Life

THE SALT AND SPICE OF A REMARKABLE LIFE

After George Eliot’s second husband, John Cross, published his biography of his late wife (which Virginia Woolf called “the sad soliloquy in which Mr Cross condemned her to tell the story of her life”), her friend William Hale White hoped that “in some future work, the salt and spice will be restored to the records of George Eliot’s entirely unconventional life.” Just how unconventional that life was is easily indicated. From modest beginnings — she was the daughter of a rural land agent — she built a successful independent writing career, moving to London and working as an editor and contributor for The Westminster Review (a liberal periodical) before turning to fiction and becoming one of the century’s most innovative, cerebral, and beloved novelists. Her success reflects both her brilliance and her tenacity given the obstacles (both practical and cultural) faced by intellectual women in mid-Victorian society.

Eliot’s relationship with the already-married George Henry Lewes (they “eloped” in 1854 and lived until his death as husband and wife) earned her the pejorative epithet “strong-minded woman.” Her well-known repudiation of Christianity set her, as a “free thinker,” still further apart from conventional society. Despite the personal costs (which included alienation from her family) she nonetheless lived according to her own convictions and succeeded on her own terms.

TIMELINE

1819 Mary Anne Evans is born 22 November at South Farm, Arbury (in Warwickshire)

1828 starts boarding school in Nuneaton

1832 goes to school in Coventry

1836 mother dies 3 February

1837 begins spelling her name “Mary Ann”

1841 moves to Coventry with her father

1842 Holy War

1846  publishes translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (anonymously)

1849 father dies; travels abroad

1851 renames herself “Marian”; moves to London and begins working at the Westminster Review

1853 begins relationship with George Henry Lewes

1854 publishes translation of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity

1854 leaves for Germany with Lewes

1855 returns to England; lives with Lewes as his wife

1856 begins Scenes of Clerical Life (published serially in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine)

1858 uses pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ for book edition of Scenes of Clerical Life

1859 Adam Bede published

1860 The Mill on the Floss published

1861 real identity of “George Eliot” becomes public knowledge; Silas Marner published

1862-3 Romola serialized in Cornhill Magazine

1866 Felix Holt published

1868 “Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt” and The Spanish Gypsy published

1871-2 Middlemarch published (in parts over eight months)

1876 Daniel Deronda published

1878 Lewes dies

1880 marries John Cross; dies 22 December

GE Plaque

Recommended biographies

Rosemary Ashton, George Eliot: A Life (1983)

Gordon Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (1968)

Nancy Henry, The Life of George Eliot: A Critical Biography (2012; my review; also reviewed by Kathryn Hughes)

Kathryn Hughes, George Eliot: The Last Victorian (1998)

Not recommended

Brenda Maddox, George Eliot in Love

Online Biographical Resources

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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