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NA0021 - ELIOT, G.: Middlemarch (Unabridged)

George Eliot (1819–1880)


George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, plain country daughter of a land agent in the Midlands of England, is one of the most remarkable authors in English literature. This is a comment as much on her life as on her works. She outraged society, scandalised her family, and lived a personal life of serenely flagrant duplicity. She lived one of the most sexually unconventional and intellectually independent lives of her time, yet her works demonstrate a deep moral conviction concerning the virtue of integrity and the reward of virtue that would sit comfortably with many Anglican parsons.

She was close to both her parents—her father’s strength of character finds an echo in Caleb Garth—and must have found it hard to be at boarding schools in the area of her home. On her mother’s death in 1836, she took over the running of the household. However, her father, perhaps feeling a good marriage was unlikely, brought in extra tutors (especially in languages and her great love, music) and allowed her access to the library in the house for whose land he was the agent. Her capacity and appetite for reading may have been sated; but more likely it was whetted. And she began to question certain central tenets of the ardent, evangelical Christianity in which she had been brought up. This radical intellectual shift was exacerbated when the family moved near to Coventry and she became friends of the philanthropic, free-thinking Bray family.

Through the Brays she met other liberal thinkers, and began to write; her first work was a translation of an historical (rather than divine) life of Jesus. She had lost her faith, or at least the conventional religious aspect of it. Her father threatened to exclude her from the household as a result, but a compromise was reached whereby she would attend church with him in order to keep up appearances and keep the home intact. She stayed with him until his death in 1849, and then went almost immediately to Switzerland for eight months. When she returned she changed her name to Marian and determined to be a part of the literary world.

She went to London to stay in a boarding house run by the magazine publisher John Chapman, whom she had met through the Brays. He had published her first book and ran the radical quarterly The Westminster Review. Within 18 months Marian Evans was not just contributing articles and reviewing ‘silly novels by lady novelists’ (her phrase); she was assistant editor in a journal that was at the centre of London’s intellectual life. She was associating with some of the greatest thinkers and writers of her time, such as Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (and with whom she discussed the possibility of marriage). She also developed a close relationship with Chapman, who was living in the house with his wife and mistress. Eventually this relationship settled to a purely professional one; and it was around this time, in the early 1850s, that she met the remarkable philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes.

Lewes himself was in an unconventional marriage at the time, and, with his full knowledge, his wife had several children by Lewes’s best friend. However, Lewes was unable to obtain a divorce because he had been (scandalously) complicit in his wife’s adultery. Undeterred by any of this, the two physically unappealing (Lewes was described by Carlyle as ‘the ape’) but brilliantly gifted free-thinkers set off to Germany together. For the next 25 years they lived as husband and wife despite what the law or the Church might say about it—or Eliot’s brother, come to that, who was so incensed by his sister’s behaviour that he refused to communicate with her until sometime after Lewes’s death.

But it was Lewes who encouraged Eliot to write fiction, in the process moving away from translation and journalism. It was his encouragement and perpetual care for her (he never let her see a bad review) that allowed both the breadth of her understanding of people and her involvement with social and political activity to find expression. She chose her pseudonym partly in homage to him (not just the ‘George’—the first syllable of the surname is surely for Lewes, too) and partly because it was ‘a good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word’. She published three short stories in Blackwood’s Magazine before publishing Adam Bede, which was such a success that several people claimed to be the real George Eliot—including one Joseph Liggins, who persuaded The Times that he had written the novel. George Eliot herself proved her claim, but was obliged to reveal her identity in the process. Strangely, this did not seem to prevent the reading public—who were so shocked at the ‘marriage’ of Lewes and Marian Evans that they refused to invite either of them to their houses—from loving her books; The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner were as successful as her first novel.

Middlemarch, however, did not come easily. It was begun as one story in 1869, built around Lydgate and the Vincys, but was put off for over a year; it was then restarted, with the character of Dorothea taking the central position and the earlier story being incorporated into it. As she had before, Eliot tackled the issue of reform that had stirred the country so much in the 1830s, and used her own life for certain core elements of the characters’ progressions. She also revisited her detailed knowledge of the rural world she had inhabited as a child to give full weight to the landscape and the characters’ way of life. But in Middlemarch she made a conscious attempt to cover a huge range of themes: political, social, personal and religious.

Lewes died in 1878, but Eliot found comfort in an old friend, John Cross, and—to the surprise of many—married him in 1880, taking his surname. At least the marriage effected a reconciliation with her brother. The honeymoon was in Venice; but Cross was subject to occasional fits of depression, and he attempted suicide by jumping from their hotel window into the Grand Canal while Eliot was discussing his condition in another room. In the end, it was Eliot who died first, just months later. She was buried next to Lewes: it took 100 years before her wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey was granted.

She had tried to keep her femininity a secret in order to ensure her works were taken seriously, but she was obliged to reveal it to protect the legitimacy of her authorship. History has reversed that. Mary Ann Cross, née Evans, is almost universally recognised as George Eliot yet known as a woman, and regarded as one of the finest novelists in English. Such an unconventional mixing of the literary and the personal seems highly appropriate.

Notes by Roy McMillan

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