George Eliot: Biography & Early Life

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      Mary Ann Evans, later to become famous as George Eliot, was the daughter of Robert Evans, a land agent for Sir Francis Newdigate’s Arbury Hall Estate. She was born on 22nd November, 1819 at Arbury Hall near Nuneaton in Warwickshire.

      Mary Ann was the third child of Robert and Christina Evans, the other two children being an elder sister Christina born in 1814 and a elder brother Isaac born in 1816. Robert Evans, though not a well-educated man had managed to rise in life through his own efforts and knowledge of business. Though following his father’s business, he began as a carpenter, soon he was able to use his knowledge otherwise.

      At a glance, he could estimate the amount of timber in agree. He supervised the building of roads in many parts of Chilvers Coton parish and worked as an overseer for many buildings on acres of Arbury land. He even had a good knowledge of coal mining. By the time Mary Ann was born, he was working as an agent for the owner of Arbury Hall.

      Robert Evans through an emotional and loving man was at the same time a practical man as well. He never knew failures and could always face the world and win. Though Mary Ann’s maternal aunts—the Pearson sisters, are easily recognized in the Dodsons, there was nothing of Mr. Tulliver in Robert Evans. Similarly, Mrs. Tulliver the Scatterbrained mother Maggie, bears no resemblance to Mrs. Evans who was known to be an intelligent and thoughtful woman, efficient at her housework and well-known and liked in neighborhood. There was nothing of the superficiality in her which we find in abundance in Mrs. Tulliver.

      The family shifted from Arbury Hall to Griff House, it was a beautiful red-brick form house surrounded by tall trees and beautiful green lawns. Not far from it were the green fields and a little further was the Round Pound. All these features are recalled in The Mill.

      Mary Ann was her father’s favorite and was often taken by him on his estate visits. These visits and her life at Griff lead to an early experience of the details of rural life because Mary Ann was an exceptionally perceptive girl. Apart from her deep emotional deep ties with her father, she was equally attached to her brother Isaac Mary Ann was not very close to her mother whom she lost at the age of sixteen.

      Mary Ann and Isaac became inseparable playmates when Chrivsy was sent off early to a boarding school. There is a good reason for reading an autobiography in the childhood of Tom and Maggie Tulliver. The “Brother and Sister” sonnets recall how Mary Ann followed her brother everywhere “puppy-like” on other little expeditions.

      Nothing could hold Mary Ann’s interest if Isaac was near. Like Maggie, she was always trying to please him and make him happy and was miserable if he ignored her. School passed them when in 1824 Isaac was sent off to a boarding school. Mary Ann turned to books for amusement and in 1827, reading a borrowed copy of Waverly and not being able to finish it in time, she tried writing out the story herself; A parallel to what Maggie tries doing with The Pirate (BK V Chi).

      Mary Ann was sent off to Mrs, Wallington’s boarding school in Church Lane Nuneaton in 1828. The ‘principal governors’ Maria Lewis was the next person, outside her own circle of family to have a deep and lasting influence on Mary Ann. Miss Lewis — though a kind hearted person with a good sense of humor was, however, an advocate, of a strongly emotional form of Christianity known as Evangelicalism, which placed a strong emphasis on self-denial and the avoidance of all worldly pleasures. At the age of fifteen Mary Ann, under the influence of Maria Lewis, underwent a form of conversion similar to that experienced by Maggie Tulliven after reading Thomas a Kempis. But this change was not permanent as the future years showed.

      Chrissy and Marry Ann shared the management of affairs at home after the death of their mother in 1836. But when Chrissy was married in 1837, Mary Ann and her father moved near to the city of Coventry.

      Though Mary Ann had household duties yet. She found time for reading. She was a veracious reader and she thought herself and soon mastered even Italian and German. She soon struck a friendship with Charles and Casoline Bsay who were advanced intellectuals. Meanwhile, Mary Ann had begun to question the extremities of Evangelicalism and under the influence of the Brays, she discarded it totally. Her skeptical mind made her refuse to go to church with her father. This caused a breach between the two which never fully healed up to his death in 1849.

