Mary Ann (Marian) Evans, more popular by her pen name George Eliot, was one of the most acclaimed English novelists of the Victorian era. Her popularity lies in the fact that she was among a few female writers of her time to experiment with the subject of ‘realism’ and ‘psychological wisdom’. The author remained in constant controversies for her denial of Christian Faith and doubts about the Biblical stories. However the most significant controversy spur when her relationships with the married George Henry Lewes, an author, came in light. She was shunned from the society for living openly with the author and the humiliation and castigation would plague her until her death. The great author wrote her first fiction Adam Bede which was published under an anonymous identity in 1859 and became her ticket to fame.
Childhood & Early Life
Mary Anne Evans was born on 22 November 1819 in Arbury, Warwickshire in England in a farmer family. She was the third child of her parents Robert Evans, a local farmer, and Christina Evans and had two surviving full siblings Chrissey and Issac. Mary Anne, better known as Marian, was a brilliant student and an avid reader and took a keen interest in literature as a child. She received her primary education from boarding schools in Attleborough, Nuneaton and Coventry, where she met her lifelong mentor Maria Lewis. One of the significant influences on her early life is religion and her early religious beliefs are marked by confusion and doubts about the Christianity which will plague her throughout her life. As a child, she wrote poetry and fictions and was admired for her skills at writing.
After the death of her mother in 1839, she left the school and returned home to take care of her father. Meanwhile, she continued her education with the help of a private tutor and Maria Lewis. After her brother Issac married and took over the house they were living in, Marian and her father moved to Foleshill in Coventry in 1841. The new place widened her social circle and she formed strong friendship with people that will last forever. One of the most influential associations he formed there was with the Brays; Charles bray and Cara Bray. Charles Bray was a wealthy businessman and a philanthropic, who shared the same religious views with Marian.
In a society of liberal theology, she began to form atheistic beliefs and deeply doubted the Biblical stories. Such thoughts were corroborated by the people she met there, and in 1842, she stopping going to church only to her father’s dismay. However, she began to attend church with respect when her father stopped talking to her, the relationship between the father and daughter remained restrained after that. Her father died after an extended illness in 1849. Meanwhile she had started working on her first major work that was the translation of David Strauss’ Life of Jesus, which she completed in 1846.
After her father’s death, Marian went on a tour to Switzerland with the Bray couple and decided to live alone in Geneva instead of returning home. However, she returned to England in 1850 and made up her mind to move to London with the hope to become a writer. There she came in contact with John Chapman, a London publisher and bookseller. Impressed with her translation of Strauss, he asked her to contribute articles and essays for the Westminster Review. She became the assistant editor of the magazine in 1858. For the next few years, Marian took up lodgings in Chapman’s house where he lived with his wife and mistress.
Relationship with Henry Lewes
Marian met the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes in 1851. He was unattractive like Marian, but had an impressive personality and wit to win people. It was for the first time that Marian extended her relationship with anyone and her affection was reciprocated. Marian and Henry grew extremely close to each other and by 1854, they decided to live together.
A marriage was not possible though as Henry was legally married to Agnes Jervis, who, on the other hand, had illicit relationships with other men too and had several illegitimate children by them. Under the agreement of 'Free Love' with his wife, Henry had claimed all of them to be his own and hence he could not divorce Agnes.
Legal difficulties made their marriage impossible but it could not prevent them from living together despite being shunned from the literary society of London for their scandalous act. By the end of that year, Evans had begun to call herself Mrs. Lewes and their marriage had officially begun which had consummated in all sense but the legal one.
The Road to Success
While working with the Westminster Review, she had become increasingly popular in a male dominating literary world of London, where it was not conventional and usual to mix with the male dominated society of London. By that time, Marian Evans had begun to use ‘George Eliot’ as her pen name. George Henry proved to be a very supportive person and became her pillar of strength until his death. He encouraged Eliot- who was still contributing pieces to the Westminster Review- to try her hand at fictions writing. With his unwavering support and faith in her ability, she completed the first Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858, which was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine around that year. The book was a huge success and became her most acclaimed work.
In 1859, she completed her first novel Adam Bede which was published under an anonymous identity in 1859. The novel raised much curiosity among the people as to who the author is. Finally, when the secret could not be kept any longer, George Eliot admitted to the authorship of the book. The book, which revealed many stunning facts about her private life, came as a shock to her readers, though it did not affect her popularity among her admirers. She continued to work upon her next bestselling novel The Mill on the Floss which was published in the following year. It was much before the Couple’s relationship was accepted in the society.
She began to work another novel Middlemarch in 1869, which was finally printed in 1871. The record-breaking sell of this novel made her much famous and richer that she was often called ‘the greatest living English novelist’. The huge success made people forget about her private affairs and so-called 'unlawful' relationship with Henry. She continued working and wrote her last novel Daniel Deronda which was published in 1876 and the Lewes’ moved to Witley Surrey. Here she met her tragic fate in 1878, when her lifelong partner and support George Henry died after a long illness leaving her alone and depressed.
His death badly affected her both physically and mentally and she stopped meeting people or even answering telephone calls. She exempted only one person from her social abstain- their business manager John Cross. He had been a regular visitor of the couple for years now. She finally came to terms with her new life and with the help of John began to edit Henry’s final work Life and mind.
Controversies once again spur when a twenty years younger John Cross proposed marriage to her which she refused at least three times. She finally gave in and they married on 16 May 1880. Marian’s legal marriage delighted many, including her brother Issac, who had disowned her after she began living with Lewes.
Now sixty, Marian was old and ill and had been suffering from kidney disease for years. It was less than one year after her marriage that she fell ill with a serious throat infection. Fate once again made a cruel decision and she died just after seven months of her marriage on 22 December 1880. She was buried next her spiritual husband George Lewes in High gate Cemetery in London.