George Eliot's books are often seen as typical Victorian paperweights that embody a deeply conventional world. Yet, her personal life as Marian Evans was quietly revolutionary. She was initially an Evangelistic Christian but became an atheist and lived with a married man for thirty years of her life. For this deeply unconventional act, society rejected her. George Eliot was for many years an internal exile, in her society but not of it. That forced position of alienation gives her books a hidden ironic edge.
Marian Evans was born in 1819. She was first educated in a girls' boarding school where she came under the influence of an Evangelistic teacher, Mrs Lewis. Marian left this school in 1835 and when her mother died in 1836 she became her father's housekeeper. At this time there are few signs of the strongly independent woman she was to become: she occupies herself with charitable work. Her correspondence with Mrs Lewis reveals a strong religious feeling and her first published piece of work was a religious poem in the Christian Observer when she was twenty-one. However, Marian's intellectual capacity was also evident at this time for she found time to learn Italian, German, Latin and Greek.
In 1841 a new stage in Marian's life began. She moved with her father to Coventry and formed two important friendships, with Charles and Caroline Bray. They were free-thinkers who introduced Marian to a new intellectual circle - people who thought in an investigative and sceptical fashion. She began to examine her Christianity in a more critical light and was asked to translate Strauss' Life of Jesus from the original German. This translation completed her growing atheism. Strauss' book is a historical account of Jesus' life- the first ever written- and a critical examination of the gospels. It does for the New Testament what The Origin of the Species does for the Old; it makes it impossible to accept the Bible in the same unquestioning fashion ever again.
For some months Marian went from one extreme to the other, greatly upsetting her relations by refusing to go to church at all. However, she came to realise that she could continue to live according to the Christian philosophy without hypocrisy. The difference was that a faith in the divinity of humankind rather than a belief in God lay at the heart of Marian's philosophy.
In 1849 Marian's life changed again when her father died and she was left alone in the world. Rather than seeking refuge in marriage, as most Victorian women did, Marian moved to London alone. There she began life as an independent young woman. She lodged with the publisher John Chapman and became a contributor to his radical and widely read journal, the Westminster Review. Before long, she had become its unofficial editor. It is hard to exaggerate how unusual Marian Evans was for this time. She was a single young woman living independently and supporting herself in London. She was the only female member of the group of freethinking and influential men that gathered around the Review. It is still unusual now for a woman to edit a prestigious newspaper or journal; in the 1850s it was completely unknown.
In this circle, Marian met George Henry Lewes, the man for whom she would place herself in social isolation. Lewes was a Victorian 'man of letters': a novelist, critic, scientist and philosopher, talented and open-minded. He was also married. Although separated from his wife it was impossible for him to divorce her because he had accepted her adultery. In 1854, Marian chose to live with him and adopted his surname. From that year onwards she was no longer invited out to social occasions - although Lewes was. Her family did not contact her until Lewes' death and her brother never spoke to her again.
1854 then marked the beginning of a period of withdrawal from society for Marian but also a new engagement with life. For it was Lewes who encouraged her to begin writing and, perhaps in recognition of this help, she took one of his names - George - to form her pseudonym George Eliot. Her writing gave her a way back in to society; George Eliot was accepted when Marian Evans was not. Scenes of Clerical Life was published in 1857 to great applause. Adam Bede followed in 1858 and sold 16,000 copies in its first year. The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861) and Romola (1862) quickly followed. For Romola she was paid £7,000: about £200,000 nowadays. George Eliot was not merely a critically acclaimed author; she was a widely read, popular and well-paid author.
In 1863, Lewes and Marian moved to London. Felix Holt was finished in 1866. In 1869, she started two separate stories: one about the Vincys and Lydgate and the other dealing with Dorothea. At some point she realised the two could be successfully merged and Middlemarch was born. It was published in eight separate volumes as a serial and was extremely popular. Daniel Deronda (1876) was her last novel and shortly afterwards, in 1878, Lewes died. Marian was distraught. Yet in 1880, unconventional to the last, she married J.W. Cross, a long-standing admirer and twenty years her junior. In December of that year, aged 61, she died.
George Eliot's books seem to seek to assert the status quo and resist change because no one is more aware of the unhappy consequences of upsetting society than those who are outcasts from it. But her life was uniquely shaped by her individual morality and her books subtly encourage independent thought. Middlemarch could be considered her silent manifesto because it is partly a plea to judge each situation and person on their individual merits rather than depending upon an established pattern of thinking.