Sunday, October 31, 2010

George Eliot: Life and Career

Birth and Parentage
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. Robert Evans was a remarkable man. His position as the manager of the estate demanded the knowledge of agriculture, forestry, mining etc. He was of peasant stock and has had very little education. He was a self-made man who was greatly admired for his physical strength and respected for his knowledge in Warwickshire community. People respected his opinion on land and its ownership.

Father’s Influence
Mary Evans was born on 22nd November, 1819, at Arbury Farm. She was the youngest daughter of her father, who dominated her early life. He, more than any other single influence, was responsible for making her the writer she was. She herself writes, “I considered him a parent so much to my honour that the mention of my relationship to him was likely to secure for me regard among those to whom otherwise a stranger—my father’s stories from his life included so many names of distant persons that my imagination placed no limit to his acquaintanceship”. George Eliot admired and respected her father. At the beginning and end of her career we see portraits of Robert Evans appearing in her novels, for instance, Adam Bede in the novel of that name and Caleb Garth in Middlemarch.
Mary, also called Marian, saw the times of her childhood through the eyes of her father. Four years before her birth the Napoleonic wars had ended. England during those years had undergone political and economic upheaval. Robert Evans was a conservative and the French Revolution had left an ‘indelible impression on him.’ He disliked innovators and dissenters. “Marian’s life and career were to take paths that Robert Evans could scarcely have conceived, paths that led straight into a most dangerous and nefarious radicalism and dissent.” But she was also her father’s daughter to the end and so conservative elements too, mingle and temper her radicalism.
Girlhood: Early Impressions
The birth of Mary Ann, left her mother Christiana Evans broken in health. She was disappointed in her plain faced youngest child. Her favourite was her son Isaac and she was very proud of her pretty, well-behaved elder daughter Chrissey. Mary Ann, consequently, felt insecure and unhappy and she began early to create a world of her own for herself. Her brother, Isaac, was her closest companion and on him she showered all her love and affections. She was also close to her father who was very proud of her intelligence of which he liked to boast. From a very early age, he used to take her with him on his business tours and drives through the countryside. She writes, “I was my father’s constant companion in his out-door business, riding by his side on my little pony and listening to the lengthy dialogues he held with Darby or Jone, the one on the road or in the field, the other outside or inside her door.” She saw the countryside through the eyes of her father, “Standing between her father’s knees while he drove around leisurely” through the countryside in his gig. Mary Ann enjoyed the beauty of the countryside and thus acquired intimate knowledge of the life of the country folk. She grew familiar with all the neighbouring farms and the early impressions of the countryside and the country folk left an indelible mark on her. This countryside and the people, whom she loved, she constantly used in her novels. Sometimes Robert Evans left the young child with the servants while he conferred with the master of the house. She listened to the servants’ gossip, to their dialect, and observed the mannerisms of the peasants who frequently stopped to talk to her father to seek his advice. The mannerisms, dialect and superstitions of these people were later realistically presented in the novels.
Mary Ann Evans was a country born girl reared in the country-side and among rustics. Born on a farm of the early nineteenth century rural England, her roots were down in the pre-railroad, pre-telegraphic period. She was brought up at Arbury Farm, somewhat similar to the Hall Farm of the Poysers, amid the everyday sights and sounds of farm life. Later on, in life she travelled widely through England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Germany and Switzerland with friends and with George Henry Lewes. In this way was her keenly observant and penetrating mind widened by varied influences. But the most potent influence which fertilised her soul, which couid never be displaced, was the influence of the countryside where her childhood and maidenhood were passed. The early impressions were never unforgotten. Says Leslie Stephen in her childhood, of course, she took the colouring of her surroundings and it is this fact which makes her a great regional novelist.” She grew and matured prior to the time of steam engines and electric telegraphs. When she was a little girl, she writes in her introduction to Felix Holt, “the glory had not yet departed from the old coach-roads, the great roadside inns were still brilliant with well polished tankards, the smiling glances of pretty barmaids, and the repartees of jocose ostlers; the mail still announced itself by the merry notes of the horn.” In her childhood the great sensational event of the day was the passing of two coaches which ran between Birmingham and Stanford. Mary Ann and her brother Isaac watched for its appearance everyday and it was missed, when later, it was replaced by the railways.
Mary Ann’s school education came to an end early, because of the illness of her mother whom she had to look after and also do housekeeping for the family. But the education that she received from the book of nature and the countryside was lasting and permanent. This countryside always kept a stronghold on her and she returns to it again and again in her novels. She was intimately familiar with the scenes and sights of the English Midlands and the customs and mannerisms of the rustics colour even her Romola which has a Florentine and Renaissance setting.
