George Eliot

On this date in 1819, novelist and essayist George Eliot, née Mary Ann Evans, was born at a farmstead in Derbyshire, England, where her father was estate manager. (Although she didn’t publish under her pen name until 1857 and used several versions of her given name, Eliot will be used throughout this entry for simplicity’s sake.) As the youngest child and a favorite of her father, she received a good education for a young woman of her day. Influenced by a governess, she became a religious evangelical as an adolescent. Her first published work was a religious poem.

Through a family friend, she was exposed to the Unitarian Charles Hennell’s Inquiry Concerning the Origins of Christianity. Unable to believe, she stopped attending church. In an 1842 letter to a friend, she termed the bible as “histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction” and prayer as “a vain offering.” (The George Eliot Letters, Vol. I, 1954.) Her religious views had earlier caused her father to shun her and send her to live with a sister until she promised to reexamine her feelings. She apparently did and kept house for him until his death in 1849. Her mother had died in 1836 when Eliot was 16.

Her intellectual views did not, however, change. She translated Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu, a monumental task, without signing her name to the 1846 work. She accepted the assisant editorship of the Westminister Review quarterly, the official organ of the Philosophical Radicals founded by Jeremy Bentham in 1823. Despite a heavy workload, she translated Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, the only book ever published under her real name.

Eliot then scandalized society by sending notices to friends announcing she had entered a free “union” with writer and arts critic George Henry Lewes, who was unable to divorce his wife. They lived harmoniously together for 24 years while enduring social ostracism and financial hardship. She started her impressive fiction career, including Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863) and Middlemarch (1871). British writer Martin Amis has called Middlemarch the greatest novel in the English language. Daniel Deronda (1876) was her last novel. Lewes died two years later.

She married John Walter Cross, 20 years her junior, in May 1880. A throat infection coupled with the kidney disease with which she had been afflicted for several years led to her death at age 61. She was denied burial in Westminster Abbey because of her criticisms of Christianity and her relationship with Lewes. (D. 1880)

Freedom From Religion Foundation