'There was clearly no suspicion that I was a woman...
They thought I was the father of a family - was sure I was a man who had seen a great deal of society.'
George Eliot - Letters, Vol. II.
George Eliot was born Mary Anne Evans on Monday, 22nd November 1819, a freezing cold winters day at South Farm, Arbury, in the County of Warwickshire. Her rise from obscurity to one of the foremost 'male' writers of the age is a tale of rare determination and resolve.
At the age of five, Mary Anne was admitted as a boarder to her first school in Attleborough near Nottingham, and straightaway, she was recognised as an exceptional student. Under the guidance of her tutor, the kindly and evangelical Maria Lewis, she blossomed. She not only learnt to speak French and German fluently, she could also amaze any preacher with her thorough knowledge of Divinity.
Her education came to a abrupt halt on the 3rd February 1836, when her mother died of cancer and her father insisted that she return home to take control of the household. The demands of running a house; the chores, the social rounds of paying and receiving calls, inflicted such a toll that she could barely find time to read. Mary Anne yearned to escape the drudgery and to share her thoughts and ideas with kindred spirits. The opportunity to broaden her horizons came in 1838, when she met Charles Bray and his wife Cara in Coventry. The Brays, who were visiting relatives, lived in Hackney, London, and Charles was well known there for his free-thinking opinions. When the Bray's invited Mary Anne to visit them, she leapt at the chance, and that trip changed her outlook on life, and more especially on religion, completely.
When Mary Anne returned home, she sparked an enormous row when she told her father that her new beliefs meant that she could no longer accompany him to church. Robert Evans tried his damdness to make her change her mind. He asked friends to help point out the errors of her ways, but Mary Anne confused all of them, including the local vicar, with her superior knowledge of theology.
An acquaintance of the Bray's discovering that Mary Anne both spoke and wrote German, asked if she'd translate a book for publication. Ripe for a challenge she readily agreed and for the next four years, she immersed herself totally in the weighty task. When the book, Strauss's 'Das Leben Jesu' was published, Mary Anne received payment of £20 for her work.
Wednesday the 30th May, 1849, the day her father died, Mary Anne wrote in her diary.
"Where shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if a part of my moral nature were gone. I had a horrid vision of myself last night becoming earthly sensual and devilish for want of that purifying restraining influence."
Following her father's death, Mary Anne took herself off to the Continent, touring France and Italy before settling for a while in Geneva. There she changed her name, signing herself henceforth Marian, and by the time she returned home she had decided the future course of her life. John Chapman, the publisher had asked her to join The Westminster Review, as an assistant editor and she accepted his offer, packed her portmanteau, and set off to London. She quickly forged a name for herself, planning and commissioning work for The Review with a ruthless efficiency, and she fell in love with a succession of unsuitable men. Firstly with her publisher, John Chapman, (who as well as being married with children also kept a mistress on the side); then with the writer Herbert Spencer, who shared her Midland anti-intellectual background but fled from her displays of raw emotion. And finally, with the man she met at a soiree at Jeff's Bookshop in Burlington Arcade on 6th October, 1851. His name was George Lewes and though he made no attempt to hide the fact that he too was a married man, his relationship with his wife Agnes was long dead. Agnes had borne three children to different men during their eleven years together and even though Lewes had adopted each in turn, his wife and he no longer shared the same roof.
It was in 1856, on a holiday with George to Ilfracombe, that her first famous work was created. Marianne woke up from a dream and told George of the story she had imagined. She had even dreamt the title 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton'. Three 'Scenes of Clerical Life' were published anonymously in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857, and were an immediate hit. Everyone, including her publisher John Blackwood, thought they'd been written by a man and Marian was only too happy to continue the deception, inventing the nom de plume George Eliot. George, after George Lewes, and Eliot because it was a good mouth filling, easily pronounced word. Only Charles Dickens recognised that the book had been written by a woman and sent Mr. Eliot a letter of congratulations, addressing her, 'Dear Madam'.
She and George Lewes lived together as man and wife for the next twenty years but never married. In that time she published all of her major works.
'The Mill on the Floss', 'Silas Marner', 'Felix Holt' and of course, 'Middlemarch'. Their deep love affair ended on 30th. November 1878, when George Lewes died of cancer.
Everyone expected her to slip into perpetual widowhood, after all she was almost sixty, but Marian confounded and outraged her friends when eighteen months after George's funeral, she married John Cross, a friend of the family who was over twenty years her junior. London society reeled with shock and stories of her new husband's attempted suicide on their honeymoon in Venice, fueled the scandal.
On 19th December 1880, just seven months after they had married, Marian complained to John of a sore throat and fell into a fever.
Three days later at 10 p.m. she died.
As her coffin was lowered into the tomb she had chosen beside her lover George Lewes, in Highgate Cemetery, snow fell heavily on the crowd of mourners.
Discover the truth behind this extraordinary story in
'MARY AND GEORGE'
Episode IV of the Sexton's Tales.