A scandalous life, a brilliant mind and a lasting literary legacy
In any age, Mary Ann Evans would have been extraordinary, but in the Victorian era she really challenged conventional norms. To be born a female with a formidable brain and an ugly face was a terrible handicap in Victorian England. Mary Ann/Marian/Mrs Lewes/Mrs Cross and George Eliot (this remarkable woman went by many different names throughout her life) shocked society by living with a married man, was cut off by her father for her rejection of religious faith, and by her adored brother for her scandalous liaison. And yet she bore it all stoically and turned to writing as an escape.
Too clever for a Victorian girl, Mary Ann taught herself several languages, was a talented pianist, became a loving stepmother to the sons of the man she loved, and she gradually won over the approval of society.
Mary Ann Evans eventually gained fame as George Eliot (even the Queen read and loved the novels of George Eliot) and through her efforts made more money than any other woman of the Victorian age. But her life was a constant struggle for love, acceptance and intellectual freedom and as she tried to find her true place in the world, she changed her name to eventually become George Eliot. By her pen, George Eliot earned more than did any other woman in Victorian England.
Learn more about George Eliot’s life story, her painful struggles to find love in spite of her lack of beauty, her beginnings as an author, and then her marriage to a man much younger than herself (oh, I’d really love to know what happened on her disastrous honeymoon!).
“at the present moment George Eliot is the first of English novelists.”
― Anthony Trollope (1923)
A great place to start your George Eliot discovery journey is with my video talk or my reader’s guide to George Eliot and Middlemarch.
George Eliot’s works always centred around morality. Unlike her contemporary writers who fiercely attacked the evil side of society such as corruption, hypocrisy, cruelty and immorality, what she cared about was human nature. What she wanted to show in her novels was not evilness but goodness in real life; what she brought to people was love and hope, not hatred and desperation.
One of my favourite of George Eliot’s books is Middlemarch. Virginia Woolf famously described it as “one of the few English novels for grown-up people.” She also called it “magnificent”, and most critics have agreed.
The history of Middlemarch is unique. It was first published in 8 instalments between 1871 and 1872, in bi-monthly parts. George Eliot then merged those stories to form the book, although she worried that it was getting too long, but it was published as a full novel in 1872. She uses many images of webs within the novel, and the book itself is like a magnificently constructed web, with all strands interrelated and forming a wonderful picture in its entirety. Despite its composition, modern criticism praises Middlemarch for its unity and tight organisation. Middlemarch is considered her finest and most substantial book, so psychologically compelling, and so superbly written.
George Eliot was a fine historian as well as a brilliant novelist. There is a wealth of social and political detail in Middlemarch which covers the period of agitation leading up to the Reform Act of 1832.
If you’re keen to find materials to learn more, you’ve come to the right place. Locate all articles on this website by searching here.
Scroll down to where I list many of the books, movies, and resources available – about George Eliot’s life, times, characters, style, and influence. It’s a compilation of items that I have referenced over many years and is by no means exhaustive, rather, just a starting point for your own George Eliot discovery.