Vanity Fea

George Eliot


Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819 in Warwickshire, a keen student, gave herself a varied education, frequented the centres of advanced thought, translated the Leben Jesu of Strauss (1846), the Essence of Christianity of Feuerbach (1854); contributed to the Westminster Review, knew Spencer, and Lewes whose life she shared and who encouraged her to write works of imagination. She published, under the name of George Eliot, novels: Scenes of Clerical Life (in Blackwood's Magazine, 1857; in a volume, 1858), which had a great success; Adam Bede, 1859; The Mill on the Floss, 1860; Silas Marner, 1861; Romola, 1863; Felix Holt the Radical, 1866; Middlemarch, 1871-2; Daniel Deronda, 1876; poems: The Spanish Gipsy, 1868; The Legend of Jubal, etc., 1874; essays, The Impressions of Teophrastus Such, 1879, etc. After the death of Lewes (1878), she married J. W. Cross, and died the same year, 1880. Her correspondence was utilized by her husband for her biography (Life and Letters, 1885), Works, Warwick ed., 1901-3. See study by M. Blind, 1883; Cooke, 1883; C. Thomson, 1901; L. Stephen, (English Men of Letters), 1902; Olcott, 1911; Gardner (Inner Life of George Eliot), 1912; Deakin (Early Life of George Eliot), 1913; M. L. Cazamian (Le Roman et les Idées en Angleterre), 1923; S. Pfeiffer, George Eliots Beziehungen zu Deutschland, 1925; E. S. Haldane, George Eliot and Her Times, 1927; A. Paterson, George Eliot's Family Life and Letters, 1928.


George Eliot: A Scandalous Life. A BBC documentary (2002).

George Eliot (Mary Ann, later Marian, Evans) (1819-80), the youngest surviving child of Robert Evans, agent for an estate in Warwickshire. In her girlhood she was particularly close to her brother Isaac, from whom she was later estranged. At school she became a convert to evangelicalism; she was freed from this by the influence of Charles Bray, a freethinking Coventry manufacturer (a development which temporarily alienated her father), but remained strongly influenced by religious concepts of love and duty; her works contain many affectionate portraits of Dissenters and clergymen. She pursued her education rigorously, reading widely, and devoted herself to completing a translation of Strauss's Life of Jesus, which appeared without her name in 1846. In 1850 she met J. Chapman, and became a contributor to the Westminster Review; she moved to 142 Strand, London, in 1851, as a paying guest in the Chapman's home, where her emotional attachment to him proved an embarrassment. She became assistant editor to the Westminster Review in 1851, and in the same year met Spencer, for whom she also developed strong feelings, which were not reciprocated, though the two remained friends. In 1854 she published a translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity; she endorsed his view that religious belief is an imaginative necessity for man and a projection of his interest in his own species, a heterodoxy of which the readers of her novels only gradually became aware. At about the same time she joined G. H. Lewes in a union without legal form (he was already married) that lasted until his death; they travelled to the Continent that year and set up house together on their return. He was to be a constant support throughout her working life and their relationship, although its irregularity caused her much anxiety, was gradually accepted by their friends. 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton', the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857, followed by 'Mr. Gilfil's Love Story'  and 'Janet's Repentance'; these at once attacted praise for their domestic realism, pathos, and humour, and speculation about the identity of 'George Eliot', who was widely supposed to be a clergyman or possibly a clergyman's wife. She began Adam Bede (1859) in 1858; it was received with great enthusiasm and at once established her as a leading novelist. The Mill on the Floss appeared in 1860 and Silas Marner in 1861. In 1760 she visited Florence, where she conceived the idea of Romola, and returned to do further research in 1861; it was published in the Cornhill in 1862-3. John Blackwood, son of William Blackwood, was uable to meet her terms; by this time she was earning a considerable income from her work. Felix Holt, the Radical appeared in 1866. She travelled in Spain in 1867, and her dramatic poem The Spanish Gypsy (conceived on an earlier visit to Italy, and inspired by Tintoretto) appeared in 1868. Middlemarch was published in instalments in 1871-2 and Daniel Deronda, her last great novel, in the sameway in 1874-6. She was now at the height of her fame, and widely recognized as the greatest living English novelist, admired by readers as diverse as Turgenev, H. James and Queen Victoria. In 1878 Lewes died. Her Impressions of Teophrastus Such appeared in 1879, and in 1880 she married the 40-year-old John Walter Cross, whom she had met in Rome in 1869 and who had become her financial adviser. The marriage distressed many of her friends, but brought the reconciliation of af a congratulatory note from her brother Isaac, who had not communicated with her since 1857. She died seven months later.

