George Eliot, the narrator of modernity

Tributo di Zoa Studio a George Eliot

George Eliot, real name Mary Ann (or Mary Anne) Evans, is a British writer who died on December 22, 1880 in Chelsea, London. We remember her today almost a century and a half after her death.

She is considered to be one of the greatest Victorian writers… of all genders. Her novels, set in provincial England, are known for their realism and psychological depth. Now we tell you her story, maybe not as good as she would do, but we certainly put her realism!


Mary Anne Evans, born November 22, 1819 in Nuneaton, was the third daughter of Robert and Christiana Evans Pearson. In addition to a sister and older brother, Mary Anne (often briefly referred to as Marian) also had two half-siblings, the result of her father’s previous marriage to Harriet Poynton.

Her father, Robert, was a property manager. In the early 1820s the family moved to a place called Griff, halfway between Nuneaton and Coventry.

Young Evans showed off and was able to “get things” thanks to her father’s important role in the region. For example, she was able to access the Arbury Hall library which was instrumental in her cultural context. There she read Walter Scott and Shakespeare.

Her religion also greatly influenced her life: she grew up in an Anglican family belonging to the “lower church”. At that time the Midlands territory was an area occupied by many religious dissidents and her beliefs became part of her upbringing. She attended Attleborough, Nuneaton and Coventry schools as an intern. Her teacher at Nuneaton (Mary Lewis, the recipient of her first letters) was Anglican and the school was run by Coventry Baptist nuns.

Studies go on

In 1836 her mother died and Evans left school to take care of the house, but continued her studies with a private teacher and under the guidance of Mary Lewis. Her brother, Isaac, married when she was 21 and took over the family home, so Evans and his father moved to Foleshill, near Coventry. It almost seems like the plot of a novel by another English writer known to us, Jane Austen.

Let’s go back to George Eliot. The proximity of the good company of Coventry allowed her to make new acquaintances with characters such as Charles and Clara Bray. Charles Bray had made money from the production of tapes and had spent their wealth building schools and other philanthropic works.

He was a free thinker in religious matters and a liberal in politics, and his home in Rosehill was a meeting and discussion place for people with radical views. Mary Ann met several people at the Bray home, including Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thanks to this kind of knowledge, Mary Ann began into much more liberal thought forms, which confirmed her doubts about the literal truth of the Bible, and she stopped going to church. After questioning religious faith he caused a rift between Mary Ann and her family, although that never happened. In fact, the girl continued to go to church and serve as a housekeeper to her father until her death in 1849.

Her first work

Mary Ann’s first major literary work was a translation of David Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1846), which she completed after another member of the Rosehill Circle left it unfinished.

Immediately after the death of her father Evans, she went to Switzerland with the Brait couple, where she lived independently in Geneva and made friends with François d’Albert Durade and his wife Juliette. On her return to England she moved to London with the intention of becoming a writer, and she took the stage name of Marian Evans.

She stayed for a time in the home of John Chapman, the radical editor she had met at Rosehill and whose translation she published. Chapman had recently become the owner of the left-wing magazine The Westminster Review, and Marian became deputy editor in 1851. Over the next three years, Marian did most of the work, although Chapman was officially the boss.

From Marian Evans to George Eliot

Mrs. Lewes

She had a low forehead, dull gray eyes, a large drooping nose, a wide mouth in which crooked teeth could be seen, and an “almost cheap never ending” chin and jaw … Yet, in this vast ugliness a more powerful beauty resides because in a few minutes it enchants and fascinates the mind, so much so that in the end you find yourself in love with her, as happened to me. Yes, consider me in love with this great horse-faced intellectual.

– Henry James in a letter to his father, talking about George Eliot

Female writers weren’t that rare at the time, but Marian’s role in the direction of a literary magazine was very unusual and frowned upon. Obviously very determined, Marian was easily sensitive, and at times paralyzed by insecurities. She was aware of her ugliness about her, and she suffered when she fell in love with her and wasn’t reciprocated. For example, she happened to be her employer, Chapman (who was married and lived with her wife and lover), and Herbert Spencer.

Philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes met Marian Evans in 1851 and the two had lived together since 1854. Lewes was married to Agnes Jervis, but they had decided to have an open marriage; in addition to the three children she had with Lewes, Agnes has in fact had several children with another man.

In 1854 Marian and Lewes went to Weimar and Berlin to study. Before visiting Germany, Marian had continued to work on the philosophy of religion with a translation of The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach, and during his stay abroad he wrote several essays and began translating Spinoza’s books on ethics. , a work that he completed only years later and was published after his death.

George Eliot is born

The trip to Germany was also a honeymoon for Marian and Lewes: they had since considered themselves married, and Marian called herself “Mrs. Evans Lewes”. In Victorian society, extramarital affairs were not unusual, provided that appearances were maintained and also some discretion. What caused the scandal and accusations of bigamy was the public admission of the relationship with Lewes.

Upon their return to England, they lived away from London literary society, avoiding contact and being reimbursed to the same extent. Continuing to write articles for Westminster Review, Marian has decided to write novels and essays published in a magazine where her literary manifesto can be read: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.

The essay criticized the futile and ridiculous plots of some period novels written by women. In other writings, the author praised the realism of the European novels of the time. At that time she also adopted a new nickname, by which he will always be remembered: George Eliot. The man’s name will be used to keep a certain distance from the authors of novels that he considered ridiculous, but also to hide the delicate question of his marital status.

