November 04, 2015

Women of Doubt: George Eliot's indelible impact even touches Twitter

On September 15, 2013, George Eliot, the Victorian novelist, thundered across our popular culture consciousness through this tweet, by Lena Dunham. One can see why Dunham, given her career trajectory, noted this attribute of the novelist: Dunham's character on Girls is often described (rightly or wrongly) in a very similar way.

But, as so often when we are reduced to our sexuality and attractiveness, there's much more to George Eliot, than meets the eye. Rebecca Mead made this point for the New Yorker when she wrote about Lena's tweet:

There’s a lot more to George Eliot than her less than conventionally beautiful appearance and her possession of a sexual drive—as there is to every other woman whose looks and sexual drive have been the subject of popular commentary, among them Dunham and her “Girls” alter ego, Hannah Horvath. 5

I agree whole-heartedly. Eliot's intellect shines even across a darkened room of history.

Early Life

George Eliot was the pen name of one Mary Ann Evans, who was born on a farmstead owned by her father's employer on 22 November, 1819, in rural Warwickshire, England. 2

From 1828 to 1832, Evans attend boarding school at Mrs. Wallington's School. She experienced an intense religious upbringing, and at this school, she "came under the influence of Maria Lewis, the principal governess, who inculcated a strong evangelical piety in the young girl." This piety would be fanned at a school in Coventry that she attended from 1832 to 1835, which was run by the Baptist minster's own daughters. 3

At this school, she exercised an extreme degree of religious rigidity: "She dressed severely and engaged in good works," but the school also gave her a knowledge of Italian and French that was fit for reading. 3

In 1835, Evans's mother died, and she dutifully returned home to run her father's household. While Evans would never return to formal schooling, her father did opt to allow her lessons in Latin and German.3

In 1841, she moved with her father to Coventry, where she lived with him until his death in 1849.2

Break with Religion

It was in Coventry that Evans began to break from her religious upbringing. As Jennifer Michael Hecht puts it in Doubt: A History, Evans "got hold of a free-thinking book on the origins of Christianity and looked up the references." 4

She had met one Charles Bray, a ribbon manufacturer and self-taught freethinker, whose brother-in-law Charles Hennell had published An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of Christianity in 1838. This book was what changed Evans's views of religion forever. 3

Evans still did her due diligence, seeking to find a common ground between reason and faith. This, however, failed:

Various books on the relation between the Bible and science had instilled in her keen mind the very doubts they were written to dispel. 3

Evans never went back:

By the early 1840s she had openly renounced Christianity and set to work on writing the first English translation of Strauss's Life of Jesus. 4

This did not lead to a particularly calm family life:

In 1842 she told her father that she could no longer go to church. The ensuing storm raged for several months before they reached a compromise, leaving her free to think what she pleased so long as she appeared respectably at church, and she lived with him until his death in 1849. 3

Hecht points out that the young Evans was encouraged in her questioning by people who shared the same doubts, and introduced her to other doubts--including Emerson 4--and indeed, her newfound friends in Coventry did play a large role in shaping Evans:

The Brays and Hennells quickly drew her from her extreme provincialism, introducing her to many ideas in violent disagreement with her Tory father's religious and political views. When Charles Hennell married in 1843, she took over from his wife the translating of D.F.Strauss's Das Leben Jesus kritisch bearbeitet, which was published anonymously as The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 3 vol. (1846), and had a profound influence on English Rationalism. 3

Her father's death in 1849 freed Evans to write under her own name for the first time:

In 1854 her translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity sent another shock through the English-speaking world and was the only book she ever published in her own name. 4

I first encountered Eliot's writing in The Portable Atheist, where I read her essay "Evangelical Teaching", and I found this observation particularly poignant:

So long as a belief in propositions is regarded as indispensable to salvation, the pursuit of truth as such is not possible, any more than it is possible for a man who is swimming for his life to make meteorological observations on the storm which threatens to overwhelm him. 1

That essay is a brilliant argument against religion, citing the anecdotes of a wrathful deity as evidence against the idea that religion is a thing of love:

If I believe that God tells me to love my enemies, but at the same time hates His own enemies and requires me to have one will with Him, which has the larger scope, love or hatred? 1

There are many more such observations in the essay itself, and I highly recommend it not just to nonbelievers, but to anyone that wants to see an excellently crafted argumentative essay.

Breaking into the Literary World

After her father's death, Evans wintered in Geneva for the winter of 1849-1850, before returning to spend the rest of 1850 with the Brays. As she struggled to figure out how to survive on a small stipend from her father's estate, she eventually "decided to settle in London as a freelance writer, and in January 1851 she went to board with the Chapmans at 142, Strand." 3

Here, Evans encountered some of the drama that has somewhat overshadowed her reputation in the popular eye. It was, as they say, "soapy":

Soon after her arrival in London, Mrs. Chapman and the children's governess, who was also John Chapman's mistress, became jealous of Marian, as she now signed her name, and after 10 weeks, she returned to Coventry in tears. Doubtless her feelings were strongly attracted to the magnetic Chapman, whose diary supplies this information, but there is no evidence that she was ever his mistress. 3

A few months later, Chapman purchased The Westminster Review and Chapman returned as a subeditor 3, a fact that Rebecca Meade succinctly described in her piece:

Both Chapman’s wife and his live-in mistress, the Chapman children’s governess, were so vexed by the attentions that he was paying to his interesting lodger that Eliot was obliged to move out, at least until Chapman’s need for her editing skills overruled the preferences of his womenfolk. 5

