This Day In Writing History
On November 22nd, 1819, the legendary English novelist Mary Anne Evans, best known by her male pen name George Eliot, was born in Warwickshire, England. Growing up, she had more formal education than most girls in the Victorian era. She was an intellectually gifted child and a voracious reader. Her father invested in her education partly because he feared that her homely looks would most likely prevent her from landing a husband.
Mary Anne's father was the manager of Arbury Hall, a magnificent estate belonging to the aristocratic Newdigate family. Because of his position, she was granted access to the estate's formidable library of books, which she used to educate herself from the age of sixteen. Her visits to Arbury Hall exposed her to the stark contrast between the lives of the rich and the poor, which would influence her writing.
Around this time Mary Anne's mother died, so she served as her father's housekeeper and cook. When her brother Isaac married, he and his new wife took over the family home. Mary Anne and her father moved to a new home near Coventry. There, she was introduced to Coventry society, and struck up a friendship with Charles and Cara Bray, a wealthy couple known for their philanthropy and reputation as progressive free thinkers.
Through the Brays, Mary Anne Evans was introduced to the great philosophers and writers of the day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Owen, Harriet Martineau, and Herbert Spencer. She also met liberal theologians with whom she explored her simmering discontent with the conservative, evangelical Anglican beliefs her father raised her with. When she began questioning the literal truth of the Bible, her father threatened to kick her out of his home.
Mary Anne's father never followed through with his threats. She continued to serve as his cook and housekeeper until he died in 1849. She was 30 years old at the time. A few days after his funeral, she accompanied her friends the Brays on a trip to Switzerland. She decided to remain in Geneva rather than return home with the Brays. There, she was befriended by French artist Francois d'Albert Durade and his wife, Juliet. Francois painted a portrait of her.
The following year, Mary Anne returned to England. Sometimes known as Marian, she began using the name Marian Evans. She determined to become a writer. She stayed with her old friend John Chapman, a radical publisher. She would become the assistant editor of his liberal literary magazine, The Westminster Review. It was unheard for a woman to become a magazine editor during the Victorian era, and her living arrangement with John Chapman would add more fuel to the fire of scandal. The worst was yet to come.
A few years later, in 1854, Mary Anne Evans moved in with George Henry Lewes, a philosopher and critic whom she had met three years earlier. She had finally found her true love, but there was a catch: Lewes was married. He and his wife Agnes had an open marriage. They also had seven children, four of which had been sired by Agnes' lover, Thornton Leigh Hunt. Since Lewes had named himself as the father of Hunt's children on their birth certificates knowing that they were not his, he couldn't divorce Agnes. If he did, he would be considered an accomplice to her adultery and subject to criminal prosecution under British law.
Although they never did marry, Mary Anne and George Henry Lewes considered themselves husband and wife, and lived together as such. Mary Anne even used George's last name. After enjoying what she considered to be her honeymoon in Germany, she resumed her career, editing and writing for The Westminster Review. What she really wanted to be was a novelist. Knowing that women writers in the Victorian era were either derided or not taken seriously, she took the pen name George Eliot.
Mary Anne's first novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859. Her tale of a handsome young squire in a rural English town caught up in a love "rectangle" who finally realizes who his true love really is became an instant hit. Suddenly, everyone was talking about this new and talented writer named George Eliot whose true identity was a mystery. Speculation about who he might be spread like wildfire. When a failed writer named Joseph Liggins claimed that he was George Eliot and took credit for her work, Mary Anne Evans came forward and proved that she was the real George Eliot.
It wasn't long before word got out about Mary Anne's scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes. While most of her readers were shocked, her popularity wasn't affected. Neither was her talent, as she continued to write great novels. Two of her best known, classic novels were Silas Marner (1861) and Middlemarch (1871-72).
Silas Marner told the story of the title character, a weaver living in a small town in Northern England in the early 19th century. When Marner is falsely accused of stealing from the Calvinist congregation he belongs to, he's kicked out of Church. His fiancee breaks up with him and marries another man.
Heartbroken, Marner leaves town and settles in the village of Raveloe, where he becomes a bitter, miserly recluse obsessed with gold coins, which he hoards in his home. When someone breaks in and steals all of his gold, Marner sinks into a deep depression. Then, one cold winter night, he finds something far more precious than gold - a golden-haired two-year-old girl who wanders into his home. He follows her tracks in the snow and finds her mother dead of exposure.
Silas Marner decides to adopt the orphaned little girl and names her Eppie after his mother and sister. In raising his loving daughter, Marner's broken heart finally heals. Eppie grows up to be a fine and respected young woman. When the secret of her true parentage is revealed, Eppie's biological father offers her a life of luxury as a gentleman's daughter. She politely refuses, telling him that she could never be happy without her real father - Silas Marner.
Middlemarch would prove to be "George Eliot's" magnum opus - a 900+ page epic novel published in several volumes. The English historical novel, which takes place from 1830-32, would establish the author's reputation as one of the most accurate chroniclers of rural English life in the early Victorian era. This brilliant, classic novel remains to this day one of the most popular works of English literature ever written.
In 1877, five years after the publication of Middlemarch, Mary Anne Evans was introduced to one of her biggest fans, Princess Louise - the daughter of Queen Victoria. Her admiration and acceptance by the royal family squelched the flames of her scandalous personal life. She would court scandal again in 1880, when, two years after the death of her lover George Henry Lewes from illness, she married John Cross, a man twenty years her junior.
Her new husband was supposedly mentally unstable, and when he had an accident during their honeymoon in Venice - he fell off their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal - some speculated that he had attempted suicide. Whatever the cause, John Cross survived. He and Mary Anne returned to England and settled into a new home in Chelsea. Unfortunately, she soon fell ill with a throat infection. She had been suffering from kidney disease for a few years, so the throat infection took a toll on her frail health.
Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot, died on December 22nd, 1880, at the age of 61.
Quote Of The Day
“The responsibility of tolerance lies in those who have the wider vision.” - George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Today's video features a reading for George Eliot's classic debut novel, Adam Bede. Enjoy!