George Eliot was the male pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans (she would later call herself Marian), born on November 22, 1819 at Arbury Farm in Warwickshire. Her father, Robert Evans, was an overseer at the Arbury Hall estate, and Eliot kept house for him after her mother died in 1836. The Mill on the Floss involves many autobiographical details, and it reflects Eliot's close childhood relationships with her father and her older brother Isaac. Eliot was sent to school as a child and at the age of fifteen and underwent a spiritual conversion to Evangelicism, similar to Maggie Tulliver's pious conversion upon reading Thomas a Kempis in Book IV of The Mill on the Floss.
In 1841, Eliot and her father moved closer to the town of Coventry, which was at that time a center of radical thought. Eliot made friends with a group of Coventry intellectuals, mainly members of the Bray family, and began reading such works as An Enquiry into the Origins of Christianity. Eliot soon gave up her Evangelicism in favor of a non-sectarian spirituality based on a sense of common humanity. She refused to attend church with her father and began work on a translation from German of Life of Jesus, a rationalist reexamination of some Bible sections. Life of Jesus was published in 1846, and on the strength of that accomplishment, Eliot moved to London after her father's death.
In London, Eliot became the assistant editor of John Chapman's Westminster Review and came into close contact with the leading intellectuals of the time, such as Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Harriet Martineau. In 1852, Eliot met and became close to George Henry Lewes, a writer and an editor of The Leader. Lewes was living apart from his wife, and Eliot's decision to accompany Lewes to Germany, living as a couple, provoked a degree of scandal in London. In particular, Eliot sacrificed her relationship with her brother Isaac, and she depicted the pain of his disapproval in The Mill on the Floss in Tom's disapproval of Maggie's relationships with Philip and Stephen.
Eliot and Lewes lived together, considering themselves virtually married until his death in 1878. With the encouragement of Lewes, Eliot began writing fiction. Scenes of Clerical Life was published in 1856. Adam Bede (1859), her first full novel, was met with critical acclaim, and the public began to wonder what writer was behind the pseudonym of George Eliot. By the time of the publication of The Mill on the Floss in three volumes in 1860, Marian Evans's authorship had been tentatively guessed by a few London intellectuals and friends. Several well-received novels followed, including Middlemarch, the novel now regarded as her greatest artistic success. Eliot died in 1880.
Eliot's most important contribution to literature was in her treatment of realism. Eschewing the caricature fiction of Charles Dickens, Eliot perfected the genre of psychological realism, paving the way for the later work of the American novelist Henry James. Eliot understood that art should be near to life, valuing observed truths and creating a greater sense of sympathy in the reader by coherently and non-judgementally depicting the psychological motives of characters. Eliot's attention to character is mediated by a strong sense of historical and cultural climate. Thus in The Mill on the Floss, Mr. Tulliver's financial downfall is depicted within the larger context of the increased materialism of the British midlands in the first half of the nineteenth century, but it is also portrayed as the result of minute social and psychological actions and reactions of Mr. Tulliver and the characters that affect him, such as Mrs. Tulliver and Mr. Wakem.
The Mill on the Floss marks a break from the earlier work of Eliot, which was mainly a depiction of provincial life, and it bridged the gap to more wide- ranging later novels, such as Middlemarch, that drew detailed backdrops of the social and economic forces alive in an entire community. The Mill on the Floss is Eliot's only novel to end tragically and the most autobiographical novel.