Author. One of the leading writers of the Victorian era, she used the male pen name George Eliot to ensure that her works would be published and taken seriously. She is best remembered for her novels "Adam Bede' (1859), "The Mill on the Floss' (1860), "Romola" (1863), "Silas Marner" (1861), "Felix Holt, the Radical" (1866), Middlemarch (1871-1872), and "Daniel Deronda" (1876), most of them set in provincial England and known for their realism and psychological insight. Born Mary Anne Evans, she was the 3rd child of parents who were farmers. Her father was the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate for the Newdigate family in Warwickshire, England. In early 1820 the family moved to a farm between Nuneaton and Bedworth in Warwickshire. Since she was not considered physically beautiful, and thus not thought to have much chance of marriage, and because of her intelligence, her father invested in an education for her not often afforded to women of that day. From the age of five to nine, she boarded with her older sister Chrissey at Miss Latham's school in Attleborough, and from the age of nine to thirteen at Mrs. Wallington's school in Nuneaton, and from the age of thirteen to sixteen at Miss Franklin's school in Coventry. When she was 16, her mother died and she returned home to act as housekeeper. When she was 21, her brother Isaac married and took over the family home, and she and her father moved to Foleshill near Coventry, England. The closeness to Coventry society brought new influences to her, 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. She had been struggling with religious doubts for some time, and became intimate friends with the progressive, free-thinking Brays, whose 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, she was introduced to more liberal theologies and to writers such as David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach who cast doubt on the literal veracity of Biblical stories. Her first major literary work was translating into English Strauss's "Life of Jesus" (1846), which she completed after it had been begun by another member of the Rosehill circle. When she began to question her religious faith, her father threatened to throw her out of the house, but that did not happen. Instead, she respectably attended church for years and continued to keep house for him until his death in 1849. Five days after her father's funeral, she travelled to Switzerland with the Brays and decided to stay in Geneva alone, living first on the lake at Plongeon and then at the Rue de Chanoines (now the Rue de la Pelisserie) with François and Juliet d'Albert Durade on the second floor. She was engrossed in reading and took long walks in a natural environment that inspired her greatly. She returned to England in 1850 to become a writer and called herself Marian Evans. She resided at the house of John Chapman, the radical publisher whom she had met at Rosehill (near Coventry) and who had printed her translation. Chapman had recently bought the campaigning, left-wing journal, The Westminster Review, and she became its assistant editor in 1851. Although Chapman was the named editor, she did most of the work in running the journal, contributing many essays and reviews, from the January 1852 number until the dissolution of her arrangement with Chapman in mid-1854. In 1851 she met the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes, and by 1854 they had decided to live together. At the time, Lewes was married to Agnes Jervis. They had agreed to have an open marriage, and in addition to the three children they had together, Agnes also had four children by Thornton Leigh Hunt. Since Lewes was named on the birth certificates as the father of these children despite knowing this to be false, and was therefore considered complicit in adultery, he was not able to legally divorce Agnes. In July 1854, Eliot and Lewes travelled to Weimar and Berlin together for the purpose of research, but it also served as their honeymoon as they now considered themselves married. Before going to Germany, she continued her interest in theological work with a translation of Feuerbach's "Essence of Christianity," and while abroad she wrote essays and worked on her translation of Baruch Spinoza's "Ethics" which she completed in 1856, but was not able to publish it in her lifetime. While continuing to contribute pieces to the Westminster Review, she resolved to become a novelist, and set out a manifesto for herself in one of her last essays for the Review, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (1856). The essay criticized the trivial and ridiculous plots of contemporary fiction by women. In other essays she praised the realism of novels that were being written in Europe at the time, and it became clear in her subsequent fiction that she placed an emphasis on realistic storytelling. She also adopted her pen name for which she would become best known: George Eliot. In 1857 she wrote "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton", the first of the "Scenes of Clerical Life," that was published in Blackwood's Magazine and, along with the other "Scenes," was well received (it was published in book form early in 1858). Her first complete novel was "Adam Bede" (1859), which became an instant success, but it prompted intense interest in who this new author might be. "Scenes of Clerical Life" was widely believed to have been written by a country parson or perhaps the wife of a parson. With the release of the incredibly popular "Adam Bede," speculation increased markedly, and there was even a pretender to the authorship, one Joseph Liggins. In the end, the real George Eliot stepped forward and Marian Evans Lewes admitted she was the author. The revelations about her private life surprised and shocked many of her admiring readers, but this apparently did not affect her popularity as a novelist. Her relationship with Lewes afforded her the encouragement and stability she so badly needed to write fiction, and to ease her self-doubt, but it would be some time before they were accepted into polite society. Acceptance was finally confirmed in 1877 when they were introduced to Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria. The queen herself was an avid reader of all of her novels and was so impressed with "Adam Bede" that she commissioned the artist Edward Henry Corbould to paint scenes from the book. Over the next 15 years, she wrote six more novels, with the last one, "Daniel Deronda," was published in 1876. Afterwards, she and Lewes moved to Witley, Surrey, England but by this time his health was failing and he died two years later. She spent the next two years editing his final work, "Life and Mind," for publication and she found solace with John Walter Cross, a Scottish commission agent whom she married in May 1880, courting controversy once more by marrying a man twenty years younger than herself. They moved to a new house in Chelsea but she became ill with a throat infection. This, coupled with the kidney disease she had been afflicted with for the previous few years, contributed to her death in December 1880 at the age of 61. In 1980, on the centenary of her death, a memorial stone was established for her in the Poets' Corner of Westminister Abbey. A statue dedicated to her is in Newdegate Street, Nuneaton, England, and Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery has a display of material related to her.
Bio by: William Bjornstad