Coastline at Ilfracombe
The Victorian age was one of great change. It is perhaps the era of human history where change has been at its most dramatic. A frightening pace of change perhaps inevitably resulted in a nostalgic, romantic, mystical reaction. Villages were idealised. Childhood, in a very real sense was invented, and children's literature came along to feed the sense of a young world of imagination and magic. Nature was considered as something beautiful rather than a source of fear. Mesmerism became a craze. Such contradictions are important in some of the greatest writing of the period. George Eliot embraced change in her own life, and was in fact living a life ahead of her time. And yet in her novels change is only found through reassuringly steady progress.
Mary Anne Evans was born 22nd November 1819 in a Warwickshire farmhouse on the Arbury Estate, about four miles from Nuneaton. Warwickshire was an appropriate birth place for the writer Mary would eventually turn out to be, since it was a combination of the old rural and the new industrial worlds. A stagecoach journey through this varied landscape takes place at the beginning of Felix Holt the Radical: "In these Midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another." The Midlands are still like that today.
Mary was the fifth child of Robert Evans, a land agent, and his second wife Christiana Pearson. Robert had started his career as a carpenter, until local land owner Francis Parker Newdigate of Arbury Hall spotted his potential, and hired him to run the 7000 acre Arbury Estates. This career was going well when Mary was born, and according to his diary he was too busy to take much notice of her birth. Within six months the up and coming family moved to Griff House, a Georgian farmhouse on the Coventry to Nuneaton Road - this building survives and is now a restaurant and travel inn, on the B4113, just south of Nuneaton.
Nuneaton: this image is copyright free
Mary was sent away to school when she was five years old. She thought this was a punishment for being naughty, and as a result she tried to be "good". Being good in young Mary's mind seemed to involve reading lots of books, so that's what she did. In 1828 she moved on to Mrs Wollington's school in Nuneaton. Mrs Wollington taught boarders alongside her own daughters. This might sound like an amateur sort of arrangement, but Mrs Wollington's was probably the most respected school in Nuneaton. Here it was decided that Mary wasn't very attractive, and it was probably best to prepare this quiet, bookish girl for life as a governess - perhaps the only career available to an unmarried woman in the nineteenth century. Since the evangelical religion of the school held vanity to be a sin, the hard working Mary decided to be the least vain girl in the school. She worked at making the least of her looks, which seemed to confirm everyone's opinion, including her own, that her future had to be as a governess.
In February 1836 Mary's mother died of breast cancer. Mary had left school to nurse her, and following her mother's death, she became the family's housekeeper. Alongside her daily chores Mary continued a ferocious programme of self-education. At this earnest time in her life, literature was considered frivolous entertainment. Time was dedicated to religious books, history and a few biographies of famous men. Mary was supremely ambitious, but was in the unfortunate situation of considering ambition in women as a sin. So this driven young woman had to strive not to strive. She seems to have strained every nerve in this effort, which of course was doomed to failure. By 1839 Mary was reading about geology, and starting to become acquainted with scientific discoveries which were challenging the old Christian world view. Since Mary had invested so much in a dutiful acceptance of a religious view of life, this must have added greatly to a sense of conflict. She felt drawn to writing, but still believed the people who were telling her that novels were a sinful waste of time. Emotional conflict eventually became so intense that Mary had a breakdown during a party in March 1840. At this party the stern religious side of Mary went head to head with an emerging side of her personality which wanted to join in with the singing and dancing. It appears some kind of hysterical fit was the result.
