, began to write for the Westminster Review, of which from 1851–53 she was assistant-editor. In this capacity she was much thrown into the society of Herbert Spencer and George Henry Lewes, with the latter of whom she in 1854 entered into an irregular connection which lasted until his death. In the same year she translated Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, the only one of her writings to which she attached her real name.

It was not until she was nearly 40 that she appears to have discovered the true nature of her genius; for it was not until 1857 that The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine, and announced that a new writer of singular power had arisen. It was followed by Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story and Janet’s Repentance, all three being reprinted as Scenes from Clerical Life [1857]; Adam Bede was published in 1859, The Mill on the Floss, in its earlier chapters largely autobiographical, in 1860, Silas Marner, perhaps the most artistically constructed of her books, in 1861. In 1860 and 1861 she visited Florence with the view of preparing herself for her next work, Romola, a tale of the times of Savonarola, which appeared in 1863 in the Cornhill Magazine. Felix Holt the Radical followed in 1866. Miss E. now for a time abandoned novel-writing and took to poetry, and between 1868 and 1871 produced The Spanish Gipsy, Agatha, The Legend of Jubal, and Armgart. These poems, though containing much fine work, did not add to her reputation, and in fact in writing them she had departed from her true vocation. Accordingly, she returned to fiction, and in Middlemarch, which appeared in parts in 1871–72, she was by many considered to have produced her greatest work. Daniel Deronda, which came out in 1874–76, was greatly inferior, and it was her last novel. In 1878 she published The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a collection of miscellaneous essays. In the same year Mr. Lewes died, an event which plunged her into melancholy, which was, however, alleviated by the kindness of Mr. John Cross, who had been the intimate friend of both Lewes and herself, and whom she married in March, 1880. The union was a short one, being terminated by her death on December 22 in the same year.

George Eliot will probably always retain a high place among writers of fiction. Her great power lies in the minute painting of character, chiefly among the lower middle classes, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and country folk of the Midlands, into whose thoughts and feelings she had an insight almost like divination, and of whose modes of expression she was complete mistress. Her general view of life is pessimistic, relieved by a power of seizing the humorous elements in human stupidity and ill-doing. There is also, however, much seriousness in her treatment of the phases of life upon which she touches, and few writers have brought out with greater power the hardening and degrading effects of continuance in evil courses, or the inevitable and irretrievable consequences of a wrong act. Her descriptions of rural scenes have a singular charm.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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