After her mother died and her sister married, Mary Ann ran her father’s household. But in 1841, her brother Isaac married and took possession of the house, and Mary Ann and her father moved to Coventry. In the city the young woman’s intellectual horizons widened and her early faith diminished; under the influence of Charles Bray and Charles Hennell, she became interested in the “new criticism” of the Bible and anonymously published her first work, a translation of D. F. Strauss’ Leben Jesu (Life of Jesus), in 1846. She also published a few articles and reviews in a periodical edited by Bray during this period.
Mary Ann cared for her invalid father, who strenuously objected to her changed religious views, until he died in 1849. After traveling in Europe for a time, she returned to England, where she became involved with a group of rationalists, best known of whom was John Chapman. In 1851, she became assistant editor of Chapman’s Westminster Review. While in London, she met many prominent people, among them the philosopher Herbert Spencer. Through Spencer she came in contact with George Henry Lewes, a drama critic and author who was separated from his wife, and the pair fell in love. Lewes could not obtain a divorce, and he and Mary Ann decided to ignore the prohibitions of society and live together as man and wife. The union was a marriage in every aspect but the legal one and lasted until Lewes’ death in 1878. Two years later, Mary Ann married J. W. Cross, and she herself died on December 22, 1880.
Mary Ann Evans did not begin writing fiction until relatively late in life. Her first pieces were three short stories, “Amos Barton,” “Mr. Gilfil’s Love-Story,” and “Janet’s Repentance,” which were published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1857 and reissued collectively as Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858. They appeared under the pseudonym George Eliot, a penname which Evans used throughout the rest of her career. In 1859, Adam Bede, Eliot’s first full-length novel, came out, and her reputation was established. The Mill on the Floss, an autobiographical novel, and Silas Marner both appeared in 1860. Romola, a historical novel set in Renaissance Florence, was published three years later and Felix Holt, the Radical in 1866. Middlemarch, widely considered to be Eliot’s masterpiece, came out in 1871-72, and Daniel Deronda in 1876.
Eliot’s work represents a definite break with the work of her immediate predecessors in several ways. In Adam Bede, she issued her declaration from convention and announced her intention to write realistically. “So I am content to tell my simple story, without trying to make things seem better than they were; dreading nothing, indeed, but falsity.” We, looking back towards Eliot, may be inclined to dispute her claim; her work may not seem realistic when compared with more modern efforts. But we must not lose sight of the fact that a number of the most admirable qualities in modern fiction derive, either directly or indirectly, from Eliot; her work was revolutionary in its own day and opened new directions for the development of the novel as an art form.
Eliot’s writings are more realistic than those of her famous contemporaries in that she habitually presents characters which are not simplistic caricatures of human beings but complex, ambiguous, ultimately indefinable figures like those we meet on the street every day. They are analyzed at great length in the novels, and this psychological approach, in which the subtleties of motivation are laid bare, enables Eliot to present human situations as they really occur; both the mental and physical aspects of action are reproduced. She also attempted, perhaps with imperfect success, to break the stranglehold which popular morality had on the novel by showing that the good or bad fortune which comes to her characters is not the work of some unseen divine hand whose laws have been either followed or violated, but is the result of human will-choices. And finally she made the novel a more serious art form than it had hitherto been by using it as a vehicle for the discussion of significant moral and philosophical issues.
All of these qualities are observable in Adam Bede; indeed, as Eliot’s first novel, it is her first experiment in the new fiction. Its revolutionary aspect is generally recognized; many scholars point to 1859, the year in which Adam Bede, Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities were published, as one of the major turning points in the breakdown of mid-Victorian certainties. Adam Bede is a test case for a new view of the function of prose fiction; Eliot clearly feels that the novel need not be merely a form of entertainment for those seeking diversion from the problems of real life, but that it could, like poetry, be a vehicle for the expression and teaching of fine and serious ideas about the quality of the human condition. Samuel Chew, in A Literary History of England, noted that Eliot’s work concentrates on the elucidation of moral issues and concluded: “If these issues are no longer felt to be vital, . . . the raison d’etre of the stories . . . is enfeebled, if, indeed, it does not vanish altogether.”
It is difficult to see how the issue of man’s responsibility towards himself and his fellows can cease to be vital, and the resurgence of interest in Eliot in our own day indicates how improbable it is that the relevance of her ideas and the value of the books in which she expressed them will “vanish altogether” in the foreseeable future.