George Eliot’s success

In 1857 Blackwood Magazine published Amos Barton, the first of Scenes from the Office Life. Two years later, the first full-length novel Adam Bede was published, which was an immediate success, attracting keen interest in the author in readers. Scenes from the Office Life was believed to have been written by a country priest, or perhaps a pastor’s wife. The author’s curiosity grew with the incredible popularity of Adam Bede, and there was even a man named Joseph Liggins who claimed to be the novel’s author.

Eventually, the real George Eliot took a step forward and Marian Evans Lewes admitted that she was the author of the work. The revelations about Eliot’s private life surprised and shocked the most avid readers of his works, but apparently they did not dent his popularity as an author. Eliot’s relationship with Lewes gave the woman the courage and stability necessary to write novels, both without insecurities, but it was time before the couple was accepted by good society. Full acceptance was finally confirmed in 1877, when they were introduced to the Duchess of Argyll, daughter of Queen Victoria: both were George Eliot’s readers.

Following Adam Bede’s popularity, George Eliot continued writing successful novels for the next fifteen years.

Her most famous novel is The Middlemarch, published in 1871.


Eliot’s most famous work, Middlemarch (Middlemarch: Provincial Studies), is a turning point in the history of the novel. Cleverly using counterpoint and plot, Eliot presents the story of a group of small English villagers on the eve of the electoral reform (Bill Reform) of 1832. The main characters, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, yearn for an exceptional life, but they are very limited both by their own unrealistic expectations and by conservative society. The novel is distinguished by its profound psychological insight and sophisticated portrayals of characters.

Virginia Woolf called The Middlemarch “One of the few English novels written for adults”. The numerous film and television adaptations of Eliot’s books have brought this author back to the fore, making her known to many readers.

Eliot’s writings reveal a keen sense of understanding about political and social conditioning. She was able to present episodes of social exclusion in small towns like few others. No author, after Jane Austen, was so well informed and accurate to describe the hypocrisy of society.

In Middlemarch, political crises are the focus of the work. Victorian readers appreciated his books above all for the descriptions of that provincial society, which Eliot painted perfectly using her childhood memories.

Furthermore, George Eliot believed that the mundane details of country life were extremely important. Her interests, however, were not confined to her roots in the British province.

Other works by George Eliot

Romola, historical novel, set in Florence at the end of the 15th century and which includes Savonarola among the characters, is the testimony of a broadening of perspective. The Spanish gypsy, on the other hand, was a daring attempt to write in verse, but was not very popular.

Eliot was very interested in moral philosophy and the understanding of the phenomenon of religion from a human point of view, starting with her first translations of Strauss, Feuerbach and Spinoza. The profound influence of these readings can be felt in her story, written with a sense typical of agnostic humanism. For example, in Romola the protagonist interprets religious language in human and secular terms, in a surprisingly modern way.

In addition to the evolution of thought, the religious elements present in Eliot’s novels are often due to education; for example, the experiences of Maggie Tulliver, protagonist of “The Mill on the Floss”, are similar to those of Mary Anne Evans herself.

George Eliot’s last novel was Daniel Deronda, in 1876. After this job she and Lewes moved to Surrey, but Lewes’s health declined from that point on and he died two years later. Eliot spent the next two years preparing for the publication of Lewes’ latest work, The Life and the Spirit, and found solace in John Walter Cross, a young Scottish business agent who had recently lost his mother.

From George Eliot to Mary Ann Cross

On May 6, 1880, George Eliot also challenged the social conventions of marriage, as the bridegroom was twenty years younger than her. She changed her name again, this time legally, to Mary Ann Cross. The marriage at least pleased her brother Isaac, who had severed ties with his sister due to his cohabitation with Lewes, but on this occasion sent her congratulations.

John Cross had a rather unstable character: during their honeymoon in Venice he had a seizure and threw himself from the balcony of the hotel on the Grand Canal, while his wife was talking to the doctor in another room. He survived and the couple returned to England. They moved into a new Chelsea home, but Eliot was infected with a throat infection which, along with the kidney dysfunction he suffered from for several years, led to her death on December 22, 1880, at the age of 61.

Due to her unequal relationship with Lewes, she could not be buried in Westminster Abbey, as she wished, but she is buried in Highgate Cemetery London, the area reserved for religious dissidents, next to George Henry Lewes.

The house where George Eliot died, No. 4 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, has a blue commemorative plaque since 1949. Many places instead celebrated the writer in her hometown, Nuneaton, where a bronze statue was installed in the center of the main square.


George Eliot has so many merits. She has not only been successful in sales as an author. She was and remains an icon to aspire to in terms of style and clarity of thought. Eliot’s syntactic structures are solid, free and well balanced; she writes with skill, observation and cutting irony.

During her life she took a male-sounding pseudonym so that her work was taken seriously. Although the authors of this period published freely with their real names, the use of a male name would allow her to ensure that her works were not seen as mere romance novels.

Eventually she revealed her true identity, letting the world know just how capable a woman could be. A real wonder woman! And she was also scandalous, in having a relationship with a married man and also to marry herself a man 20 years younger than her.

For this, dear George Eliot, thank you!



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