Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Today in Literary History - George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) Dies in London, England
On December 22, 1889, English novelist, Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot, died in Chelsea, London, England at the age of sixty-one.
Evans was born on November 22, 1819 at South Farm, Aubury Hall, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, the third child of Robert Evans and Christiana Pearson Evans.
As a young girl, Evans showed great intelligence and was very interested in reading. Because of her lack of physical beauty, her family thought her chances of marriage would be slim, and so her father invested in an education for her that was not normally accorded to females of that period, allowing her to attend formal schools from the ages of five to sixteen.
After age sixteen, Evans received little formal education, but because her father was manager of an estate farm, Evans was allowed access to the estate’s library, which she utilized in her continuing self-education and in broadening the scope of her learning. Her classical education had left its indelible mark, however. Christopher Stray has observed that “George Eliot’s novels draw heavily on Greek literature, and her themes are often influenced by Greek tragedy.”
Evans’ frequent visits to the estate also allowed her to observe and reflect on the contrast between the wealth in which the local landowner lived and the lives of the much poorer persons who lived and worked on the estate. As a result, the differences in these two social strata would often appear in her books.
Another important influence in the early life of Mary Anne Evans was religion. She was brought up within a narrow low church Anglican family, but at the same time, the Midlands was an area with a large and growing number of religious dissenters.
In 1836, Evans’ mother died, and Evans, who was then sixteen returned from school in Coventry to act as housekeeper for her family, though she kept in close contact with her tutor, Maria Lewis, an evangelical. When she was twenty-one, Evans’ brother, Isaac married and took over the family home, so Evans and her father moved to Foleshill, near Coventry. This move allowed Evans to be exposed to a new society and many new influences, the most notable being Charles and Cora Bray, wealthy manufacturers and philanthropists, who had a great interest in both education and free thinking, especially where religion was concerned. Through her friendship with the Brays, Evans was introduced to Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A road in Coventry, George Eliot Road, was named after her in Foleshill.
Through her association with the Brays and their friends, Evans eventually lost her Anglican faith, causing a deep rift between her and her father, though out of respect for him, she continued to attend church for years and also kept house for him until his death in 1849, when she was thirty. Five days after her father’s death, Evans traveled to Switzerland with the Brays and made the decision to remain in Geneva alone, finally settling on the Rue de Channoines (now the Rue de la Pelisserie) with François and Juliet d’Albert Durade, where she read and took long walks. A plaque there commemorates her stay.
In 1850, Evans returned to England and moved to London. Her intention was to become a writer under the name “Marian Evans.” She stayed at the home of John Chapman, a radical publisher, who had only recently purchased the left wing journal “The Westminster Review.” Evans became its assistant editor in 1851, contributing essays and reviews until the time of the dissolution of her arrangement with Chapman in early 1854. Although women writers were not uncommon, it was uncommon for one to hold such an exalted position as head of a literary enterprise, and the mere sight of any woman mixing with the predominantly male society of London was highly unorthodox and sometimes downright scandalous. Although intelligent and clear-minded, this situation often caused Evans to feel sensitive, depressed, and filled with self-doubt. In addition, her lack of physical beauty caused her to form several unreciprocated emotional attachments, including one to the married Chapman and another to Herbert Spencer. Indeed, her appearance seemed at times to cause quite a stir. Henry James said that the usual “plain” would not suffice to describe her, and thought her face “magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous.” But James also saw her novels as “deep, masterly pictures of the manifold life of man.”
In 1851, the philosopher and critic, George Henry Lewes met Mary Anne Evans. By 1854 the two had decided to live together. Lewes was married, but he and his wife, Agnes Jervis considered their marriage to be an “open” one, and in addition to the three children they had together, Jervis, with Lewes’ blessing, had several by other men.
In July 1854, Lewes and Evans traveled to Weimar and Berlin, Germany together for literary research. While away from England, Evans wrote essays and worked on her own translation of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, which she completed in 1856, but which was not published during her lifetime.
Lewes, who for complex reasons could not obtain a divorce from Jervis, and Evans considered themselves “married,” and the trip to Germany was like a honeymoon for them. Evans even began referring to herself as “Marian Evans Lewes” and referring to Lewes as her “husband.” Although it was common for men and women in Victorian society to have affairs (Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charles Bray, John Chapman, Friederich Engels and many others did), what made Evans’ and Lewes’ relationship different and scandalous was their open admission of it.
