Mary Ann Evans was born in Warwickshire, the daughter of an estate agent or manager. Her education was a conventional one, dominated by Christian teachings and touched by the enthusiasm generated by the Evangelical movement of church reform. In her 20s she came into contact with a circle of freethinkers and underwent a radical transformation of her beliefs. Influenced by the so-called Higher Criticism—a largely German school of biblical scholarship that attempted to treat sacred writings as human and historical documents—she devoted herself to translating its findings for the English public. She published her translation of David Strauss’s Life of Jesus in 1846 and her translation of Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity in 1854.
In 1851 Evans became an editor of the Westminster Review, a rationalist and reformist journal. In that capacity she came into contact with the leading intellectuals of the day, among them a group known as the positivists. They were followers of the doctrines of the French philosopher Auguste Comte, who were interested in applying scientific knowledge to the problems of society. One of these men was George Henry Lewes, a brilliant philosopher, psychologist, and literary critic, with whom she formed a lasting relationship. As he was separated from his wife but unable to obtain a divorce, their relationship challenged Victorian ideas of respectability. Nevertheless, the obvious devotion and permanence of their union came to be respected.
In the same period Evans turned her powerful mind from scholarly and critical writing to creative work. In 1857 she published a short story, “Amos Barton,” and took the pen name “George Eliot” in order to obviate the special aura then attached to lady novelists. After collecting her short stories in Scenes of Clerical Life (2 vols., 1858), Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede (1859). The plot was drawn from a reminiscence of Eliot’s aunt, a Methodist preacher, whom she idealized as a character in the novel. The story concerns the seduction of a stupid peasant girl by a selfish young squire, and it follows the stages of the girl’s pregnancy, mental disorder, conviction for child murder, and transportation to the colonies. A greater interest develops, however, in the growing love of the lady preacher and a village artisan, Adam Bede. The religious inspiration and moral elevation of their life stand in contrast to the mental limitations and selfishness that govern the personal relations of the other couple.
Eliot’s next novel, The Mill on the Floss (1860), shows even stronger traces of her childhood and youth in small-town and rural England. It follows the development of a bright and attractive heroine, Maggie Tulliver, among the narrow-minded provincials who surround her. Through the adversities that follow her father’s bankruptcy, Maggie acquires a faith in Christian humility, fostered by her reading of Thomas à Kempis. But events become more complex than her ascetic way of life can respond to, and the final pages of the novel show the heroine reaching toward a “religion of humanity,” which it was Eliot’s aim to instill in her readers.
In 1861 Eliot published a short novel, Silas Marner, which through use as a school textbook is unfortunately her best-known work. It concerns the redemption from misanthropy of the lonely, long-suffering Silas Marner by a child who comes accidentally to his door and whom he adopts. The fairy-tale qualities of the plot are relieved by the realism with which Eliot invested the rural setting and by the psychological penetration with which she portrayed her somewhat grotesque characters.
In 1860 and 1861 Eliot lived abroad in Florence and studied Renaissance history and culture. She wrote a historical novel, Romola (published 1862-1863), set in Renaissance Florence. This work has never won a place among the author’s major achievements, yet it stands as a major example of historical fiction. The story follows the broad outlines of The Mill on the Floss—a young woman’s spiritual development amid the limitations of the world around her—but the surroundings of Florentine history are considerably more complex than those of provincial English life. Romola experiences Renaissance humanism, Machiavellian politics, and Savonarola’s religious revival movement. She moves beyond them all to a “religion of humanity” expressed in social service.
Despite some lapses into doctrinaire writing, Eliot always aimed at creating conviction in her readers by her honesty in describing human beings, refraining from the tendency to make them illustrations of her ideas. In her next novel, Felix Holt (1866), she came as close as she ever did to setting up her fiction in order to convey her doctrines. In this work, however, it is not her ethical but her political thought that is most in evidence, as she addressed herself to the social questions that were then disturbing England. The hero of the novel is a young reformer who carries Eliot’s message to the working class.
This message is that their advancement beyond widespread misery could be made by the inner development of their intellectual and moral capacities and not alone through political reforms or union activities. In contrast to Holt, the conventional progressive politician is shown to be tainted by political corruption and insincere in his identification with the working class. The heroine validates this political lesson by choosing the genuine, but poor, reformer rather than the opportunist of her own class.
Eliot did not publish any novel for some years after Felix Holt, and it might have appeared that her creative vein was exhausted. After traveling in Spain in 1867, she produced a dramatic poem, The Spanish Gipsy, in the following year, but neither this poem nor the other poems of the period are on a par with her prose. Then in 1871-1872 Eliot published her masterpiece, Middlemarch, a comprehensive vision of human life, with the breadth and profundity of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The main strand of its complex plot is the familiar Eliot tale of a girl’s awakening to the complexities of life and her formulation of a humanistic substitute for religion as a guide for her conduct. But the heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is here surrounded by other “seekers in life’s ways,” a man of science and a political reformer, whose struggles and discoveries command almost equal attention. Moreover, the social setting in which the heroes’ challenges are presented is not merely sketched in or worked up from historical notes but rendered with a comprehensiveness and subtlety that makes Middlemarch a major social document as well as a work of art. The title — drawn from the name of the fictional town in which most of the action occurs—and the subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life, suggest that the art of fiction here develops a grasp of the life of human communities, as well as that of individuals.
Eliot’s last novel was Daniel Deronda (1874-1876). It is perhaps her least-read work, although recent critical attention has revealed its high merits in at least one half of its plot, while raising still unanswered questions about its less successful half. The novel contrasts and interweaves two stories. One is a marriage for personal advantages by a young woman of keen intelligence who discovers that she has given herself to a scoundrel. The other story is the discovery by a young British gentleman that he is of Jewish origin and his subsequent dedication to the Jewish community by espousal of the Zionist resettlement of Palestine. The ethical relationship of these widely divergent situations and characters is one of the chief interests of the author, but although her intention is clear, her literary success is less so.
In 1880, after the death of Lewes, Eliot married a friend of long standing, John Walter Cross. She died in the same year, having reached an influence on many of her contemporaries amounting almost to the position of a prophetic teacher.