From 1840 onwards, when she was twenty one, Mary's reading widened to include the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, and the natural sciences. She read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology which finally showed that the literal Biblical history of Earth was not true. 1840 was also the year Mary moved with her father to a house called Bird Grove in Foleshill near Coventry, when Griff House was given to her newly married brother Isaac. In Coventry it was hoped that inspite of her looks Mary might now find a husband. She had finally begun to accept that being attracted to a man was permitted. The governess plan was now beginning to look a little shaky, since Mary was not the quiet, capable, unthreatening kind of woman who became a governess. By January 1842 Mary was refusing to go to church, since her reading seemed to tell her that orthodox religious belief was nonsense. Her father was furious. Apart from anything else, if she didn't go to church she would never meet a husband, or get a job as a governess. Family members and friends were sent in to try and reason with the awkward girl, but they got nowhere. It was only her father's obvious distress that eventually drove Mary back to church. A good place to reflect on this struggle in Mary's life, and in the nineteenth century in general, is Chilvers Coton Church in Warwickshire, which was attended by the Evans family throughout Mary's childhood. Mary was baptised here, and two brothers and both parents are buried in the churchyard.
Following the "Holy War" as it had become known, Mary took refuge at nearby Rosehill, home of her friends Cara and Charles Bray, moving there in 1841 and staying until 1849. This was a radical household, and just the place for the new Mary. People who dropped in included socialist Robert Owen, American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and mental health reformer Dr John Conolly. The Brays had come to the conclusion that monogamy was contrary to human nature and had both taken lovers, although Charles threw himself into this arrangement with more enthusiasm than Cara. Inspite of the radical ideas of the house, the Bray's knew they could not live outside society, and were discreet enough to avoid scandal.
142 The Strand
Meanwhile Mary set to work translating a German book called The Life of Jesus by David Friedrich Strauss. This laborious project introduced her to London publisher John Chapman, and was the initial impetus behind her move to London in 1849, and the start of a journalistic career. This period did not begin immediately, but was preceded by an aimless interval, living in Geneva, and back in Warwickshire. The second move to London in November 1850 was more definite. Lodging was provided at John Chapman's famous lodging house, 142 The Strand. With the publishing business running from the basement, 142 The Strand was an unofficial headquarters of the progressive thinkers of mid nineteenth century London. Mary celebrated this change in her life by changing her name to Marion.
Marion had served her apprenticeship in unorthodox living at Rosehill, and now got on with some unconventional living of her own. She entered into a fraught love entanglement involving herself, Chapman's wife Suzanne, and his mistress Elizabeth. The attachment it seemed meant more to Marion than the harassed Chapman. When Marion wasn't involved in dealing with the complexities of her romantic situation she ran The Westminster Review, a magazine Chapman had recently purchased. This job continued until 1854 by which time the magazine was in financial difficulties. By June 1854 Marion was fed up with the Review and with constant nonpayment by the chaotic Chapman. Chapman's family finally moved out of 142 The Strand, and its famous community broke up.
Marion then raised the stakes in her game with convention by deciding to live with George Henry Lewes who she had met a few years previously. Lewes was a married man and a well known womaniser. He had calmed down by the time Marion met him, but even so the decision to become a companion of a married man was not for the fainthearted. As it turned out Lewes was by now exhausted by his restlessness and wanted to settle down. It is not clear whether he was strictly faithful to Marion, but he remained living happily with her for the rest of his life. In 1854, however, all this lay in the future. Marion departed on her journey with Lewes from St Katherine's Dock London on 20th of July bound for Germany. She sailed away into a huge scandal which is difficult for us to comprehend now. Fortunately they were at a distance from the fuss, living in Germany, meeting Liszt, and working on a book about Goethe. This was primarily Lewes's project. Marion's confidence as a writer fell during this time. She was too busy being happy.
This changed when the couple returned to England after eight months away. General disapproval of Marion's behaviour combined with her fear of rejection led to painful isolation. She reacted by pouring energy into her writing. Lewes kept himself occupied by researching new developments in natural history, and keeping anemones in the house for close observation. Marion was deeply affected by the anemones. During a visit to Ilfracombe in Devon she wrote: "When one sees a house stuck on the side of a great hill, and still more a number of houses, looking like a few barnacles clustered on the side of a great rock, we begin to think of the strong family likeness between ourselves and all other building, burrowing, house-appropriating and shell secreting animals" (Recollections of Ilfracombe 1856). It was during this holiday that the decision to be a novelist was made, and work started on The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Benton. This story of a shabby clergyman was published by John Blackwood, under the name of George Eliot. This name was not chosen because women could not get published. They could and did. The name was actually required to disguise the identity of notorious Marion Evans, and also because Marion felt there was an important male element to her. A third function of the name was to allow some distance when inevitable criticism came. Marion was extremely sensitive to criticism, and if poor reviews had been directed at Marion herself it is doubtful she could have carried on writing. As it was she had George Eliot to stand in the way.