After her death her reputation declined somewhat, and L. Stephen indicated much of the growing reaction in an orbituary notice (1881) which praised the 'charm' and autobiographical elements of the earlier works, but found the later novels painful and excessively reflective. V. Woolf defended her in an essay (1919) which declared Middlemarch to be 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people', but critics like David Cecil and Oliver Elton continued to emphasize the division between her creative powers and supposedly damaging intellect. In the late 1940s a new generation of critics, led by Leavis (The Great Tradition, 1948), introduced a new respect for and understanding of her mature works; leavis praises her 'traditional moral sensibility', her 'luminous intelligence', and concludes that she 'is not as transcendently great as Tolstoy, but she is great, and great in the same way'.

As well as the novels for which she is remembered, she wrote various poems, including 'O may I join the choir invisible' (1867), 'Agatha' (1869), Brother and Sister (1869), a sonnet sequence recalling her happy childhood, 'The Legend of Jubal' (1870), and 'Armgart' (1871), also the short stories 'The Lifted Veil' (1859) and 'Brother Jacob' (1864). Her letters and journals were edited by Cross (3 vols., 1885); her complete letters were edited by G. S. Haight (9 vols., 1954-78), who also wrote a life (1968). A Writer's Notebook 1854-1879 and Uncollected Writings were edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth (1981). See also George Eliot: A Life by Rosemary Ashton (1996).

George Eliot

By Louis Cazamian, from A History of English Literature (1937):

George Eliot is a writer whose fame is menaced. She is a victim of the discredit which opinion to-day throws upon her generation, and which will pass with time. Graver, however, are the reasons for disfavour which concern her personality. The upholders of tradition have never forgiven her bold ventures in philosophic thought, nor excused that act in her life which, though it agreed with the ethics of the heart, jarred with the principles admitted by custom. Critical spirits, or lovers of pure art, are not without resenting either the moderation of her thought, or the weightiness which her intellectuallity often gives her prose. Some have always looked upon her with mistrust, while many would be tempted to think that she was too prudent in her opinions. Even among here admirers, there are few who do not find in her work a faint suspicion of heaviness. In the study of her novels, therefore, one must keep oneself immune from a prejudiced hostility which, undoubtedly, is unjust, and at the same time not be influenced by the intemperate zeal which might be aroused by the feeling that one was pleading a cause.

It is perhaps best to divide her work in two parts. There is no question of leaving the first entirely aside, altough very probably much of it must be given up. George Eliot had of necessity to pay for the crisis which brougth about her emancipation, which raised her from the status of a young country girl to be the equal of the most scholarly minds of the time, and transformed the daughter of Puritan parents into a pupil of Spencer and Comte. Her independence, won after a long and strenuous struggle, was to leave its mark upon her for life. It gave her a taste for discussion, awakened the desire in her to explain her own conduct, or that of the beings she created, in the most explicit and logical manner; it inspired her with the familiar love and respect of formulated principles. All the intellectuality and fondness for reasoning which seemed to be part and parcel of her very being, deprived or tended to deprive her of a certain happy spontaneity, afforded her less scope for the play of instinct, and made purely artistic creation less natural to her, while rendering more natural the painstaking efforts of artificial labour. Since her vocation was to write, and to be a novelist, she did much during the first thirty years of her life to direct what was to be her gift of invention towards lucid and dry forms of expression.

Although her imaginative resources were thus impoverished, she gained in other respects. There is always a strengthening virtue in the conquest of one's own personality. The moral nobility of her inner development with its honesty of purpose, its courageous determination, not only lent a deeper spiritual quality to her thought, but imparted to all that she wrote a fragance of ardent sincerity which compensates for many failings of her aesthetic judgment.