Self-Education
As they grew up, Isaac was given a pony, and he was completely absorbed with riding and Mary Ann was left alone, and felt isolated. For amusement she turned to books. Books now became a passion with her and she read everything she could lay her hands upon. According to J.W. Cross she could get very few books and she read them again and again until she knew them by heart. Her favourites were Aesop’s Fables and later, like Maggie Tulliver, she became fond of the History of Devil by Daniel Defoe. She also read The Vicar of Wakefield with pleasure as also Joe Miller’s Jest Book, The Pilgrims’ Progress and Rasselas.
Scott: His Influence
But the author she loved most of all was Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter Scott first introduced her to the writing of fiction. Sir Walter Scott influenced her profoundly. Walter Allen comments, “Not only did she discover through him the possibilities of fiction but his fundamentally Tory imagination also reinforced, as it perhaps humanised her father’s Tory influence on her”. Scott’s example encouraged in her use of dialect. This she felt essential for the portrayal of the life of rustics and peasants of the Midland. F.R. Leavis rightly says, “The precedent of Scott was obviously a strength to her. Scott was deeply effected by the romantic history of his beloved Scotland. He loved his country and was familiar with all her legends and folklore.” As a novelist his object was, “to set his heroes and events firmly in a historical context, and to extend the social range of the novel so that it included not simply the traditional middle-class characters but figures of the nobility and peasantry as well.” These were also the aims of George Eliot. Her birthplace and the surroundings of her youth had made a permanent impression on her. The English Midlands, the humble rustics, their plain daily life, are the setting, the background, and the characters, she writes about.
Later she paid glorious tributes to the teacher from whom she learnt to be a novelist and who influenced her tremendously, but at the same time she was aware of the fact that his “mode of presentation” was not enough for the novelist she meant to be. But she had deep affinities with the writer of Waverley. “His treatment of the remembered past, the strong imaginative piety that gives life and depth to his evocation, was wholly congenial to her.” What Scott did for the Scots, George Eliot was to do for the English Midland rustics and their life.
At School: Religious Fervour
Robert Evans recognized his daughter’s keen intelligence and decided to give her the best education, as it was within his means. It was in her eighth or ninth year that she went to Miss Wallington’s School at Nuneaton. At the school she met Miss Maria Lewis, the governess, who took a keen interest in her. Miss Lewis was an ardent Evangelist and her immediate influence was to intensify young Mary Ann’s religious fervour. She realised that Mary Ann needed and desired great deal of love and that she was a child of extraordinary intelligence. She instilled in her pupil a genuine love for poetry and literature. She remained an intimate friend and correspondent for life.
The religious influence of the governess was not frowned upon by Mary Ann’s mother, and Robert Evans was not worried by the fact that his daughter had become a Calvinist. Miss Lewis stressed on a diligent study of the scriptures and under her influence Mary Ann read the Bible over and over again during her four years stay at that school. Later on in life, the novelist recognized the dangers of such religious fervour, so much so that in The Mill on the Floss Philip Wakem cautions Maggie Tulliver against it.
At the age of thirteen, Mary Evans was sent to Miss Rebecca Franklin’s School in Coventry. One of the first things that Mary Ann learnt was a different type of pronunciation. The broad Midland dialect that she had spoken all her life had been much modified by Miss Lewis and now it was completely banished by the cultivated speech at the new school. After her stay there she came to be admired by her friends for her “low, well-modulated musical voice.” She was given lessons in music, drawing, English History, French and arithmetic. Miss Rebecca made her translate pages of Maria Edgeworth’s novels into French. She read avidly the novels of Miss Edgeworth—the first regional novelist.
She relished Maria Edgeworth’s stories of the Irish peasants, their customs, traditions, superstitions and mannerisms. She also read a number of English writers—Shakespeare, Milton, Isaac Watts, Southey, Pope, Young, Cowper and Byron. Miss Franklin was a liberal and did not forbid her pupils to read novels. Mary Ann read Bulwer Lyton’s ‘novels’, and, of course, the novels of her favourite, Scott. Under the influence of Franklin, she adopted their religious views with enthusiasm but never joined the Baptist Church to which they belonged. She always regarded herself as belonging to the Church of England.
The House-keeper
In 1836, the novelist’s mother died and her formal education came to an end. Her sister was already married, and so she ran the house now. She was never close to her mother, her father was “the one deep, strong love I have ever known.” Her father missed her mother and Marian tried to fill her place as best as she could. In the evenings, she would read to him the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for he liked them. Though she was no longer at school, her education continued without interruption for she read incessantly while house-keeping and cooking. Tutors came from Coventry to teach her German, Italian and music. Her religious zeal also did not weaken. Evangelical religion governed her mode of thought and feelings as is clear from her novels. Even when she discarded Christianity, she clung to the ethical conceptions of God, duty, responsibility and man’s awful destiny. These remained with her to the very end of her life.
