Monday, 16 April 2012

Suffragettes, Abolitionists and Authors - Part IV

George Eliot (1819 - 1880) Ranked by Feldman as number 27 of out 100 most influential women. Author of Silas Marner, Middlemarch and others. I have seen the former on our shelves, but don't believe I've ever read it. I keep confusing George Eliot with George Sand, only because they are women who chose George as part of their pen name. Even stranger, Sand was French, but this is about Eliot and she was English. Having read briefly about her life, I shall definitely read her work with more interest as hers was a rather peculiar life

She was born in Warwickshire where her father was the estate manager of Arbury Hall, a relatively important position. Because she was considered an unattractive girl with little chance of marrying, she was given a better education than most girls at the time, at least up to the age of 16.   One cannot entirely disagree with this assessment of her appearance, but this certainly doesn't seem to have stopped her from finding love in her life.

After her education finished her father's position allowed her access to the library at Arbury Hall. It is said that her writing draws heavily on Greek literature and only one of her books can be printed without the use of Greek typeface. Her mother died when she was 16 and she took over the housekeeping for her father. She was 21 when her brother married and took over the family home, so she and her father moved to a village near Coventry, where she fell in with Charles Bray and his wife. Their home was a meeting place for people interested in discussing radical views. Whether it was their influence, or the varied exposure at schools to differing religious views, the challenges of the day to the Anglican church by religious dissenters or her independent reading, at some point Eliot began to reject Christianity. Though her father threatened to throw her out of the home for these ideas, she remained with him until his death when she was 30. She then spent a year in Switzerland, travelling there with the Brays but continuing to stay on her own.

When she returned to England she moved to London with the intention of becoming a writer under her own name and she worked as assistant editor for a left-wing journal for three years during which she met George Henry Lewes, a philosopher and critic. Within a few years Evans and Lewes decided to live together in spite of the fact that he was married. Lewes had a wife and three children, but because they had decided to have an open marriage (these Victorians!) she had four other children with another man.  As these four children's birth certificates bore Lewes' name, he could not divorce her on these grounds. Evans and Lewes lived together openly for 20 years. It is surmised that it was in order to hide her living arrangements from the wider public rather than her gender that she took a male pen name, though she was rather scathing of the majority of women's writing of the day. It was during her time with Lewes that she wrote her popular novels, noted for astute observation of rural life and for their social, political and psychological insight.

When Lewes died in 1878, she spent two years editing his final manuscript for publication. She found comfort in the company of John Walter Scott, a man 20 years her junior whom she married in May 1880. She died in December that year from a throat infection coupled with her chronic kidney disease. With such an unusual life, I suspect I'll remember Mary Ann Evans / George Eliot much better in future.


Boywilli said...

We were forced to read some of her work at school and I hated it. She was good at portraying the poverty and misery of rural life and the lack of opportunity for advancement, so she achieved much but it was long ago and far away and I dont need to know how bad life was then

Carolyn said...

Shelley; I've just come across your comment on my Photoshop post; hmmm. The PS was just a moment of artistic fun, and maybe you didn't read the part where I made it clear there that I did not normally alter my photos at all. I'm not interesting in presenting an image that doesn't look like me.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I forget there were two Georges too...I was thinking George Sand when I first started reading this so thank you for clarifying. Amazing lives these artist types lived. Very interesting. ~~Bliss

Anonymous said...

This woman sounds like she was far ahead of her time. I think I have read one of her novels many, many years ago.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating life! There's a sort of bravery in thinking and living one's own way despite the times.

Shelley said...

Boywilli - Thanks for the warning. That said, doom and gloom novels about history often make me all the more grateful for the life of ease I now enjoy, so this won't put me off.

Carolyn - As I said on your blog, I make an awkard joke about why you always look so good in your photos. I don't actually believe that you manipulate them all with Photoshop, not for one minute. Sorry my joke didn't go over very well.

Bliss - Sometimes I wonder if being 'an artist' requires one to live outside the rules...and which comes first, the rebellion or the creative urge.

Terri - I have always known her name, but can't say whether I've read any of her work or not. Since we have at least one of her books, I expect it needs to go on my reading table.

Ilegirl - They were brave, weren't they? People now would barely turn a hair, but boy they would have been shocking in their day. Make of strong stuff, they must have been.