Thus it can be said that her realism was conscious and systematic; all the gifts of her intellectual culture contributed to it, while in it the influence of science,which she had thoroughly imbibed, is everywhere manifest. She had made a study of history as of exegesis; she was acquainted with the psychology of the Utilitarians, and had accepted the doctrine of evolution as soon as it was first explained. As an inevitable result of the mental discipline of her youth, she felt the need of precision and objectivity, and dwelt upon the idea that any object of study, no matter what it be, has its own infinite value. The construction of her novels, the substance of her analyses, and much of her imagery, recall this scientific schooling of her thought. But realism to her is much more than a mere method, or even an intellectual necessity; it is an emotion and a creed, and this she has explained with perfect clearness. All the modest virtues and vices of humble folks, hover mediocre or ill-favoured they may be, become attractively interesting to her, and the source of this interest is love. Her words ring with the supreme appeal of a common brotherhood and common sufferings, and whatever stress she may lay on the solidarity between men which nature enforces and which intelligence comes to recognize, her ethical beliefs spring from that spontaneous gift of the heart: sympathy.

It is no easy task, therefore, to divide what is fresh and natural in her work from what remains dry and lifeless, or rather to distinguish between the causes which give rise to these conflicting elements. Besides, they are often combined. The most barren wastes in her prose are not without some oases, just as the vistas of refreshing green are broken by flat stretches of stony dreariness. But, upon the whole ,a great number of her arguments, of her intentions, and most of the expressions which these naturally called forth, are more directly related, no doubt, to dialectics than to poetry, in the sense in which every artist is a poet. The bare framework of her ideas is often too much in evidence; not infrequently, the situations and characters allow the reader a glimpse of the inner architecture which backs and supports them; and her style, through many a page, through whole chapters and episodes, has the indefinable quality that suggests a lesson in psychology, ethics, or history.

The value of the philosophy imparted in the deliberate teaching of George Eliot's novels, and the literary intentions which she enunciates most openly, have and will retain their particular merit, even if we prefer to find in other parts of her work its most precious assets iand its most vital interest. In Adam Bede she expounds the doctrine granting each of us the initiative which works out our moral and religious destiny; The Mill on the Floss is devoted to a study of the collaboration of character with circumstances in the fulfilment of fate: Silas Marner treats of all the hidden forces which shape man's personality through the contact of his fellows; the subject of Felix Holt is the prominent part played by the education of the individual in any matter dealing with social reform, etc. Such are the main themes of the novels; but there are others which form, so to speak, the background, and which are really of deeper significance as well as more substantial; the interdependence of all human beings; the intricate workings of consequence which propagate the influence of a given act, for good or for evil, beyond our visible horizon, in ever-widening circles; and more esspecially, the pathetic quality of the most common human emotions.

All this, undoubtedly, has its value. But this doctrine is not transmuted completely enough into the silent preconceptions of creative imagination itself; it is not sufficiently dissolved into the plastic elements of her art; it remains a doctrine, asserting and expressing itself as such. And it is just in these avowed assertions that the weakness of George Eliot's work is to be found. Similarly, the laboured exertions of her will have added no supreme achievement to her fictions. The scholarly historical setting of Romola may be estimable, but it leaves us cold; Daniel Deronda is a strong but unsuccessful attempt, because it is almost entirely artificial. Even in the most vigorous and spontaneous among her novels, there are passages, and features, which explain these partial failures.

The other part of her work bears the stamp of true imagination. It is no less rich in persuasive ideas, for it breathes the communicative ardour of fraternal sympathy, the keen and kindly perception of the inner life of souls, and a powerful sense of that hard-won heroic virtue, to the height of which we all have, some time or other, to rise. All the doctrine of George Eliot is here, implied in the very facts of her stories. But at the same time it allows of artistic creation, and even expresses itself through it. The touching Scenes of Clerical Life, almost the whole of Adam Bede, much of Silas Marner, the main part of The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, belong to this order of spontaneous and concrete invention. It is more than enough to guarantee the fame of a great writer.

For in works such as these there is a livening and animating force at the base of the writer's art. From her experience of life, from her knowledge of self, or from an intuitive revelation, she draws the material for an imaginary world, which has in it the essence of reality. And this world is ample enough to allow for all possible contrasts, and call forth smiling amusement as well as loving compassion; it can even arouse a feeling of angry irony. The humour of George Eliot is not the least of her qualities; it is a salutary and pleasing element, which introduces an invigorating freshness into her prose. More often of a tender, playful, even delicate nature, it grows satirical at times, and acquires then a sharp edge which contradicts, as in the portrait of the Dodsons (The Mill on the Floss) the general lesson of symphathy; but none among her readers will object to this. The study of Mrs. Poyser in Adam Bede is an unalloyed source of joy; in Silas Marner there are lively scenes of rural realism.

