A Brief History
On December 22, 1880, English writer George Eliot, author of such novels as Adam Bede and Silas Marner, died at the age of 61 of a throat infection and chronic kidney problems. Eliot was actually a woman, born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire, England, and was sent by her family to receive a quality education, a relatively rare thing for a girl in those days.
Despite her obvious intelligence, the reason for her referral to the academic world was because she was not expected to land a husband with her decidedly mediocre physical appearance! Her formal education ended at age 16, but her classical education continued at a high rate with her voracious reading of the great works, including Greek literature that is said to have influenced her writing. Mary Ann developed a somewhat critical view of religion during these years.
Evan’s dim view of religious faith upset her father, so she kept up a veneer of piety while associating with free thinking philosophers of the time. In 1850 she moved to London and became the assistant editor of the Westminster Review, a liberal magazine run by John Chapman. Calling herself Marian Evans now, the poor girl embarrassed herself by seeking love interests with men that were not interested in the homely woman. Below is a description of her by author Henry James:
“She had a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth and a chin and jawbone qui n’en finissent pas… Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking.”
In 1851 Evans met George Lewes, the man that would become the love of her life. Unfortunately, Lewes was married and of course the relationship was scandalous. Lewes was in a marriage of convenience that was wide open, and his wife had borne children by another man, children which Lewes agreed to claim as his own so they would not be illegitimate, further muddying the social waters.
In this environment of social deviance and criticism, Evans decided to adopt a nom de plume of George Eliot when she embarked on a career as a writer. Her success as Eliot resulted in speculation as to who exactly the author was, and eventually it was revealed to be Evans herself. She continued to write successfully as George Eliot, and in 1877 was given an audience with the daughter of Queen Victoria, a form of social acceptance into “polite” society.
George Lewes died at the age of 61 (just as Evans did) in 1878, and Marian/Mary Ann married John Cross, a man 20 years younger than herself, in 1880. She again changed her name to Mary Anne Cross, but not for long as she soon died afterwards.
Remembered by her pen name of George Eliot, the various streets, schools, hospital and other things named in her honor use this appellation instead of her birth name. She was denied burial at Westminster Abbey due to her lack of Christian faith and is instead buried at Highgate Cemtery in London, beside her lover, George Lewes, in a section reserved for religious dissenters.
The works of George Eliot have been reviewed at length and are generally considered to be some of the great works of their era. Critic Harold Bloom called her one of the “greatest western writers of all time.” Her writing has been translated into film and television as well, giving her work an even greater audience. Question for students (and subscribers): Would Mary Ann Evans have been as successful as George Eliot? Was the name change absolutely necessary? Tell us what you think, and whether such subterfuge would be helpful even today, in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. Viking Adult, 1997.
Hughes, Kathryn. George Eliot: The Last Victorian. Cooper Square Press, 2001.