Home : Authors : George Eliot

Biography of George Eliot (1819-1880)

George Eliot George Eliot

Mary Anne Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot, was born on November 22, 1819, at South Farm, Arbury Hall in Warwickshire. She was the youngest of five children. Mary Anne was afforded the privileges of a private education. She enjoyed books and learning from a young age; she was introspective and quiet, much like her character Dorothea in Middlemarch, so she was a bit of an anomaly among young women of the time. Unfortunately, Mary Anne was forced to leave school at the age of 16, when her mother died in early 1836. Her father continued to indulge her love of learning, purchasing books for her and helping her to learn German and Italian.

In 1841, Mary Anne's father moved the family to the larger town of Foleshill, where Mary Anne met Charles and Cara Bray, who would become good friends of hers. Through the Brays, Mary Anne was introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mary Anne soon, however, became very self-conscious about her unconventionality among this group of friends. She also began to renounce her faith in Christianity, which caused distance between Mary Anne and her father. They reconciled for the most part, and Mary Anne cared for her father closely when he became ill in 1847 until his death in 1849.

Through the Brays, she met John Chapman, a publisher and bookseller from London. Chapman and Mary Anne became good friends, and he asked Mary Anne to become the behind-the-scenes editor for the Westminster Review. Mary Anne worked at the Review for two years, despite the fact that she received no credit for her work. In 1851, Mary Anne met George Henry Lewes, and the pair became romantically involved. Though Lewes was already married, he and his wife had been separated for some years and his wife was living with another man, with whom she had three children.

It was all but impossible for Lewes to divorce his wife because he had condoned her adultery, so his and Mary Anne’s options were limited. They decided to try living together abroad first, so in 1854 they traveled to Germany together. They were as vague with their friends and relatives as possible, but after some months abroad they started to receive word that even their most liberal-minded friends disapproved of their lifestyle. They returned to England in 1855, and Mary Anne remained separate from Lewes until his wife declared that she had no intention of ever reuniting with him. After this, Mary Anne moved in with Lewes in London, and insisted on being called Mrs. Lewes, which caused great scandal and her general isolation from society. Mary Anne's decision meant a break with the Brays, who disapproved of her decision. She and George were very happy, despite the stir that their relationship caused.

Mary Anne Evans's transformation into the fiction writer George Eliot began in 1856, when Mary Anne decided to try her hand at writing novels. In 1858, George Eliot's second novel, Adam Bede, became a critical and popular success; soon after, George Eliot's identity as Mary Anne "Lewes" became known. Though this disclosure did not threaten her writing career, she was forced to put up with an increasing amount of personal criticism as her literary fame as George Eliot grew.

Adam Bede was followed by two more highly successful novels also set in the English Midlands, The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861). Encouraged by her success, Eliot began exploring continental and political themes in her next works: Romola (1863), which was set in Renaissance Italy, and Felix Holt, The Radical (1866), which depicted the political controversy surrounding the Reform Bill of 1832. Three years later Eliot published The Spanish Gypsy (1869), a long narrative poem set during the Spanish Inquisition.

Mary Anne began writing Middlemarch in 1869. The novel was serialized through 1871 and 1872, and became a great success, making George Eliot (and Mary Anne) even more famous. By this time, public sentiment had begun to soften toward Mary Anne. George Lewes and Mary Anne became very social and popular as her writing continued to make a great deal of money for the couple. They continued living together until 1878, when Lewes suddenly became ill. Lewes's death in November of 1878 was heartbreaking for the writer, and she began a period of intense mourning that lasted more than a year.

John Cross, the couple's "business manager" of sorts, became very concerned about Mary Anne's well-being during this trying period. He proposed marriage to her several times until she finally accepted in 1880. Their union was one of companionship rather than romance; Cross was more than 20 years younger than Mary Anne, who turned 61 soon after their marriage. In December 1880, after only seven months of marriage, Mary Anne became seriously ill. She passed away in her sleep on December 22, 1880, and was buried next to her lifelong companion, George Lewes.

Study Guides on Works by George Eliot