The world in which the imagination of George Eliot finds itself at greatest ease is that of the provinces, the home of her early years; and, no doubt, her creative faculty is not to the same degree dramatic; she is essentially a revealer of self. But the beings she creates represent, as it were, imaginary aspects or developments of her ego, and acquire the quality of truth by reason of this vital bond. Some are women, such as Dinah Morris (Adam Bede) and Dorothea (Middlemarch), some are men, as Amos Barton, Silas Marner, and Philip Wakem (The Mill on the Floss), but it is plain that they take after the authoress herself, and that her personality passes into them all.

Once, however, she has taken herself as the direct object of study, and created her masterpiece in Maggie Tulliver (The Mill on the Floss). The first two hundred pages of this novel are, probably, the most nearly perfect she has written; for the faithful evocation of scenic detail as well as of manners, and the astonishing acccuracy of the psychology, are the outcome of an immediate and infallible impulse, translating into workds the ever-present wisdom of the past.

From Scenes of Clerical Life to Middlemarch, George Eliot is an incomparable painter of the lower circles of English provincial life, and of a whole order of souls who, simple as social values go, are nevertheless spirtually complex, torn by scruples, and by the anguish of moral conflicts. In this sphere, her art derives its value from its truth as much as from the emotional interest it creates, and indissolubly from both.

No doubt she was aware of this, or, at the end, she recognized it. Her intellectual zeal, and already cautious and open to all human feelings during the years of her ardent youth, grew still more tempred, gentle, modest, and tender in the course of her life. She preserved the religion of truth without retaining its dogmatism. The philosophy of The Mill on the Floss left ample scope to what is inexplicable, to the hazards which cannot be avoided by every upright and sincere thinker. In Middlemarch, the psychology tends more clearly towards an intuitive idea of mind and consciousness. Her most powerful novel, even if it is not the most inspired or the most harmoniously constructed, is the last in which the activity of her courageous, ever-moving mind has been expressed in terms of scenes and figures familiar to herself, and thus endowed with artistic reality.

To be consulted: E. Bouvier, La Bataille réaliste, 1914; Brunetière, Le Roman naturaliste, 1884; Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. xiii, Chaps. IX, X, XII; M. L. Cazamian, Roman et Idées en Angleterre, 1923; J. W. Cross, Life and Letters of George Eliot, 1885; W. L. Cross, The Development of the English Novel, 1899; David Sauvageaot, Le Réalisme et le Naturalisme dans la littérature et l'art, 1890; Elton, Survey of English Literature, 1830-80, 1920; R. Las Vergnas, W. M. Thackeray, etc., 1932; Phelps, Advance of the English Novel, 1919; Philips, Dickens, Reade, Collins, Sensation Novelists, 1919; F. T. Russell, Satire in the Victorian Novel, 1920; Sadleir, Excursions in Victorian Bibliography, 1922; Saintsbury, Trollope Revisited, 12920; Walker, The Literature of the Victorian Era, 1910.


From The Oxford Companion to English Literature:

Adam Bede,
a novel by George Eliot, published 1859.

The plot was suggested by a story told to George Eliot by her Methodist aunt Elizabeth Evans of a confession of child-murder made to her by a girl in prison. The action takes place at the close of the eighteenth cent. Hetty Sorrel, pretty, vain, and self-centred, is the niece of the genial farmer Martin Poyser of Hall Farm. She is loved by Adam Bede, the village carpenter, a young man of dignity and character, but is deluded by the attentions of the young squire, Arthur Donnithorne, and is seduced by him, in spite of Adam's efforts to save her. Arthur breaks off relations with her, and Hetty, broken-hearted, agrees to marry Adam. But before the marriage she discovers she is pregnant, flies from home to seek Arthur, fails to find him, is arrested and convicted of infanticide, and saved from the gallows at the last moment, her sentence commuted to transportation through Arthur's intervention. In prison she is comforted by her cousin Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher, whose strong, serious, and calm nature is contrasted with hers throughout the novel. In the last chapters, Adam discovers that Dinah loves him; his brother Seth, who had long and hopelessly loved Dinah, resigns her to him, with a fine unselfishness.