While she was still editing the “The Westminster Review,” Evans had made the firm decision to become a novelist. In one of her last essays written for that publication, Evans criticized the trivial and ridiculous plots of contemporary women’s fiction and praised the realism of novels written in Europe at the time. Her love of realistic fiction would remain clear throughout all her subsequent writings. At this time, she also adopted a new nom de plume – George Eliot. She chose a masculine name partly to distance herself from the female writers of “silly” novels, and partly to hide her tricky marital and home situation.
In 1859, when she was thirty-nine, Amos Barton, the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, was published in “Blackwood’s Magazine” and was well received. Evans’ first complete novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859, and was an instant success, though it prompted much interest in who this new author could be. When a pretender, Joseph Liggins, claimed to be the author, the real George Eliot stepped forward. The revelations about Evans’ personal life shocked many, but they did not affect her popularity as a novelist. In fact, Evans’ relationship with Lewes had given her the encouragement and stability that she needed to write fiction, though it would be some time before the two of them would be accepted into polite society. Acceptance finally came in 1877 when both Evans and Lewes were introduced to Princess Louise, one of the daughters of Queen Victoria and an avid reader of the novels of George Eliot. By this time, Evans and Lewes had a home in upscale Regent’s Park staffed by four servants, and London “high society” lined up for invitations to their “Sunday At Home” gatherings.
Within a year of completing Adam Bede, Eliot finished The Mill on the Floss. She inscribed the book: “To my beloved husband, George Henry Lewes, I give this MS. of my third book, written in the sixth year of our life together, at Holly Lodge, South Field, Wandsworth, and finished 21 March 1860.”
Evans’ last novel was Daniel Deronda, published in 1876. After its publication, she and Lewes moved to Witley, Surrey, however, by that time, Lewes’ health was failing, and he died two years later on November 30, 1878. Evans spent the next two years editing Lewes’ final work, Life and Mind for publication, and she found solace with John Walter Cross, an American banker whose mother had recently died.
On May 16, 1880, Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot, again created controversy when she married Cross, a man twenty years younger than she. This legal marriage pleased her brother, Isaac, though, who had broken off relations with his sister when she began living with Lewes. Unfortunately, John Cross was an unstable young man, and he jumped or fell from the hotel room he was sharing with his wife into Venice’s Grand Canal during their honeymoon. He survived his fall, and the two returned to England, moving into a new home in Chelsea. Evans soon fell ill with a throat infection, and this, coupled with the kidney disease that had afflicted her for the past few years, led to her death on December 22, 1880.
Evans was not buried in Westminster Abbey because of her denial of the Christian faith and her “irregular” life with Lewes, though both Evans and Lewes had remained monogamous throughout their relationship. Instead, she was interred in Highgate Cemetery (East), Highgate, London, in an area reserved for religious dissenters and agnostics, next to George Henry Lewes. In 1980, on the centenary of her death, a memorial stone was established for her in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.
Readers in the Victorian era particularly praised Evans’ books for their depictions of rural society. Evans shared with Wordsworth the belief that there was much of interest and importance in the mundane details of ordinary country lives. Evans did not, however, confine herself to writing about her country roots. Romola was a historical novel set in 15th century Florence and touched on the lives of several persons who had actually lived during that period. In The Spanish Gypsy, Evans made a foray into verse, though the initial popularity of that work has not survived to the present day. Even her publisher found it rather ponderous and asked her if she didn’t happen to have something “a little more lighthearted.”
The religious elements in her fiction owe much to her Anglican upbringing. The experiences of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss share many similarities with those of Mary Anne Evans. When Silas Marner, in the novel, Silas Marner, is persuaded that his alienation from the church will also mean his alienation from society, Evans’ life is again paralleled.
Evans, while reveling in the praise for her novels, was not comfortable with being idolized herself. One friend remembers her saying, “I am so tired of being set on a pedestal and expected to vent wisdom.”
In the 20th century, Evans was championed by a new breed of critics. The American poet, Emily Dickinson wrote, “What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?” Perhaps Evans’ greatest champion, however, was Virginia Woolf, who called Evans’ masterpiece, Middlemarch, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Woolf said, regarding Evans, that she was “a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification....” For Woolf, Evans was a woman “with every obstacle against her – sex and health and convention.” As she had to battle fame too, “we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.”