A woman sits engrossed in her reading, long hair hanging loose at her shoulders, feet slung over the arm of a chair. However you imagine George Eliot, it’s probably not like this. The few existing portraits of the novelist fix her in an era far removed from our own, conveying an ethereal gravity that jives with the reverential image peddled after her death in 1880. It was thanks largely to a capacious biography by her financial advisor and, briefly, husband, John Cross that Eliot came to be posthumously lauded as what literary biographer Lyndall Gordon dubs a “wise angel”, one whose shadow would for a long time obscure the earthier, more radical aspects of her personality and experience. Yet for her fellow writer and sometime housemate, William Hale White, she remained fixed in his memory as the kind of woman who thought nothing of assuming that most un-Victorian of poses. “She was really one of the most sceptical, unusual creatures I ever knew,” he recalled, describing her sitting in this way and calling her an “insurgent” writer.
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On the bicentenary of her birth, White’s impressions serve as a reminder that while her novels are enduringly essential, certain aspects of Eliot’s life – its challenges, its scandals, its joys – convey equally timeless wisdom. In her fiction, she gave us unforgettable female characters whose travails continue to inform readers about ambition, love, and the importance of resisting convention; through her life, she teaches us about daring to grasp happiness even when it comes at a cost, about staying true to yourself and believing that it’s never too late – and about the importance of an open mind.
She was born Mary Ann Evans on 22 November 1819, the youngest child of a mill owner’s daughter and the manager of the Arbury Hall Estate in Warwickshire. Home was Griff House in the countryside close to Nuneaton, though she was sent to boarding school at just five years old. Following her mother’s death, she left education to become her father’s housekeeper at the age of 16, and at 21, moved with him to Coventry. It was his belief that she needed to marry but she was instead taken under the wing of Charles and Cara Bray, whose house, Rosehill, was a hub of radical views, and whose guests included Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through the friendship and support of the Rosehill circle, she began to feel her way into a life very different from anything she’d been schooled to imagine. Higher education for women was still decades off, but translation was one entry point into intellectual society, and she began translating works of liberal theology and writing book reviews.
In 1850, by which time she was signing herself ‘Marian’ Evans, she moved to London, lodging on the Strand in the home of publisher John Chapman. Complications ensued – there was a flirtation, possibly more, between Eliot and Chapman, who was already living in a ménage-à-trois with his wife and the governess of his children. This doomed attachment was followed by another, to polymath Herbert Spencer, whose works, including The Synthetic Philosophy, collectively sold around a million copies.
As they spent more and more time together platonically, Spencer feared that Eliot might fall in love with him – conceited, perhaps, but then that’s exactly what happened. Understanding that he would never feel the same way (she frequently sent up her own supposedly uncomely visage in youthful letters), she nevertheless proposed to him, hoping that their intellectual companionship might be enough. The pluck that this took is matched only by her subsequent determination, once spurned, to maintain the friendship.
That period of Eliot’s life, when she was a social outcast, became her most productive
Eventually, she fell for another writer, George Henry Lewes. Urbane and famously ugly, he was trapped in a marriage to a wife who’d long been the lover of another man and had even borne children by him. Yet it was Eliot who truly scandalised society when she decided to openly cohabit with the still-married Lewes. So lurid was the moral stain that Eliot couldn’t risk seeing female friends without tarring their reputations by association. Her bravery should not be underestimated: without the legal protection of marriage, the danger of being abandoned was great.
It was by all accounts a harmonious, productive union of minds and temperaments. Judging from comments made to the artist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Eliot was quite satisfied with the physical side of her relationship, too. (As Lena Dunham jubilantly tweeted of the author’s Wikipedia entry in 2013: “she was ugly AND horny!”)
That period of Eliot’s life, when she was a social outcast, became her most productive. It’s delved into deeply in Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s newly published debut novel, In Love with George Eliot. The title is instructive. Eliot aficionados may not engage in the same fancy-dress shenanigans as Janeites, but her work nevertheless has an intense impact on its fans.
As New Yorker journalist Rebecca Mead wrote in her own lucid biblio-memoir, The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot, “There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more.” Ever since Mead read it as a teenager, Middlemarch has been just such a book, and it’s the same for O’Shaughnessy, who explains: “To this day I recall breaking up with a boyfriend, and feeling terrible and very alone, and the way Eliot’s voice in that book kept me company. She was, I felt, understanding and sympathetic – as no one in life had yet been.”
It was through her writing that Eliot would slowly reclaim her reputation. In 1857, she published her first fiction in Blackwood’s Magazine, using the now-famous male nom de plume by which she’s remembered, and which would stick even after her cover was blown.
Then, in the year she turned 40, she published Adam Bede, her first novel and a bestseller – even Queen Victoria was a fan. It was followed immediately by The Mill on the Floss, whose restless, defiant protagonist Maggie Tulliver became a cult figure for women in the 1860s, Emily Dickinson and Henry James’s niece among them.
For O’Shaughnessy, Eliot’s life and work embody two contradictory traits: her ability to think and act for herself to an unusual degree, and her sensitivity to the world’s opinion. That last characteristic ties in with the explanation Gordon conjures up for Eliot’s decision to style herself “Mrs Lewes”. She may have rebelled against society, but she still had a very human need for acceptance. An awareness of that quality in herself in turn fed a dislike of righteous judgement, which is what O’Shaughnessy found most relatable about Eliot when she began researching her own novel. “To me, the roots of her stories have to do with the fundamental need of each human being to try to understand with and sympathise with other human beings; to avoid the easy habit of condemnation from a height – as in, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ – is part of her giftedness,” she says. It’s notable that Eliot seemed unfazed by the set-up chez Chapman, and that as a reader of Charlotte Brontë, she took a dim view of Jane Eyre’s refusal to live with Mr Rochester while his insane wife was still alive.
Yes, she became a genius, but her life was a willed act of becoming, lived in response to a question that had barely begun to be asked: what can a woman be?
It’s perhaps not surprising that having shocked society by not marrying Lewes, in 1880 she went on to cause a second scandal (and baffle future scholars), this time by marrying. She was by then 60, and Lewes had been dead little more than 18 months. Her husband, John Walter Cross, was her friend and financial advisor. He was also 20 years her junior. This fact, coupled with a peculiar incident on their Venetian honeymoon, when Cross leapt from a window into the Grand Canal, has given rise to all manner of pruriently Freudian theories. In the end, their marriage was cut starkly short by Eliot’s death in December of that year.
Eliot’s novels will always be her single greatest achievement, and they stand independent of the passion and pain that nourished them and marked her days. All the same, it’s impossible to overstate the tenacity and sheer nerve required to transform herself from her father’s provincial ‘little wench’ to a leading urban intellectual – and this at a time when feminine ambition was so circumscribed by gender, never mind the headaches, insecurity and depression that dogged her. Yes, she became a genius, but her life was a willed act of becoming, lived in response to a question that had barely begun to be asked: what can a woman be? There was joy to her grit, too. She once assured White that it was worth learning French if only to read one book, Rousseau’s Confessions. As O’Shaughnessy says, one of the most important lessons to take from Eliot’s life is this: “To keep up one’s interest in the world and in people through knowledge, reading and study, and understanding, friendship and love”.
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