The novel was immediately acclaimed for its realitsm for its picturesque portrayal of rural life, and for its humour; Mrs Poyser was greeted as a comic creation on the level of Dickens's Sam Weller and Mrs Gamp. Some critics objected ot its insisence on the 'stratling horrors of rustic reality' (Saturday Review) and its 'obstetric' details. H. James in 1866 found Hetty Sorrel 'the most successful' of George Eliot's female figures.

The Mill on the Floss, a novel by George Eliot, published 1860.

Tom and Maggie, the principal characters, are the children of the honest but ignorant and obstinate Mr Tulliver, the miller of Dorlcote Mill on the Floss. Tom is a prosaic youth, narrow of imagination and intellect, animated by conscious rectitude and a disposition to control others. Maggie in contrast is highly strung, intelligent, emotional, and, as a child, rebellious. From this conflict of temperaments, and from Maggie's frustrated sense of purpose, spring much of her unhappiness and the ultimate tragedy. Her deep love of her brother is thwarted by his lack of understanding, and she turns to Philip Wakem, the deformed son of a neighbouring lawyer, for intellectual and emotional companionship. Unfortunately lawyer Wakem is the object of Mr Tulliver's suspicion and dislike, which develop into hatred when Tulliver is made bankrupt as a result of litigation in which Wakem is on the other side. Tom, loyal to his father, discovers the secret friendship of Maggie and Philip, and forbids their meetings: Maggie reluctantly complies. After Mr Tulliver's death, accelerated by a scene of violence in which he thrashes the lawyer, Maggie leaves the mill for a vist at St Ogg's to her cousin Lucy Deane, who is to marry the handsome and agreeable Stephen Guest. Stephen, though loyal in intention to Lucy, is attracted by Maggie, and she by him. A boating expedition on the river leads, partly by Stephen's design, partly by accident, to Maggie's being irremediably compromised; Stephen implores her to marry him, but she refuses. Her brother turns her out of the house, and the society of St Ogg's ostracizes her. She and her mother take refuge with the loyal friend of her childhood, the packman Bob Jakins. Only Lucy, Philip, and the clergyman Dr Kenn show sympathy. The situation seems without issue, but in the last chapter a flood descends upon the town, and Maggie, whose first thought is her brother's safety, courageously  rescues him from the mill. There is a moment of recognition and reconciliation before the boat overturns, and both, locked in a final embrace, are drowned.

The portrayal of childhood, of rural life, and the subsidiary characters of Mrs Tulliver's sisters, the strong-minded Mrs Glegg and the melancholy Mrs Pullett, with their respective spouses, delighted most critics, though the book was felt to lack the charm of Adam Bede; Maggie's lapse into passion, the character of the lightweight Stephen, and the arbitrary tragedy of the denouement enraged others. It remains, however, one of the most widely read of her works.

Romola, a novel by George Eliot, published 1863.

The background of the novel is Florence at the end of the 15th century, the troubled period, following the expulsion of the Medici, of the expedition of Charles VIII, distracted counsels in the city, the excitement caused by the preaching of Savonarola, and acute division between the popular party and the support of the Medici. The various historical figures, including Charles VIII, Machiavelli, and Savonarola himself, are drawn with great care, as well as the whole picturesque complexion of the city, through the novel is generally held to be overloaded with detail, and has never been one of her most admired. The story is that of the purification by trials of the noble-natured Romola, devoted daughter of an old blind scholar. Into their lives comes a clever, adaptable young Greek, Tito Melema, whose self-indulgence develops into utter perfidy. He robs, and abandons in imprisonment, the benefactor of his childhood, Baldassare. He cruelly goes through a mock marriage ceremony with the innocent little contadina Tessa. After marrying Romola he wounds her deepest feelings by betraying her father's solemn trust. He plays a double game in the political intrigues of the day. Nemesis pursues and at last overtakes him in the person of old Baldassare, who escapes from imprisonment crazed with sorrow and suffering. Romola, with her love for her husband turned to contempt, and her trust in Savonarola destroyed by his falling away from his high prophetic mission, is left in isolation, from which she is rescued by the discovery of her duty in self-sacrifice. The novel was illustrated by Leighton, much to George Eliot's satisfaction.

The Chains of Semiosis: Marxism, Semiotics, and the Female Stereotypes in The Mill on the Floss

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