Into 1858 Adam Bede was being written. Whilst working on this book Marion went on holiday to Germany. On one occasion she found herself highly irritated at having to sit with a group of wives chatting about "stupidities" when Lewes was having interesting conversations with anatomist Karl Von Siebold, and chemist Justus Von Liebig. And yet at that very moment she was working on chapter 17 of Adam Bede which encouraged readers to celebrate the world as it is, with its custom and limits, and women in their role of domesticity. Marion was a lot like Margaret Thatcher in that a traditional woman's role was not for her, but she liked seeing it in other women.
Adam Bede turned out to be very successful, and Marion's career as a novelist was established. Her next novel The Mill on the Floss took shape on holiday in Dorset in 1860. The Trent and its tributary, the Idle became the Floss and the Ripple. Once again George Eliot wrote a book denying revolution, even as she lived through her own revolutionary life. She took Darwin's revolutionary ideas, and allowed them to describe a steady world of gradual change. Another irony is that the river Trent in Dorset, the model for the Floss actually passes through Tolpuddle. This was the Dorset village where in 1834 six agricultural workers became the first group to organise themselves into a union in pursuit of better pay and conditions.
This novel was then followed by a period when writing did not come so easily. In November 1863 the Lewes' moved to the Priory on Regents Park. It was here, beside John Nash's idealised countryside for nineteenth century urban people that Marion was to produce her best work. Following Felix Holt the Radical and The Spanish Gypsy, Marion started writing Middlemarch, her greatest book, in early 1869. This book, more than any of her others, finds a resolution to the conflicts that followed this remarkable woman through life. Her ambitious intelligent heroine Dorothea Burke first tries to define herself as the wife and assistant of the boring intellectual Casaubon. When he works himself to death she is left as an independent woman with a considerable fortune. But rather than going off and being a great novelist, or something equally heroic, she seemingly takes the opposite course. Dorothea defies the wishes and expectations of her family, and imposes her own will, by marrying Will Ladislaw. In doing this she gives up her inheritance, which her jealous former husband made dependent on her not marrying her admirer. So Dorothea, an intelligent, ambitious and energetic woman accepts the normal pattern of life. She marries, and like any other woman of the time whose property is their husband's, gives up her fortune. Dorothea's revolution occurs when she has to struggle to do something which in many ways is a confirmation of the old society. Dorothea escapes her lonely life wandering around in her mansion, able to do whatever she likes, and not knowing what to do. Few of us would find that kind of isolation attractive. We all have to live in society. We might feel we want to escape, to be revolutionary, but in the end we have to live together. George Eliot's achievement is to find stability and reassurance in celebrating the changes that were shaking life to its foundations. Dorothea rebels by taking the traditional course, and it is this combination which Marion herself was looking for.
By 1873 Dickens was dead, and George Eliot had become Britain's most celebrated living writer. Fan mail arrived daily. Many people would write asking for advice on how to live their lives. Marion wrote one more book, Daniel Deronda, before Lewes's death in November 1876. With Lewes's death Marion lost the man who initially had brought such scandal and instability to her life, but ended up finding her a publisher, arranging distribution deals, and protecting her from the criticism that would have paralysed her writing. Marion died eight months later, after marrying a long time friend, the banker John Cross. His unexciting steadfastness was obviously what she needed in her last months. After Marion's death Cross spent many hours editing her letters, cutting out anything earthy, sexy or funny. It seems that George Eliot still had to conform to expectations.