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THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES
George Eliot was not her real name. She was born in 1819 as Marian (or Mary Anne) Evans, the youngest child of a prosperous estate manager in the rural English Midlands. Even as a child, it was apparent that she was very bright- and unfortunately homely. She craved affection, but her proud, strong- willed mother showed her little love. Her father was fond of her but was often too busy to pay her any attention. And so she clung dearly to her older brother Isaac, her constant childhood companion. Playing in the meadows and by the riverbanks of an unspoiled, fertile countryside, she found happiness of a kind.
When they grew up, however, Isaac became narrow-minded and conservative, and he felt little in common with his bookish sister. Marian had become simply a provincial, middle-class old maid. In a society where wifehood and motherhood were still the main roles for women, an unmarried daughter in her twenties like Marian was in many ways a second-class citizen. Her older brothers and sisters all moved away and started their own families. After Mrs. Evans died, Marian was left alone with her father. In ailing health, he retired, left the country home Marian loved, and moved to the nearby city of Coventry. There, Marian's days were spent in charitable "good works" and in keeping house. Between jam-making and needlework, visiting the poor, and nursing her crotchety father, she had little time to herself. Yet she managed somehow to read books- poetry (especially Wordsworth and Shakespeare), novels, and dense works of theology and philosophy, in several languages.
Soon, however, Marian made friends with Coventry's most progressive thinkers, who encouraged her intellectual interests. One day she calmly announced to her father that she would no longer go to church with him, since she didn't believe in God anymore. Apparently this change had been brewing in her mind for some time, but it was a surprise and an outrage to conventional Mr. Evans. Only after several weeks of family tension did Marian give in, reasoning with herself that, if she didn't believe in Christianity, it was no sin to go to church just to keep the peace.
Rejecting Christianity was still a daring thing for a single woman to do in nineteenth-century England. It would ruin her marriage prospects, as well as her chances of obtaining a teaching job (teaching was one of the few careers open to women). Luckily, however, Marian's new friends introduced her to a circle of people who shared some of her unorthodox views.
While most of the English still followed Queen Victoria in preserving the values of home, church, and empire, new ideas were beginning to sweep through England. Scientific discoveries were shattering established ideas about the natural world. (Charles Darwin's revolutionary On the Origin Of Species by Means of Natural Selection would be published in 1859.) Not only nature, but human social systems as well, were subjected to scientific analysis. Theories such as social Darwinism, rational humanism, and Marxism would eventually grow out of this. Philosophers were suggesting entirely new moral systems to go with the revolutionary scientific views. In place of an orderly universe ruled by God, justice, and the class system, these Victorians contemplated the possibility of a vast, bleak void where nothing but scientific principles applied.
This was a heady environment for Marian Evans. Her new friends, impressed by her powerful mind, gave her a sense of self-worth. Eventually she was asked to translate a book, then to write reviews for intellectual journals. After her father died she moved to London and began to edit one such journal. In the thick of the literary scene, admired by famous people, she came into her own. Interesting men paid her attention; she had a couple of awkward romances. Then she fell in love with George Henry Lewes, a prominent journalist and critic- and a married man.
Lewes fell in love with her, too, but under the laws of those days it was impossible for him to get a divorce, even though his wife was flagrantly unfaithful to him. Marian, gravely weighing all factors, decided to defy society and live with Lewes. This made Marian a figure of scandal in London. No "decent" ladies would receive her in their homes (though due to a cruel double standard Lewes was still invited). Only a few radical women and progressive men kept up friendships with Marian. Her family disowned her. In her isolation she depended on Lewes' loyal, protective love. They had decided not to have children (although she soon became a second mother to his sons). Shrewdly, Lewes realized that Marian needed something to engage her emotions as well as her immense intellect. He began to urge her to write fiction.
Self-conscious, afraid of criticism or rejection, Marian wrote her first story, "Amos Barton," in 1856. Before she would send it to a publisher, however, she and Lewes invented a pen name- George Eliot. She didn't want to publish under her real name, fearing readers would read it only because of her scandalous reputation. She deliberately chose a man's name, too. Many Victorian women wrote novels, but these were often looked down upon as slight, feminine stories. Marian hoped her books would be judged seriously if readers thought a man had written them. (Similarly, a few years earlier, the Bronte sisters had signed male pen names to their novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.)
Although George Eliot's first stories were well reviewed, her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, was a runaway success. Set in the Warwickshire countryside where Marian had grown up, it vibrated with a simple realism totally new in English literature. No one before had cast ordinary farm laborers as main characters in a novel, or had drawn such complex psychological portraits of them. What's more, the book's plot centered around a farm girl's seduction and her murder of her illegitimate child. Even without Marian Evans' name attached, this was racy stuff.
By 1860, George Eliot was a famous, beloved author. Yet Marian Evans was still a social outcast, and it began to weigh on her. Her first novels sold well, but she and Lewes weren't rich. (He still had to support his wife and her children.) If anything, success only increased the pressure Marian put on herself to write an even better book next time. Although the public loved her realistic stories of English rustic life, Marian was afraid of getting stuck in a rut, and so she planned a new novel set in Renaissance Italy. But the heavy research it required was bogging her down. Lewes needed to stay in London for his journalistic work. They lived there in a dumpy rented house, surrounded by the gray cityscape. Marian felt cooped up, stifled, cut off from her roots in the country.
Then a vision came to her out of her childhood. It was a picture of an old linen-weaver, with a sad expression on his face, bent under the heavy bag on his shoulder. Floodgates of feeling opened in her. She postponed the Italian novel and began to write Silas Marner.
Contemporary readers were delighted with Silas Marner because it returned to the rustic characters they'd enjoyed in Adam Bede. Yet Silas Marner was really a step forward. Behind this simple portrait of country life lies a rigorous examination of the moral forces that drive the universe. Marian believed that writers should not merely entertain the public, but that they had a duty to teach their readers moral truths as well. Having lost her Christian faith, she'd replaced it with a philosophy that kindness, honesty, and courage were necessary for human survival, an ethical code that runs throughout Silas Marner. She continued to explore this creed in her later novels, Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda.
Eventually, the greatness of George Eliot's work cancelled out her social disgrace. Even Queen Victoria's daughter begged to meet her. Marian and Lewes remained devoted to each other for twenty-five years, and this finally won them as much respect as if they'd been legally married. In fact, after Lewes' death in 1878, when Marian married a much younger man, John Cross, many of her fans were upset. They felt she was being disloyal to Lewes' memory.
In her own time, George Eliot was the most popular author in Britain, more admired even than Dickens, in spite of her notorious personal life. Her literary reputation dipped for several years after her death in 1880, however, as the public taste moved away from long, moralizing novels. Her focus on characters' psychological processes had paved the way for the "modern novel" (both Henry James and Marcel Proust claimed a debt to her), but the experimental fiction of the early twentieth century made her prose style seem old-fashioned. Then one of the chief experimentalists, Virginia Woolf, helped to restore Eliot's reputation. She wrote an essay praising Middlemarch as "one of the few books written for adults." Eliot has been considered one of the great writers ever since.
Among her novels, Silas Marner is most often chosen for students to read because it is the shortest and, on the surface, the simplest. But it, too, is full of adult wisdom. Though its social philosophies may no longer seem as radical as they did a century ago, this is still an eye-opening, truthful vision of the way the world works.
[Silas Marner Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]