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George Eliot. (1819–1880). The Mill on the Floss.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note


MARY ANN (or Marian) EVANS was born at Arbury farm in the parish of Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire, England, on November 22, 1819. Her father was agent for the Newdigate estates in Warwickshire and Derbyshire, and her mother was his second wife. Mary Ann, the youngest of five children, went to school in the neighbouring towns of Attleborough, Nuneaton, and Coventry, and early showed exceptional intellectual as well as musical ability. Though she left school at sixteen, she continued her studies, at times under visiting masters, until she became one of the most accomplished women of her time. A picture of her youth, substantially true though intentionally altered in details, is to be found in the early years of the heroine of “The Mill on the Floss.” In some respects, therefore, this book is to George Eliot what “David Copperfield” is to Dickens and “Pendennis” to Thackeray.

From the time of her mother’s death in 1835 until her father’s in 1849 she kept house, and proved herself an excellent manager. In 1841 she and her father moved to Coventry where she came in contact with society of an intellectual type new in her experience. One result of this and of the ever-widening range of her reading was the loss of the intense if somewhat narrow evangelical faith she had hitherto held; but she retained, and later exhibited in her novels, a sympathetic understanding of religious sentiments which she no longer shared. While still at Coventry she translated from the German Strauss’s “Life of Jesus,” published in 1846.

On her father’s death she paid her first visit to the Continent, settling for some time at Geneva, and returned to make her home for a period with her friends, the Brays, at Coventry. An appointment as assistant editor of the “Westminster Review” took her to London in 1851, and while still occupying this position she translated Feuerbach’s “Essence of Christianity” (1854). Her work on the review was of a high quality, and the associations it brought led to her acquaintance with the leaders of progressive thought in England, such as Carlyle, Herbert Spencer, and Harriet Martineau. Among these was a brilliant and versatile writer George Henry Lewes, whose range of knowledge and conversational powers made him a notable figure in intellectual circles in London. He had been in business and had studied medicine; had lived much in France and Germany and was abreast of continental thought; had been upon the stage and had lectured on philosophy; had produced a play, two novels, and articles without number. He is best known now for his “Biographical History of Philosophy” and his “Life of Goethe.” Lewes was married, but his wife had given him what he considered grounds for considering his marriage void, though a legal divorce was not possible. Miss Evans shared Milton’s opinions on marriage, and at the cost of temporary social isolation she formed an unconventional relation with Lewes and regarded herself henceforth as his wife. The union, as far as the mutual relation of the parties was concerned, proved extremely happy, and Lewes’s influence proved highly favorable to the discovery and development of the hitherto unsuspected talent of the novelist. It was at his suggestion that she, after a second visit to the Continent, began “Amos Barton,” which with “Janet’s Repentance” and “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story” appeared in “Black-wood’s Magazine,” the three being published in book form in 1858 as “Scenes from Clerical Life,” by “George Eliot.” The pen name, by which to-day she is universally known, was formed from her husband’s first name, and “Eliot,” chosen as “a good, mouth-filling, easily pronounced word.” These stories, which in some respects she never surpassed, attracted only a moderate amount of attention, but competent judges, like Dickens, were enthusiastic. More general popularity was won by “Adam Bede” (1859), and her success, far beyond her expectations, gave her confidence and encouragement. “The Mill on the Floss,” followed in 1860 and “Silas Marner” in 1861, completing what is regarded as her first literary period, and establishing her securely in the first rank of the novelists of the time.

The next period began with “Romola,” an elaborate picture of Florentine life in the Renaissance, the result of two visits to Italy and a vast amount of historical study. Opinion has always been divided as to the merits of this work, which, with all its richness of historical detail and its brilliancy as a picture of the time, fails to make its characters (with one exception) as convincing as the simpler English people of the earlier books. “Felix Holt, the Radical,” which deals with a political situation in England, was less successful; and for a time she turned to drama and verse-writing in “The Spanish Gypsy” and “The Legend of Jubal.”

Her next book, however, “Middlemarch” (1872), showed a return of her greatest powers, and in its superb treatment of a whole section of English provincial life placed her with Tolstoi and Balzac. “Daniel Deronda,” which followed, has high distinction, but fails to show the same complete mastery, and has never been among her most popular books.

The death of Lewes in 1878 proved an overwhelming shock, and George Eliot wrote no more. In 1880 she married Mr. J. W. Cross, a friend of some ten years’ standing, who had been a great support to her in her prostration; but though she seemed to regain strength for a time, she died on December 3 of the same year.

George Eliot’s whole life and character were permeated by moral passion. Cut off from the usual outlets for religious emotion by the rationalism to which she adhered from the early years at Coventry, she poured out her whole soul at the shrine of duty, and her novels reveal an absorbing interest in the problems of conduct. The danger that they might become mere disguised tracts was averted by her clear-sightedness as to the method of art. She knew that her business as a writer of fiction was to paint pictures of life, not construct diagrams to demonstrate moral precepts. Occasionally, as in “Daniel Deronda,” she comes dangerously near allowing the human interest to be overshadowed by the “purpose,” but in her more successful books, especially those dealing with the English provincial life amidst which she had grown up, she achieves her moral aim by the legitimate method of enlarging the reader’s sympathies through enlisting them on behalf of a large number of real creations

Among these pictures of the Midlands as she had known them in her childhood, “The Mill on the Floss,” though less well-proportioned than “Adam Bede” or “Silas Marner,” stands out by virtue of the intensity with which the main characters and situations are conceived and portrayed. Maggie Tulliver, partly, no doubt, because of the autobiographical element, is as living and appealing a heroine as is to be found in English fiction, and nothing can surpass the truth and poignancy of the treatment of her relations to Tom. It is worth noting that Isaac Evans was estranged from his sister by her marriage with Lewes, and was reconciled only a few months before she died. Far though George Eliot is from depending for her success upon literal copying of actual persons or events, it yet seems to be true of her, as of so many of her rivals, that she did her most vital work in the handling of themes and emotions that had been illuminated by her own experience.

W. A. N.