George Eliot is the pen name of the critically acclaimed English Victorian writer, Mary Ann Evans. Her literary contributions include The Mill and The Floss, Adam Bede, Silas Marner and Middlemarch. She is considered by many to be one of the finest authors of the Victorian era, in many cases as good or better than Charlotte Bronte. Her work clearly stands shoulder to shoulder with the work of Dickens, and she was excellent at addressing the social strata of rural communities.
Many women writers in the Victorian Era had ceased to use male pen names, as writing became a more respectable trade for women. George Eliot probably used a pen name because her personal life would have been considered less than respectable. She would have been considered in her time as a “kept woman,” as she lived with a married man named George Lewes.
Lewes’ wife refused to divorce him, thus he and George Eliot privately pursued their relationship. To keep this undercover was vastly important; otherwise she would probably not have been read. Some few knew about her relationship, but she was not completely successful in keeping her private life from being discussed. Louisa May Alcott refers to her lifestyle in Little Women, mentioning how Eliot is lost to the true light.
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It is clear from the semi-autobiographical Middlemarch, which many consider her finest work, that the decision to pursue an unconventional romantic relationship with Lewes was not an unreasoned or quick decision for George Eliot. In fact, in this novel, the character of Dorothea is cautiously drawn, evidencing the difficulties of an imprudent marriage from which one cannot escape.
Dorothea is often taken as a model of the young George Eliot. She is quite chaste, and prizes acquirement in education above all other things. Eliot sought knowledge as a young girl, learning languages usually reserved for the education of men, such as German and Greek. Though educated on fairly conservative Christian principles, Eliot soon became exposed to more liberal Christian theology. She certainly used such knowledge to defend her longstanding relationship with Lewes.
Lewes died in 1880, and George Eliot married a friend, John Cross, a man 20 years her junior. She did not survive a year beyond this marriage, dying just after her 61st birthday. In total she wrote 11 novels. Her last work was Daniel Deronda, published in 1876.
Though George Eliot was read during her time, she did not enjoy the popularity of writers like Dickens. She is acknowledged for her precise character studies, and her exploration of the life and limitations of rural communities. Later writers like D.H. Lawrence and Henry James viewed her as the one of the inspirations for Edwardian and modern writers.
Among feminist critics, George Eliot is considered a particularly important novelist because her portrayal of women is keenly accurate. In The Mill on The Floss, the powerlessness and futility of women’s lives is tragically recorded. Though Eliot was able to escape traditional Victorian male control, she clearly saw how most women lived, and the power they lacked. However, her character sketches never seem to lecture as Bronte’s did. Instead she allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions regarding the nature and lives of the characters she portrays.