Reader's Encyclopedia

Eliot, George (pen name of Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans, 1819 - 1880)

English novelist. Of the first rank among Victorian novelists, Eliot was the daughter of a Warwickshire land agent, a man of strong Evangelical Protestant feeling. Her severance from her father's religion was a great source of conflict for her and distress for him. Early in the 1840s she became acquainted with the new and "advanced" biblical and theological scholarship of Germany and translated D. F. Strauss's Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus, 1846). After her father's death, she began to associate with a group of rationalists in London; one of them, John Chapman, took her on as assistant editor for the Westminster Review, a post she held from 1851 to 1854. She became a friend of Herbert Spencer and through him met George Henry Lewes (1817 - 78). Although Lewes was separated from his wife, he could not obtain a divorce, and, in 1854, Eliot entered into an irregular union with him that lasted until his death (1878); they lived as man and wife and were accepted as such by their friends.

Eliot was on the verge of middle age before she wrote her first fiction. In 1857 (when she assumed her pen name) her first works of fiction -- three short stories -- appeared in Blackwood 's and were published later as the volume Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Adam Bede, her first full - length novel, followed soon after, and in 1860 came The Mill on the Floss, followed by Silas Marner in 1861. Inspired by a trip to Florence, she did a great deal of painstaking research in the Italian Renaissance and produced her only historical novel, Romola, in 1863. Turning again to the contemporary scene in England, she wrote Felix Holt, the Radical and Middlemarch, considered not only Eliot 's finest work but one of the greatest novels to come out of 19th-century England. Her last novel, Daniel Deronda, is peopled with characters who illustrate her moral philosophy. In 1880, two years after Lewes's death, she married J. W. Cross, a clergyman twenty years her junior. She died later in the same year.

Eliot's fiction was regarded for many years as didactic and wholly Victorian in moral and social attitude. This view was advanced by her young husband's selected editing of her papers, George Eliot's Life As Related in Her Letters and Journals (3 vols, 1885 - 86). Subsequent studies, however, based on other sources and the internal evidence provided in her Letters (ed. G. S. Haight; 7 vols, 1954 - 55) and Essays (ed T. Pinney, 1963) significantly enlarge this view. Eliot's fiction is certainly a vehicle for serious discussion of the social and moral problems of her time, but the greatest preoccupation of this complex and unconventional woman was not moral improvement but insight into the internal reasons for the choices made by her characters in their struggles to arrive at an individual and mature view of life.