Getting to Know George Eliot: Her Life and Works

Getting to Know George Eliot: Her Life and Works

George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans, on November 22, 1819 in Warwickshire. She was an English novelist and one of the principal figures of Victorian literature. Like Thomas Hardy, her fiction is most striking for its balance of traditional realism with psychological acumen.

Eliot's early life significantly affected her worldview as well as the themes and topics she would explore in her stories. Her mother died in 1836, when Mary Ann was just 17 years old. She and her father moved to Coventry, and Mary Ann would live with him until she was 30, at which time her father passed away. It was then that Eliot began to travel, exploring Europe before making a home in London.

Shortly after her father's death and her own travels, George Eliot began contributing to the Westminster Review, where she eventually become editor. The journal was known for its radicalism, and it launched Eliot into the literary scene. This ascension gave rise to opportunities for Eliot to meet other significant writers of the age, including George Henry Lewes, with whom Eliot began an affair that would last until Lewes's death in 1878.

Eliot's Writing Inspiration

It was Lewes who ardently encouraged Eliot to write, particularly after Eliot was shunned by her family and friends for the affair, largely because Lewes was a married man. This rejection would eventually find an outlet in one of Eliot's most dramatic and effective novels, "The Mill on the Floss" (1860). Before that, Eliot spent a few years writing short stories and publishing in magazines and journals until the release of "Adam Bede", her first novel, in 1859. Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot by choice: she believed that women writers at the time were not taken seriously and were often relegated to realm of the “romantic novel,” a genre that was not critically lauded. She was not wrong.

After publishing many successful novels, which were well-received by critics and general audiences, Eliot finally found acceptance again. Despite their illicit affair that had been severely frowned upon by their close acquaintances, the Eliot-Lewes home became an intellectual oasis, a meeting place for other writers and thinkers of the day.

Living After Lewes

After Lewes's death, Eliot struggled to find her bearings. She had allowed Lewes to manage their social and business affairs for nearly three decades; but suddenly, she was responsible for everything. Even more difficult for her was the fact that her longtime champion, the one who first encouraged her to write and then continued to do so, was gone. In his honor, Eliot founded a “Studentship in Physiology” at the University of Cambridge and completed some of Lewes's works, especially his Problems of Life and Mind (1873-79).

Two years later, and less than a year before her death, George Eliot finally married. John Walter Cross was 20 years younger than Eliot and had served as Eliot and Lewes's trusted banker, what today we would consider a personal accountant.

George Eliot died on December 22nd, 1880 at the age of 61. She is buried at Highgate Cemetery in London.

George Eliot's Works

I. Novels

  • "Adam Bede" (1859)
  • "The Mill on the Floss" (1860)
  • "Silas Marner" (1861)
  • "Romola" (1863)
  • "Felix Holt, the Radical" (1866)
  • "Middlemarch" (1871-72)
  • "Daniel Deronda" (1876)

II. Poetry

  • Count That Day Lost
  • Agatha (1869)
  • Brother and Sister (1869)
  • Armgart (1871)
  • Stradivarius (1873)
  • The Legend of Jubal (1874)
  • I Grant You Ample Leave (1874)
  • Arion (1874)
  • A Minor Prophet (1874)
  • A College Breakfast Party (1879)
  • The Death of Moses (1879)
  • From a London Drawing Room

III. Essays/Nonfiction

  • "Three Months in Weimar" (1855)
  • "Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft" (1855)
  • "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (1856)
  • "The Natural History of German Life" (1856)
  • "Scenes of Clerical Life" (1857)
  • "The Lifted Veil" (1859)
  • "Brother Jacob" (1864)
  • "The Influence of Rationalism" (1865)
  • "Impressions of Theophrastus Such" (1879)

Notable Quotes

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”
“Adventure is not outside man; it is within.”
“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.”
“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.”
“No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.”