Biography George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

photo of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
  • Time Period1819 - 1880
  • PlaceWarwickshire
  • CountryEngland

Poet Biography

Mary Anne Evans was born at South Farm, Arbury, on November 22, 1819. The youngest child of Robert Evans and Christiana Pearson Evans, she had four siblings: Robert, Fanny, Chrissy, and Isaac. Mary Anne shared an especially close relationship with her brother Isaac -- they were inseparable playmates. However, in 1824, Isaac was sent to school at Foleshill, and Mary Anne was sent to Miss Latham's boarding school. At Miss Lathim's, missing the companionship and comfort of her brother, Mary Anne first turned to books as a source of amusement. Those who knew her found Mary Anne a serious, sensitive, and introspective child. She had straight light-brown hair and a plain face.

In 1828, after finishing at Miss Latham's, Mary Anne was sent to Mrs. Wallington's Boarding School at Nuneaton. It was at Mrs. Wallington's that she met the woman who was to be the most influential figure of her early life, Miss Maria Lewis. Maria Lewis, a kind woman with strong evangelical beliefs, was a governess at the school. She took an immediate interest in the shy Mary Anne, and marking the exceptional quality of the child's mind, took it upon herself to foster it. By the time Mary Anne was thirteen, she had learned all that Mrs. Wallington's school had to offer. When she left, however, she maintained a close relationship with Miss Lewis -- a relationship they kept up for nearly fourteen years. Upon leaving Miss Wallington's, Mary Anne attended Miss Franklin's school at Coventry. It was here that Mary Anne worked to rid herself of her Midland accent and cultivated the "low, well-modulated, musical voice, which impressed everyone who knew George Eliot in later years At Miss Franklin's school, Mary Anne became an accomplished pianist, studied French, was admired for her skill at writing, and read widely. She also wrote poetry and fiction.

Drastic changes soon occurred in Mary Anne's life. Her mother had been ill for quite some time. In February of 1839, Mrs. Evans died, and Mary Anne, then 19, left school to take care of her father. Though not the oldest daughter, Mary Anne had always been close to her father, and she tried to fill in for her mother while continuing her education at home (now Griff House). Robert Evans, proud of his daughter, bought Mary Anne any book she wished to have and arranged for her to receive lessons in Italian and German. In 1841, she and her father moved to a new home at Foleshill.

She met George Henry Lewes in October of 1851. Lewes was an unattractive man, but loved by most who came near him because of his outgoing personality and wit. Lewes had married Agnes Jervis in 1841. About eight years into the marriage, Agnes began an affair with Lewes's close friend Thornton Hunt. Both Lewes and Agnes were believers in "free love" and felt that feelings were stronger than legal bonds. So when Agnes gave birth to Hunt's son, Lewes claimed the illegitimate child as his own. In the coming years, she would bear Hunt four more children. George claimed all of them, but he ceased to view Agnes as his wife

When Mary Anne met Lewes, his marriage had long been over in every sense but the legal one. Lewes came to visit Mary Anne at the Strand often, often enough that by April of 1853, their intimacy had grown far beyond what either of them could have expected. In September of 1853, Mary Anne moved out of 142 Strand and found her own lodgings. This move gave her the opportunity to spend more time with Lewes, and by November they had grown extremely close. In July of 1854, her translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity was published, with her name appearing on the title page. This was the first and last time "Marian Evans" appeared on a work of hers.

In June of 1854, Mary Anne went to Rosehill for the last time. She knew that her friends Sara Hennell and Cara Bray would not approve of what she had made up her mind to do. Mary Anne had decided to live openly with George Lewes as his lover and spiritual wife. The decision was not an easy one. Mary Anne knew that this bold move would bring public censure and that if George ever left her, she would be alone and outcast. She wrote the following to John Chapman on the subject, "I do not wish to take the ground of ignoring what is unconventional in my position. I have counted the cost of the step I have taken and am prepared to bear, without irritation or bitterness, renunciation of all my friends. I am not mistaken in the person to whom I have attached myself"

In June of 1856, Mary Anne and George moved to Tenby on the coast of South Wales. When Barbara Leigh Smith visited them in July, she remarked that the couple was very happy At Tenby, Mary Anne began to think more and more about her childhood dream of writing fiction. She felt that she could competently write the descriptive passages of a novel, but feared that she lacked the talent to render dramatic and dialogue passages effectively When she shared these thoughts with George, he encouraged her to try her hand at fiction writing. In August, the Lewes's moved back to London, and on September 23rd of 1856, Mary Anne began to write "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton," which would later become a part of Scenes of Clerical Life. Despite his avowed confidence in her, George still had some doubts about Mary Anne's ability to write fiction. Those doubts were removed when he read her Amos Barton story. Her fears were unfounded -- she could write good dialogue and she could create drama to stir the emotions. Lewes sent her story to his publisher, John Blackwood, claiming it was the work of a (male) friend who wanted to remain anonymous. The story was published on New Year's Day, 1857, less than two months after Mary Anne's thirty-seventh birthday. Mary Anne then adopted George Eliot as her nom de plume. She later told John Cross that she chose the name because "George was Mr. Lewes's Christian name, and Eliot was a good mouth-filling, easily pronounced word"

She was diagnosed as having laryngitis, and the doctor saw no cause for worry. A few days later her kidney problem began to bother her again, and she was in much pain. With little warning, she passed away at ten o'clock, the night of December 22, 1880. Mary Anne was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London, next to her spiritual husband George Lewes.