Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, is one of the premiere writers of Victorian England. Watch this video lesson to see how she combined her interests in realism and rural life into an epic output of novels.
Mary Ann Evans, AKA George Eliot
Pen names are pretty common in English literature. You’ve got Lewis Carroll. You’ve got Sapphire. Even J.K. Rowling is a bit of a pen name. If you walk away with just one thing from this lesson, please let it be that George Eliot is a pen name. I mean, that name seems boring enough that you would probably assume it’s real – who would choose George Eliot as their fake name? But that was probably the point of choosing it. In fact, George Eliot’s real name was actually Mary Ann Evans. She was a woman! Oooh, scandal.
Really, at the time that Evans was writing (which was the second half of the 19th century), female authors weren’t uncommon, but she wanted to make sure that her novels were taken seriously and not instantly dismissed into that category of light, tawdry romances that female writers were typically associated with. The words ‘chick lit’ didn’t exist then, but I think that’s what she was trying to avoid. She also wanted to draw attention away from her not-so-standard personal life. But we’ll come back to that in a little bit.
So, first thing to note: George Eliot – not her real name; George Eliot – actually a woman.
Eliot’s Early Life
So, we’re going to start by talking about the life of Mary Ann Evans before the writer George Eliot even existed. She was born in a rural English family in 1819. Because many didn’t consider her conventionally attractive, she was more or less deemed unmarriageable (which seems harsh), and therefore her father decided to invest a more-than-average amount of money into her education, which is sort of like the ultimate backhanded compliment. This extra schooling went hand-in-hand with her already considerable intelligence and voracious appetite for reading. Probably something that you might notice is a real similarity amongst the writers that we cover in these videos is that they grew up loving to read and loving stories, and Mary Ann Evans was no exception.
At the age of 16, sadly, her mother passed away, and she had to leave school and come home and act as her father’s housekeeper. After this point, her education mostly would come through self-study. While she was helping out her father, Evans was exposed to things that would later really influence her writing, including the differences that she observed between the upper and lower classes, between urban and rural communities and the many differing religious opinions that exist everywhere.
Her father died when she was 30. After his death, she spent a little time traveling and then moved to London and became the assistant editor of a left-wing journal called The Westminster Review. This provided her with an introduction to the world of professional writing, and it was in this position that she produced a lot of essays and works of criticism.
Enter Career and Controversy
This move to London also brought on some changes in her personal life that weren’t too well-accepted at the time. In essence, Evans entered a relationship with philosopher and critic named George Henry Lewes. He was already married and already had children, so that was very much frowned upon. He and his wife had agreed on an open relationship, so there wasn’t really anything unethical going on per se, but proper Victorian society was pretty taken aback with the openness with which they carried on this extra-marital relationship.
By the mid-1850s, Evans had built up some steam in her writing career, and she was ready to take that leap into fame. It was at this point that she adopted her pen name. As we mentioned, the reasons for this were really two-fold: she wanted to draw attention away from her fairly scandalous lifestyle (she didn’t want to be known as Mary Ann Evans, the woman who was carrying on a relationship with a married man), and also, she didn’t want to be thought of as ‘just another female writer.’ The inspiration for that second point is detailed in her popular essay from 1856, which has come to be seen as her statement of purpose of her writing career. It’s called ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,’ and I recommend checking it out.
Now, we’re going to talk about George Eliot the writer, using the pen name. Eliot’s first published fiction was a three-part series of serialized short stories entitled Scenes of a Clerical Life.
A year after this, in 1859, her auspicious output of novels began. Eliot crafted seven full-length books, and though we’re not going to talk about all of them here, we’re going to hit three of the big ones.
But first, as we look at some of Eliot’s most important works, let’s keep in mind some of the major themes she’s dealing with in them. Any study of her work isn’t complete without mentioning the following themes that almost all of her novels seem to tackle in some way.
The first of these is realism, or basically, an attempt to write about things as they are. As you might have guessed so far, Eliot was a pretty no-nonsense woman; she didn’t want to be considered a ‘silly novelist.’ It was important to her that her work be real. She wanted to capture what she saw as real people with real problems; fantasy didn’t hold an appeal for her.
This goes hand-in hand with her next trait, which was a real emphasis on rural life. She had a rural upbringing and really was starting to pay attention to those differences between the rural and the urban lifestyles. You really see this in her novels. Many of her novels were focused on realistic characters in small towns who lead more mundane lifestyles. It’s not kings and queens or knights and fairies, just regular people. Eliot thought it was important to focus on this because rural people were considered more common and more average and thus closer to pure human nature. In other words, in Eliot’s perspective, the rural way of life, their opinions and their struggles were just more real than the people in the cities who maybe had a different sort of lifestyle that didn’t have those same aspects.
