English novelist, poet, journalist, and translator George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was born 22 November 1819 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, on the estate at South Farm. In early 1820 the family moved to a house named Griff House, between Nuneaton and Bedworth. She was the third child of Robert Evans (1773–1849) and Christiana Evans (née Pearson, 1788–1836), the daughter of a local mill-owner. Her full siblings were Christiana, (1814–59), Isaac (1816–1890), and twin brothers who died a few days after birth in March 1821. She also had a half-brother, Robert (1802–64), and half-sister, Fanny (1805–82), from her father’s previous marriage to Harriet Poynton (?1780–1809). Her father Robert Evans, of Welsh ancestry, was the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate for the Newdigate family in Warwickshire.
She was a voracious reader and obviously intelligent. Because she was not considered physically beautiful, Evans was not thought to have much chance of marriage, and this, coupled with her intelligence, led her father to invest in an education not often afforded women. From ages five to nine, she boarded with her sister Chrissey at Miss Latham’s school in Attleborough, from ages nine to thirteen at Mrs. Wallington’s school in Nuneaton, and from ages thirteen to sixteen at Miss Franklin’s school in Coventry. At Mrs. Wallington’s school, she was taught by the evangelical Maria Lewis. From the age of sixteen, Evans had little formal education. Thanks to her father’s important role on the estate, she was allowed access to the library of Arbury Hall, which greatly aided her self-education and breadth of learning. Her classical education left its mark, her novels draw heavily on Greek literature (only one of her books can be printed correctly without the use of a Greek typeface), and her themes are often influenced by Greek tragedy” Her frequent visits to the estate also allowed her to contrast the wealth in which the local landowner lived with the lives of the often much poorer people on the estate, and different lives lived in parallel would reappear in many of her works. Another important early influence in her life was religion. She was brought up within a low church Anglican family, but at that time the Midlands was an area with a growing number of religious dissenters.
In 1836 her mother died and Evans (then 16) returned home to act as housekeeper, but she continued correspondence with her tutor Maria Lewis. When she was 21, her brother Isaac married and took over the family home, so Evans and her father moved to Foleshill near Coventry. The closeness to Coventry society brought new influences, most notably those of Charles and Cara Bray. Charles Bray had become rich as a ribbon manufacturer and had used his wealth in the building of schools and in other philanthropic causes. The Brays, “Rosehill” home was a haven for people who held and debated radical views. The people whom the young woman met at the Brays’ house included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through this society Evans was introduced to more liberal and agnostic theologies and writers like David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach.
Eliot’s first major literary work was an English translation of Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846),and she also translated Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1854). Bray also published some of Evans’s earliest writing, such as reviews, in his newspaper the Coventry Herald and Observer. When Evans began to question her religious faith, her father threatened to throw her out of the house, although she respectfully attended church and continued to keep house for him until his death in 1849, when she was 30. Shortly after her father’s funeral, she travelled to Switzerland with the Brays and decided to stay on in Geneva alone, living first on the lake at Plongeon (near the present-day United Nations buildings) and then on the second floor of a house owned by her friends François and Juliet d’Albert Durade on the rue de Chanoines (now the rue de la Pelisserie). Where she read avidly and took long walks in the beautiful Swiss countryside, and François Durade painted her portrait.
In 1850 she moved to London, England with the intent of becoming a writer, and she began referring to herself as Marian Evans. She stayed at the house of John Chapman, the radical publisher whom she had met earlier at Rosehill and who had published her Strauss translation. In 1851 Evans became assistant editor for the left-wing journal The Westminster Review, contributing many essays and reviews. Eliot sympathized with the 1848 Revolutions throughout continental Europe, and even hoped that the Italians would chase the “odious Austrians” out of Lombard and that “decayed monarchs” would be pensioned off. Women writers were common at the time, but Evans’s role as the female editor of a literary magazine was quite unusual.
She met The philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes in 1851 and moved in with him in 1854 despite his being already married to Agnes Jervis. They had three children and Agnes also had four children by Thornton Leigh Hunt. 1854, Lewes and Evans travelled to Weimar and Berlin together. Evans continued her theological work with a translation of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, and also wrote essays and translated Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics. The trip to Germany also served as a honeymoon for Evans and Lewes, who considered themselves married. Evans even signed her name as Mary Ann Evans Lewes and after Lewes’ death, she legally changed her name to Mary Ann Evans Lewes.
Evans continued to contribute pieces to the Westminster Review, and decided to become a novellist and wrote a pertinent manifesto in one of her last essays for the Review, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” criticizing the trivial and ridiculous plots of contemporary fiction written by women as opposed to the realism of novels that were being written in Europe. She also adopted a nom-de-plume, George Eliot. In 1857, when she was 37 years old, the first work of “George Eliot”, was published in Blackwood’s Magazine. , “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton”, which was the first of the three stories contained in Scenes of Clerical Life, which was published as a book in 1858. Evans’s first complete novel, Adam Bede was published in 1859.
Public interest in the novel led to Marian Evans Lewes finally acknowledging that she was George Eliot and the revelations about Eliot’s private life surprised and shocked many of her admiring readers. However the couple were finally accepted into polite society in 1877 when they were introduced to Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria. The queen herself was an avid reader of all of Eliot’s novels and was so impressed with Adam Bede that she commissioned the artist Edward Henry Corbould to paint scenes from the book. During the American Civil War Eliot expressed sympathy with the North and in 1868 she supported Richard Congreve’s protests against Britain’s imperial policy toward Ireland and she supported the growing movement in support of Irish Home Rule. She was influenced by the writings of Philosopher John Stuart Mill and read all of his major works as they were published, she also supported Mill’s efforts concerning female suffrage. In 1870, she responded enthusiastically to Lady Amberley’s feminist lecture on the claims of women for education, occupations, equality in marriage, and child custody.
Following the success of Adam Bede, Eliot continued to write popular novels for the next fifteen years and George Eliot became one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She wrote The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–63), and Middlemarch (1871–72).Her last novel was Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, after which she and Lewes moved to Witley, Surrey. Sadly Lewes died in 1878. Eliot spent the next two years editing Lewes’s final work, Life and Mind, for publication,
On 16 May 1880 Eliot married John Cross and again changed her name, this time to Mary Anne Cross. While the marriage courted some controversy due to the difference in ages. However While the couple were honeymooning in Venice, Cross, in a fit of depression, jumped from the hotel balcony into the Grand Canal. He survived, and the newlyweds returned to England. They moved to a new house in Chelsea, but Eliot fell ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease with which she had been afflicted for several years, led to her death on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61.
Eliot was not buried in Westminster Abbey because of her denial of the Christian faith and her adulterous affair with Lewes. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery (East), Highgate, London, in the area reserved for societal outcasts, religious dissenters and agnostics, beside the love of her life, George Henry Lewes. The graves of Karl Marx and her friend Herbert Spencer are nearby. In 1980, on the centenary of her death, a memorial stone was established for her in the Poets’ Corner.Several landmarks in her birthplace of Nuneaton are named in her honour. These include The George Eliot School, Middlemarch Junior School, George Eliot Hospital, (formerly Nuneaton Emergency Hospital), and George Eliot Road, in Foleshill, Coventry. A statue of Eliot is in Newdegate Street, Nuneaton, and Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery has a display of artifacts related to her. Her novels remain popular and have been adapted for screen and television numerous times.