      In 1844, Mary Ann was asked to translate The Life of Jesus written by the German philosopher David Friedrich Strauss. This task which had already been abandoned as too difficult by several other qualified writers, was taken up, by Mary Ann and she pored over the various Latin, Greek and Hebrew quotations, finally completing it in 1846. Her name did not appear on the published copy and she was paid 20 Euro for all the work she had put in.

      Nevertheless, her work on Strauss and her friendship with Bsays brought her in contact with intelligentsia of the time when she went to London after her father’s death, she built-strong friendships with John Chapman—the editor of Westminster Review and Herbert Spencer—one of the founders of modern sociology. The relationship with John Chapman was highly disturbing since he was a married man and already had a mistress.

      Mary Ann’s self-control vested in moral awareness, helped her to get out of this entanglement. Her relationship with Herbert spencer might have ended in marriage but didn’t.

      In 1851, Mary Ann became Assistant Editor of the Westminster Review and met George Henry Lewes — the man who from then on would prove to be her anchor for the next 24 years. But for him, George Eliot might never have blossomed into the great novelist that we know.

      George Henry Lewes, a noted writer in his own rights, was physically not very appealing. In fact, Thomas Carlyle’s wife had called him a man of immense ugliness. But he was a man of unlimited charm and intellectual vitality and for George Eliot, he proved to be the one person her heart always yearned for. However, there was a snag in their relationship. Lewes was a married man who had advocated ideas of free law. Thus, when his own wife began having an affair, he condoned adultery by accepting the son resulting from her affair as his own and thus deprived himself of the possibility of obtaining a divorce.

      Mary Ann knew she could never become Lewes’s wife legally and yet she took the difficult decision of living with him without marriage and both of them left for Germany in 1854, as man and wife. The Staid Victorian society was horrified and heaped innumerable insults on the two, especially on Mary Ann. In fact, on their return, Mary Ann had to lead a Solitary life for a very long time. This long period of social ostracism gone her plenty of time for scading the classics and she acquired a thorough knowledge of them.

      Always a hesitant person, Mary Ann was very apprehensive when in 1856. She attempted creative writing for the first time in the form of short stories which were later published as Scenes from Classical Life and were well received.

      For creative writing, she did not use her own name. One can well guess the reasons. One reason could be that she wanted her creative writing to be received with unprejudiced eyes and not as the work of a fallen woman. Secondly, she wanted the critics also to look at her writing with an open mind and not approach it negatively just because it was the work of a woman.

      Thirdly, she wanted to keep her creative writing separate from her critical writing and so adopted the pseudonym George Eliot. The choice of this particular name was determined solely by George Lewes’s own name. Since George was the name of the man whom she loved, so Mary Ann adopted it and Eliot was added on because of George Eliot’s own words— it was a good mouth-filling name. George Henry Lewes was the major encouragement behind George Eliot’s series of novels, published in the next twenty years. It was her work and integrity of her own life which at last secured her an acceptance by her society.

      After George Lewes’s death in 1878, Mary Ann almost ceased to live. A person always in need of someone to lean upon, found herself last and insecure. Her emotional dependence is revealed in her marriage to John Walter Crors in May 1880. This marriage reestablished a contact with her brother Isaac and her family which had been broken for all the years of her life with Lewes.

      George Eliot died in London on 22nd December, 1880. She was not buried at Westminster Abbey since her views were found to be too heterodox to find favor with the Church. Cross chose for her the unconsecrated grounds of the High gate Cemetery where a cover of her grave touched that of Lewes’s. Belated honor was, however, paid to her greatness in 1975 when the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey gave permission for the unveiling of a memorial to her in Poet’s corner, on the centenary of her death.

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