You can see those two really complement each other nicely – her interest in realism and her interest in rural life. So, let’s talk about a few of her books.
Her first novel came in 1859, and it was called Adam Bede. As you might have guessed, the novel has a rural setting in the fictional town of Hayslope. It focused on what we would think of as a ‘love rectangle’ of four characters whose emotions are all tangled up. Unrequited love – it’s tough, right? We’ve all been there.
Describing the plot in more detail would take more time than I have, so I’m just going to talk about why the novel’s important and why people still love it today. It was incredibly popular at the time and built interest and excitement around this mysterious George Eliot. It was said that Queen Victoria liked it so much that she commissioned an artist to paint scenes out of the novel for her (it’s cool to be queen.)
Second, right out of the gate, Eliot’s mission was really clear; as a fellow Victorian mainstay Charles Dickens wrote of the novel, ‘The whole country life that the story is set in, is so real, and so droll and genuine, and yet so selected and polished by art, that I cannot praise it enough to you.’ This is really what George Eliot was going for. Really, at the time, if Charles Dickens liked your book, you probably felt pretty good about what you’re doing. It’s good praise to get.
Another immensely popular work of Eliot’s – probably, I would say number two of all-time Eliot works – is Silas Marner from 1861. This novel that not only revisits Eliot’s preoccupation with rural realism but also questions traditional religious structures in some pretty potent ways (and, I think, pretty ballsy of her considering the time period). Here, Silas Marner is a weaver in a small, urban, Calvinist congregation and is exiled to the country after being falsely accused of stealing money from his deacon.
So he’s in this new rural setting, after living in a more urban area, which really ties into Eliot’s wanting to compare the lives of the rural to the urban people. He becomes a recluse once he’s in this rural setting until he happens upon an abandoned child and decides to raise her as his own. Who doesn’t love a good orphan story? Annie, Harry Potter – everyone loves an orphan story.
Marner’s ability to create happiness for himself in this environment, free from the city life and free of the church, is really sort of an act of cultural rebellion. He’s sort of saying that he doesn’t need the things society tells him he needs to be happy. Silas Marner has remained a major force in pop culture since its publication. It’s had numerous adaptations, and he’s been portrayed by actors like Ben Kingsley, Steve Martin, and even Samuel L. Jackson. They’ve been played with various degrees of faithfulness, as you might imagine.
Finally, we’re going to touch on my personal favorite George Eliot novel, and maybe one of my favorite books of all time, and that’s Middlemarch – or its full title, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. You can see this book’s rural focus is right there in the title – a study of provincial life. It takes place in another fictionalized, pastoral town. This novel’s a lot of work; it’s huge. It’s eight books long, and depending on the version you get, can be about 1,000 pages. It follows the lives of a pretty significant cast of characters who try to make their way through life’s various troubles in the face of both the social issues of the day and more personal moral compromises that they need to make with themselves.
Middlemarch is generally considered to be one of the best books of the English language, and I fully support that; it’s full of really compelling characters, complex situations, and some ethical ambiguity, which you didn’t always see in books. For example, in Dickens there’s a real set of a moral sense of right and wrong. You know who is good, and you know who is bad, but in Eliot it’s different. There’s a real complexity there, and it’s pretty fascinating. We’ve actually got a whole lesson on Middlemarch, so I recommend you check it out and then go and read it, of course, but for now it’s just good that you know that it’s George Eliot’s work, and it’s probably her most popular. It’s kind of the apex of realism in a rural setting, and that’s a big mark of a George Eliot work.
Besides those aforementioned essays and novels, Eliot was actually also an accomplished poet – because apparently no one during that time could just be one thing. She was also a translator, but it’s really those novels that people remember her for. I think Middlemarch in particular, and additionally, Silas Marner, though I don’t like it quite as much, are really stone-cold classics of the English language that are still studied and enjoyed today.
I think one key thing to remember is that she really loved to set her work in the rural setting and that she attempted to infuse everything that she did with realism, so that she could tackle the serious subjects that were facing the people of her time and attempt to present people as they really lived – an accurate portrait of people in her time. It’s a lofty goal for sure, and maybe not everyone thinks that she succeeded, but I think she did. Finally, if there’s one thing you’re going to remember, it’s that George Eliot was a pen name and that she’s actually a woman. So, that’s the scoop on George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans.
After you finish this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall George Eliot’s real name and summarize her life
- Identify the two pervasive themes of her novels
- Describe her novels Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch
- Discuss how her two common themes are present in these three novels