Friday 22 November 2019

George Eliot Born On This Day in 1819

Portrait of George Eliot by Frederic William Burton
Sir Frederick Burton
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Ann Evans, the author who would go on to be known by the pen name, George Eliot, was born 200 years ago today, in 1819. Best remembered as a novelist (most notably, for Middlemarch and Silas Marner), she was also produced a substantial body of work through her poetry, journalism and translation.

She was largely self-educated, being a voracious reader in her youth, helped by her having access to the library on the estate (Arbury Hall) where her father worked.
"Because she was not considered physically beautiful, Evans was not thought to have much chance of marriage, and this, coupled with her intelligence, led her father to invest in an education not often afforded women."Wikipedia

Her decision to adopt a male-sounding nom de plume is said to have been down to a combination of personal and professional reasons – e.g. to avoid the gender stereotyping of female authors that she perceived to prevalent at the time but also, to avoid scrutiny of her private life. Though the pair never married, between 1854 and his death in 1878, she was in a relationship with George Henry Lewes, the philosopher and critic. Lewes was already married and their relationship (combined with the fact that they declined to conceal it) was a cause of scandal in the prevailing Victorian climate. However, while public censure may have hindered the couple's access to polite society, it did not dent Eliot's popularity as a novelist, even after she felt obliged to publicly acknowledge her authorship and the true identity of 'George Eliot', against the claims of pretenders.

In public, Eliot was seen as a feminist campaigner. She voiced support for the Union in the American Civil War (said to be "a rare stance in England at the time" – Wikipedia) and also for Home Rule in Ireland.

Her novels are notable for their depictions of the changing face of rural England against the backdrop of rapid, ongoing industrialisation, often from the vantage point of of social outsiders or those suffering under the weight of small-town persecution.

In 2015, her novel, Middlemarch, was voted best British novel by a landslide, in a poll of book critics from around the world, outside of the UK.

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