Or should I say, Mary Anne Evans! Or Marian! Or Mrs. Lewes, perhaps. Or Mrs. Cross?
It’s only fitting that a novelist who wrote of the complexities inherent in characters from all walks of life should herself be hard to pin down. Born in the same year as Queen Victoria, Mary Anne began her life in the rural Midlands of England, the Industrial Revolution underway but not yet dominant over the fields and farms which mapped her world. She died sixty-one years later in London, railroad tracks sprawling across her country, the telephone just invented and given a try by an ailing Eliot.
But it wasn’t only technology that was rapidly changing the landscape and lifestyle around her: scientific experimentation and theological controversies did as much to crack the once-stable flooring of English society. And Marian was there in the thick of things, literally spreading the news through her editorship of the Westminster Review, a woman simultaneously of the times and transgressing them.
She was raised Evangelical, less so by her parents than by the schoolmistresses who inculcated in the young girl not just her religious fervency but also her creative and academic curiosity. Mary Anne thrived under their supervision. She was a top student, best in French translation and English composition, and was also the school’s pianist, performing for visitors and fleeing from them when she failed her own high standards. This future novelist spent her youth espousing the Bible and eschewing most literature (some Walter Scott and Don Quixote excepted), growing more and more austere as her teenage years progressed.
But Mary Anne’s was a curious mind attracted by beauty. She couldn’t resist Shakespeare, Goethe, or the Romantic English poets. She devoured books of the natural sciences, particularly astronomy and geology, subjects which spoke of her eagerness to understand how the world came to be. Theological treatises and Bible verses still formed the core of her studies, but it seems her once-inscrutable brand of Christianity couldn’t account for all the secular lyrics which delighted her, nor the yearly discoveries which British and Continental scientists were fast turning out. One Sunday morning in January, 1842, she did not attend church services with her father.
This decision, influenced in part by her worldly readings, came after her move away from rural Nuneaton to the larger, more urban, more progressive town of Coventry. It was here where she found the community that would foster her career, and her reputation. Radical thinkers brought the latest controversies from the capital to her doorstep — well, to her neighbor’s doorstep. Mary Anne rarely stayed in her family home; indeed, where she called home would more properly describe the nearby manse where the intellectual elite of the town gathered under trees to discuss the latest scholarship, and court the next bedfellow. It was not such a secret that the man and wife who owned the property, and who took Mary Anne under their wing, had both taken extramarital lovers.
But Mary Anne, then Marian, disregarded the ignominy and advanced ever closer to the artist we’ve come to remember her as. Her skill at languages led her to translate three separate works, all contentious: David Strauss’ The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined; Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity; and Spinoza’s Ethics. The laudatory response to the publication of the first of these led to her journalistic career in London, a move toward a financial independence unusual for women at the time, but practically necessitated by her disinterest in marriage.
It was in London, too, where she met the love of her life, progenitor of two of her alter egos, if not any offspring. George Henry Lewes was her soulmate, in the sense of an emotional bedrock, an intellectual peer, and a professional advocate. He was also married already, and scandalously at that: to a woman whose bastards (from an affair) Lewes raised side by side with his own children. These circumstances were not dissuasive to Marian; throughout their thirty-year partnership — he never divorced and they never married — she preferred to be called (by intimates) as “Mrs. Lewes.”
She took his first name when she stepped down from journalism and began to publish the short stories and novels that gave her instant fame and financial security. Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede (which Dickens remarked as having a “world of power” and which Tolstoy considered of the highest art), and The Mill on the Floss began her career with rich scenes of rustic life, flush with piercing detail and psychological depth. This theme was given its most masterful treatment a decade later in Middlemarch, with which her success became apotheosis. Maybe Emily Dickinson said it best: “What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory–except that in a few instances this ‘mortal has already put on immortality.’ George Eliot is one.”
With Lewes’ death in 1878, both “Mrs. Lewes” and George Eliot were no more. She never published another novel. She was drained, creatively and corporeally, her health already in decline before he had passed. Her final incarnation, as Mary Ann Cross, wife to a man twenty years her junior, lasted seven months. Her headstone bears that final moniker, but above it is carved “George Eliot,” and adjacent to her grave lies that of Lewes’.
But does genius ever die?
Two hundred years later, readers across the world continue to find themselves in Eliot’s fiction, a fraction of these readers being St. John’s students. Middlemarch has been on the syllabus since 1998, and based on the annual, spirited reaction, undergrads and graduate students alike can expect to read her in her tercentenary.
It comes as no surprise that her work has found a sanctuary in St. John’s. She attended lectures on physics and geometry as well as art exhibits and concerts. Under her editorship, the Westminster Review not only featured criticism on the latest belle lettres but also articles on penal, educational, and industrial reform; Herbert Spencer’s theory of evolution debuted over four of her ten issues; and in her first run, English readers were finally introduced to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. She read Dante in the original Italian, Pascal in the French, and studied the dramatic power of Aeschylus.
How she described a portion of her time living abroad with Lewes might also describe a quasi-Johnnie ideal: “I take walks, play on the piano, read Voltaire, talk to my friends, and just take a dose of mathematics every day to prevent my brain from becoming quite soft.” Her mind was truly interdisciplinary, both learned and liberated.
Today we celebrate a woman still to be reckoned with. Through her works (and even her biography) we touch on the timeless and the timely, and we will continue to grapple with them, in hopes of finding new names for the selves we discover there.
Sources used for this article:
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1996.
Davis, Philip. The Transferred Life of George Eliot. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Hughes, Kathryn. George Eliot: The Last Victorian. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999.
Karl, Frederick Robert. George Eliot: Voice of a Century. W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.