Spotlight On: George Eliot

Hi everyone,

Today’s post is going to be another installment of my “Spotlight On:…” series and this post is going to focus on the life of George Eliot.

As always, the post will be divided up into 6 different parts:

1. A little bit about their life

2. Their works I have read

3. Their works I am yet to read

4. Great film/TV adaptations based on their works

5. Quotes

6. An author biography recommendation

So without further ado…


A Little Bit About Their Life

George Eliot is the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans who was born on 22nd November 1819 in Warwickshire to Christina Pearson and Robert Evans, an estate agent. She was the youngest of three children.

At the age of five, she was sent to boarding school in Warwickshire along with her sister. Here she came under the influence of Maria Lewis, the principal governess who enforced a strong evangelical piety on her. At her third school in Coventry, Mary Ann Evans was taught by the daughter of the Baptist minister, therefore increasing her religious ardour. Although her upbringing and education was very typical of its time (conservative, religious…), it was during her boarding school years that she discovered her love for reading.

When her mother died, she returned home to live with her father and in 1841 they moved to Coventry. It was in Coventry that she met with people who had entirely different viewpoints to her own and she underwent an extreme change of beliefs. Amongst these were Charles Bray, a freethinker, whose brother-in-law was Charles Hennell the author of “An Inquiry Into the Origin of Christianity”. In 1842 she told her father that she could no longer go to church. The ensuing storm raged for several months before they reached a compromise, leaving her free to think what she pleased so long as she appeared respectably at church, and she lived with him until his death in 1849. She continued to translate radical books like these from German to English.

John Chapman, the publisher of “The Life of Jesus Critically Examined” gave Mary Ann Evans a chance to review R.W. Mackay’s “The Progress of the Intellect” in The Westminster Review and it was after this that she decided to settle in London as a freelance writer and in 1851, she went to board with the Chapmans. Soon after her arrival, Mrs Chapman and the governess (who was also John Chapman’s mistress) became jealous of “Marian” as she now signed her name. After ten weeks, she returned to Coventry in tears. Though Marian was attracted to Chapman (evidenced in his diary entries) there is no evidence that she was ever his mistress.

A few months later he bought The Westminster Review and Evans returned to London. For three years, until 1854, she served as subeditor of The Westminster. At the Chapmans’ evening parties she met many notable literary figures in an atmosphere of political and religious radicalism. Across the Strand lived the subeditor of The Economist, Herbert Spencer. Evans shared many of Spencer’s interests and saw so much of him that it was soon rumoured that they were engaged. Though he did not become her husband, he introduced her to the two men who did.

Marian developed a strong relationship with George Henry Lewes who, at the time, was separated from his wife but could not get a divorce. Their relationship with seen as quite scandalous at the time because of this. Despite this, the two were “married” (in every sense but the legal sense) and the relationship continued happily until his death in 1878. Evans’s deepest regret was that her act isolated her from her family in Warwickshire. She turned to early memories and, encouraged by Lewes, wrote a story about her childhood, published in 1857 as “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amost Barton” the book was an instant success. To prevent discrimination, she chose the pen name “George Eliot”. “Adam Bede” and “The Mill on the Floss” were also based on her experiences as a child.

During 1871 and 1872, she published “Middlemarch” which was deemed as her masterpiece with its broad understanding of human life, complex plot and excellent social commentary. It quickly gained status as a work of art.

After Lewes’ death, George Eliot struggled. For twenty-five years, he had fostered her genius and managed all the practical details of her life which now fell upon her. She missed his encouragement to write. The only person she saw after his death was his son Charles Lee Lewes and she founded the George Henry Lewes scholarship in physiology at Cambridge University. For some years her investments had been in the hands of John Walter Cross, a banker introduced to the Leweses by Herbert Spencer. Cross’s mother had died a week after Lewes. Drawn by sympathy and the need for advice, George Eliot soon began to lean on him for affection too. On May 6, 1880, they were married in St. George’s, Hanover Square. Cross was 40; she was in her 61st year. After a wedding trip in Italy they returned to her country house at Witley before moving to 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where she died in December. She is buried at Highgate Cemetery.


Their Works I Have Read

So far I have read Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, both of which I loved!

Their Works I Am Yet to Read

I am yet to read Silas Marner, Daniel Deronda, Adam Bede, Romola, Felix Holt: The Radical, and Scenes of Clerical Life. Still so many to get to but I’m looking forward to all of them.


Great Film/TV Adaptations of Their Work

George Eliot hasn’t quite taken over the film and TV industry quite like Austen-mania so there aren’t many adaptations of her work – that I know of at least! I know there is a TV series adaptation of Middlemarch for 1994 which I might give a watch sometime.


Quotes

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

“Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.”

“And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.”

“We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts— not to hurt others.”

“Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonise. The birds are consulting about their migrations, the trees are putting on the hectic or the pallid hues of decay, and begin to strew the ground, that one’s very footsteps may not disturb the repose of earth and air, while they give us a scent that is a perfect anodyne to the restless spirit. Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”


An Author Biography Recommendation

If you want to read more about George Eliot’s life, I would recommend reading “George Eliot: The Last Victorian” by Kathryn Hughes. There is a book called “In Love with George Eliot” by Kathy O’Shaughnessy that is released on 10th September that looks really interesting too!


What’s your favourite book by George Eliot?

Thanks for reading!

Love, Zoë xx

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