George Eliot, England.1871
Although many female authors had enjoyed considerable success in Georgian and Victorian England, and many would be later recognized for their masterpieces and are recognized on many great books lists, there was an opinion at the time that female authors could write romances and little else. Mary Ann Evans wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and so published under the pseudonym George Eliot. There is also some evidence that she wanted to maintain her privacy, especially as she was involved with a prominent married man for many years. Set in rural England, her novels were noted for their realism and psychological insightfulness.
Born in 1819, Evans grew up in rural Warwickshire where her father worker as manager at the country manor house of Arbury Hall, which allowed the young Mary Anne access to the estate library. The young girl engrossed herself in ancient Greek literature, an influence that would permeate her work. The visits also to the library also allowed her to see how the wealthy lived and how that contrasted with the struggles of her family and others who worked on the estate, again a subject that would appear later in her novels.
At 21, Evans’ family moved to the city of Coventry, where she met the wealthy Bray family. Progressive and free thinking, the Brays made their home a centre for radical debate and intellectual pursuits. At this house Evans was introduced to the likes of Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In 1846, she published her first work, a translation of David Strauss’ Life of Jesus. In 1849, she traveled to Switzerland with the Brays and stayed in Geneva alone and resolved to become a writer. She returned to England and moved to London in 1850, changed her name to Marian Evans and began work as an editor for the left wing Westminster Review, and she ran the journal for three years.
Evans was a trailblazer — running a political journal and rubbing shoulders with London’s intellectual society. Although sometimes crippled with self-doubt she more than held her own. She also began a series of affairs with her employer at the journal, with Hebert Spencer and finally with the philosopher George Henry Lewis. Lewis was married, although he and his wife openly had affairs. However, the openness of Lewis and Evans’ relationship, including traveling and living together shocked literary London and the two were shunned.
Evans continued to edit the journal but she decided to quit and become a novelist. Her final essay for the journal “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” slammed the trivial work of women writers of the day. She also wanted to distance herself from those novelists and began to write under the name George Eliot.
Her first complete novel, published in 1859, was Adam Bede and was a huge success. There was intense speculation about who the new writer was and it was only after others stepped forward claiming to be the writer that Evans was forced to admit to being the notorious author. This revelation did nothing to halt the sales of the novel. She followed up Adam Bede the following year with the publication of The Mill on the Floss — another success.
Over the next fifteen years, Evans would publish some of the most important works in English literature – Silas Marner and Middlemarch being the most famous.
Her depictions of rural life and the hypocrisies of the provincial middle class, her memorable characters, astute social commentary made her popular with both the public and the literary set. She was praised for her style, prose and political observation.
In 1880, the kidney disease that had afflicted Evans for a number of years finally led to her death at the age of 61.
Middlemarch, is regarded as one of the most important novels of the Victorian era and a significant step in the evolution of the novel.
George Eliot’s seventh novel follows the trials of a number of citizens of the midlands town of Middlemarch. The novel is divided into seven sections, which was how the novel was originally published as a serial. The stories contain comical characters but the overall themes reflect the dominant themes of the 1830s, the Reform Bill of 1832, the coming of the railway, the evolution of medicine, and the conservative nature of rural life. Class and the way class restrains and frustrates the aspirations of the lower classes and stultifies the upper classes is examined too. The characters of Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy are among the most well-wrought in English Literature.
The novel is regarded as one of the first truly modern novels and continues to be read widely today.