Wordsworth: His Influence
Her Evangelical fervour began cooling in the year 1839. Secular matters now had greater hold on her mind. She revelled in the study of the Romantics and enjoyed reading Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Southey. Wordsworth was now her favourite poet. She was impressed by Wordsworth’s philosophy and his respect for the common man. His humble people, “The Reaper”, “The Leech Gatherer” all gained strength from the land they worked on. Wordsworth’s influence can be traced in George Eliot’s works. “There was much in his natural mysticism that she never, at any time, disowned.”
Widening Horizons: The Brays and Their Circle
Even though Mary Ann read voraciously, she was “marooned in the wastes of Warwickshire.” There was little to satisfy her imagination and release it from construction at Griff (her home so far). But the release came in 1841 when her father decided to retire in favour of his son, Isaac. Robert Evans and Mary Ann now moved to a house called Bird Grove, in Coventry. This change meant an immense widening of Mary Ann’s mental horizon. It was now that she came into contact with the Brays and their circle of friends. Charles Bray was to have most profound influence on Mary Ann’s thinking. He had been a fervent Evangelicalist who had married into a Unitarian family and later had become a religious skeptic. The Brays house, Rosehill, on the outskirts of the city, was a centre of local intellectual life and activity. Through this new circle of friends Mary Ann was introduced to a completely different world of thought and it was during this period that the foundations of her mode of thinking were laid.
Spiritual Doubts and Conflicts
At the Bray’s house Mary Ann met intellectuals like Robert Owen, the manufacturer, socialist, philanthropist, the economist and journalist, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She thus came into contact with men and women who had dedicated their lives to the pursuit of intellectual honesty and truth. Her beliefs were deeply shaken and soon she was in the throes of spiritual doubts very similar to the spiritual doubts of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss. She was now an educated young lady who made friends with young intellectuals and dared to form her own religious beliefs in direct opposition to her father’s faith. She now discarded her old beliefs and stopped attending church. This brought her into direct conflict with her father who was a staunch church-man. He and other relatives were outraged by her skepticism. Robert Evans blamed the Brays for this rebellion. But Mary Ann remained adamant in her beliefs and finally left her father to live with her brother Isaac. Her father was persuaded by Isaac, Miss Hennell and the Brays to take her back. Though, later, she returned to church going, she did never return to her old beliefs.
In the Brays she found people of a like nature, thought and belief. They sympathised with her radical views. The Brays and the other intellectuals who visited them were impressed by her intelligence and learning. She could hold her own among this distinguished company. Exchange of views with them were frequent and this considerably widened the outlook and sympathy of the novelist.
Father’s Death: European Tour
Robert Evans died on the night of May 31, 1849. A few hours earlier Mary Ann had written to the Brays: “What shall I be without my father? It will seem as if part of my moral nature were gone.” In this time of grief and despair, the Brays came to her rescue and took her with them on a tour of Europe. When the Brays returned, she stayed behind in Switzerland.
Westminster Review” and John Chapman
On her return to England on March 23, 1850, she found conditions at home much changed, and she missed the work and duty of caring for her father. She felt lonely and constantly visited the Brays, where she met John Chapman, a young publisher, who was about to buy the Westminster Review, a contemporary periodical. He wanted to revive it with articles from eminent critics and writers. Chapman was impressed by Mary Ann’s intellect and persuaded her to join him as an assistant editor. Thus she became a frequent visitor to 142 Strand, London, the office of the Westminster Review. John Chapman lived there with his wife and governess-mistress Miss Tilly. He was soon in love with the inexperienced, and hungry for love Mary Ann, and she responded to his love. Mary Ann, may have been plain-looking and provincial but she was intellectually well off. Both wife and mistress began to resent this love and they joined hands in persuading Chapman to send her home. This was a great humiliation for Mary Ann, and she went back to Coventry in a state of misery. The experience was emotionally shattering for her. She was thirty-one now and wondered if the natural fulfilment of being a wife and mother would ever be hers. But Chapman could not do without Mary Ann’s valuable assistantship and so soon he persuaded her to return. She returned, but strictly for business. There was no question of love any more.
Fame and Recognition
Her position as one of the editors of Westminster Review brought her into contact with large number of distinguished visitors. At different times, she met Dickens, Thackeray, Carlyle, Emerson, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Gaskell, Forster and Louis Blanc. The most celebrated men of the day accepted her as an equal and at gatherings of intellectuals she was often the only woman. Her conversation astonished all, and she was treated as an equal.