The Westminster was a "leading journal for philosophical radicals" 2, and for three years, Evans edited for The Westminster Review, and "under her influence [it] enjoyed its most brilliant run since the days of John Stuart Mill." 3

While some may find it convenient that Chapman owned the journal of which she became an editor, the truth is that it was her Essence of Christianity that made the difference. 4

Among the many men whom Evans was connected with over the years, a subeditor at The Economist who lived across the Strand, Herbert Spencer, would have a significant impact on her career when he connected her with George Henry Lewes, her ostensible husband for much of her life. Lewes would both encourage her writing as her partner, and also cause a significant schism that left her looking longingly at a home she could never return to as she had before, a fact that would lead to some of her best works. 3

Love and Literature

George Henry Lewes would be Evans's partner from their meeting in 1851 until his death death, for well over two decades. Meade makes this point:

Eliot was profoundly adroit at charting the intricacies of desire and revulsion in her novels, and in her life she knew what it was to live in fulfilled, enduring intimacy with a passionate and loving partner. 5
This partner was Lewes, who pushed her to write.

Lewes was a "most versatile of Victorian journalists", who had married and had four sons with one Agnes Jervis. 3

Usually, I try not to harp on the partners of the women that we cover in this column, but Evans's relationship with Lewes--and his with his wife--are simply to important to her literary career to ignore. You see, Jervis and Lewes never divorced. After bearing his sons, Jervis had a son with Thornton Hunt, which Lewes legitimized under his own name, despite knowing the baby's biological origins. He stayed friendly with his wife and her lover, until she bore a second son to Hunt in 1851. 3

At this time, Lewes sought a divorce, only to find that because he had allowed the adultery, he could not obtain one. He also met Mary Ann Evans--now calling herself Marian--at this time, and the two fell in love. 3

Evans did not take this lightly:

Convinced that his break with Agnes was irrevocable, Evans determined to live openly with Lewes as his wife. In July 1854, after the publication of her translation of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity, they went to Germany together. In all but the legal form it was a marriage, and it continued happily until Lewes's death in 1878. 3

Despite malicious gossip to the contrary, the "few friends who knew the facts agreed that towards Agnes [Lewes's] conduct was more than generous." However, the gossip was more than enough to cause a stir in Evans's circles, and "Evans's deepest regret was that her act isolated her from her family in Warwickshire." 3

In 1857, this regret manifest as a series of stories about her home, which were published in Blackwood's Magazine. The first was "The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton", followed by "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story", and then by "Janet's Repentance." Blackwood's Magazine republished the three as "Scenes of Clerical Life" in 1858. 3

In 1859, she published her first long novel, Adam Bede.

This is where her pen name first appeared:

She used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels. 2

Her novels were "celebrated for their realism and psychological insights" 2,  and Adam Bede introduced to English fiction a new "combination of deep human sympathy and rigorous moral judgement." 3 Hecht says:

Her novels center on the inner life and the mistakes of perception and expectation. 4

Lewes continued to encourage her to write, and eventually, "the popularity of Eliot's novels brought social acceptances, and Lewes and Eliot's home became a meeting place for writers and intellectuals." 2

Eliot would write 7 novels, with Middlemarch appearing in 1871, next to last:

Middlemarch (8 parts, 1871–72) is by general consent George Eliot’s masterpiece. Under her hand the novel had developed from a mere entertainment into a highly intellectual form of art. Every class of Middlemarch society is depicted from the landed gentry and clergy to the manufacturers and professional men, the shopkeepers, publicans, farmers, and labourers. Several strands of plot are interwoven to reinforce each other by contrast and parallel. Yet the story depends not on close-knit intrigue but on showing the incalculably diffusive effect of the unhistoric acts of those who “lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” 3

In 1878, Lewes died. In 1880, Evans married John Cross, a banker who had handled their money since being introduced to Evans by Herbert Spencer. 3 They married in May, and on December 22, 1980, Evans died . She is buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London. 2

In Conclusion

It's often the drama of Evans's life that draws us in. It's the unrequited love. It's the deep connections with men that cause some consternation for the women in their lives.

But the truth is so much more profound than that. Evans tattooed the face of literature in the English-speaking world, and sent waves through communities of faith and nonbelief alike with her literary criticisms of religion and beautifully crafted arguments for atheism.

Indeed, Meade makes one more salient point that I'd really like to end on:

Eliot was possessed of a radiant, luminous intelligence that outshone her perceived deficits—that rendered irrelevant the small-minded criticisms of her character and visage to which she was subject for much of her life. 5

When you read her words--even more than a hundred years after her demise--it's easy to see that this is the truth. That intelligence still shines through, and it is easy to imagine the woman passionately penning the words to the page.

And it's easy to see why a mere 140 characters will always fail to do her justice, although I'm sure she'd be glad for the free publicity. You simply can't capture something of that magnitude in a tweet--it will fail every time.

Read it for yourself.


1 Eliot, George. "Evangelical Teaching." The Portable Atheist. Ed. Christopher Hitchens. De Capo Press, 2007. 75-92. Print.

2 "George Eliot (1819-1880)". <> Accessed November 4, 2015.

3 Haight, Gordon S. "George Eliot: British Author". Britannica. <> Accessed November 4, 2015.

4 Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Doubt: A History. New York: Harper Collins, 2003. 425.

5 Mead, Rebecca. "George Eliot's Ugly Beauty". The New Yorker. <> Published September 19, 2013. Accessed November 4, 2015

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