In October, 1851, she met Herbert Spencer who had just brought out his Social Statistics. He was an important contributor to the Westminster Review. He was attracted by Marian’s intellect and was to be an intimate friend of hers for life. Intellectually he and Marian had everything in common and Marian was emotionally attracted to him. He never offered her marriage and she had to be contented with friendship.
George Lewes—Love and Union
Marian knew George Henry Lewes through his work as he was also a contributor to the Westminster Review, but she came to know him better through Herbert Spencer, whose close friend he was. Lewes was two years older and had a background completely different from hers. When Marian met him he had already acquired fame as a gifted and versatile man of letters. He was a well-known literary and drama critic, novelist and actor. He had a wide knowledge of the literatures of Greece, Rome, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. His works ranged from literary biographies to children’s books and natural history. His one work of classical stature is The Life and Works of Goethe. His personal life was a tragic one. In 1840 he married a young woman Agnes, who was not only beautiful but talented. As a measure of economy the Lewes were sharing a large house in Bayswater with Thornton Hunt. Lewes and his friends had advanced ideas on love and marriage. Taking advantage of the views of Lewes, his wife, transferred her love to Hunt. Lewes was thoroughly disillusioned with free love. He did not blame Agnes but hid his bitterness behind a flippant mask. Unfortunately, he could not divorce her under the existing Victorian laws.
Lewes was a vivacious and charming man who was welcome at any party. He was a brilliant conversationalist. He was even plainer than Mary Evans. But his great charm and wit pleased Marian inspite of herself. He was volatile and flippant, yet he also was drawn to the austere moralist Mary. He was impressed by her immense intellectual curiosity. They were interested in the same things. Lewes provided the affection and love Marian needed. He was someone she could lean on and lavish her love unreservedly. Marian after much serious thinking decided to throw in her lot with George Lewes. She began to live with him as his mistress. Her family and friends were stunned. She was ostracized by society for living in sin. Even though their union was not legal, they found deep joy in each other. Her friends in Coventry were shocked by her act and were not reconciled with her for a long time. This must have saddened her but she gave no evidence of her sorrow and accepted her lot without bitterness.
Literary Career: Lewes’ Influence
As Lewes did not enjoy good health, they left for Berlin in 1854 for a change. During their sojourn in Berlin, Marian found among her papers the MS of a story written years before. She read it to Lewes who was greatly impressed by the power and keen observation which it revealed. Says Joan Bennett, “the creative gift in her, which he did so much to discover and to foster, produced books of timeless value while his own voluminous works were in their very nature ephemeral.” In 1856 encouraged by Lewes she wrote a story—The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton. The story was published under the name of “George Eliot” by Blackwood. J.W. Cross gives us the reason which lead her to select this pen-name. “‘George’ was Mr. Lewes’s Christian name and ‘Eliot’ was a good-mouth filling, easily pronounced name.”
It was Lewes’s influence and encouragement that launched George Eliot, the novelist. It was through Lewes that she discovered her genius. He protected her from the pin-pricks and harsh criticism of the outside world; he conducted all her business transactions. In a letter to Sara Hennell November 19, 1872, George Eliot wrote: “Mr. Lewes makes a martyr of himself in writing all my notes and business letters. Is that not a sublime husband? For all the while there are studies of his own being put aside……..studies which are a seventh heaven to him.”
George Eliot matured and flourished in the love of George Lewes. She had found happiness in her relationship with him and she showed her appreciation of, and devotion to, Lewes by dedicating the manuscript of Felix Holt to him.
Lewes’ Death—Marriage with J.W. Cross
With the death of George Henry Lewes on the 30th November, 1878, the literary career of George Eliot came to an end. It was a heavy blow to her. Her letters of this period are touching because of her sense of loneliness and desolation. Later, in May, 1880, she married J.W. Cross, who was much younger than herself. This marriage came as a complete surprise to everybody, but George Eliot, even at this stage, wanted someone whom she could love and whom she could depend upon. Rev. J.W. Cross was twenty years her junior. He was a friend of years, a friend much loved and trusted by
Mr. Lewes and one who knowing that “I alone see his happiness in the dedication of his life to me.” Says
A.C. Ward “She lived only till December, 1880, a seven months’ wife whose legal marriage was received with more widespread disfavour than her quarter of a century as Lewes’s mistress, a position she had seemed to dignify. As a wife, the great George Eliot dwindled briefly into the common-place Mrs. Cross.’“
Such is the life and career of one of the greatest novelists of England.

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