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The name “George Eliot” was the pseudonym
of Mary Ann Evans. Eliot was born in 1819 at
the estate of her father’s employer in Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire, England.
Because of her father’s important role as the manager, Eliot was
given permission to spend time in the estate’s library, where she
expanded her knowledge by reading. As a young girl she was educated
at the local school and then at boarding school. Eliot was deeply
religious throughout her childhood and adolescence because of her
pious family background and the influence of the evangelical Maria
Lewes, one of her instructors at boarding school.
When Eliot was seventeen, her mother died and Eliot came
home to care for her father. In 1841, Eliot
and her father moved to Coventry. While living in Coventry, Eliot
met Charles and Caroline Bray, who led her to question her faith
by introducing her to new religious and political ideas. Eliot began
reading rationalist works in 1841, which
prompted her to reject formalized religion. She also became acquainted
with intellectuals in Coventry who broadened her mind. To her father’s
dismay, she stopped going to church. This renunciation put a strain
on their relationship until his death in 1849.
Eliot identified herself as a rationalist for the remainder of her
life. In 1844, she was commissioned to translate
David Strauss’s Life of Jesus from German into
English. She completed the translation in 1846.
After traveling abroad in Europe for two years, she returned to
England and became acquainted with a group of rationalists, among
them John Chapman.
In 1851, Eliot became the assistant
editor at Chapman’s Westminster Review, a position
that was important both for her career and her personal life. Through
her work on the Review, she met several prominent
philosophers and theologians of the time, including Herbert Spencer,
who introduced her to George Henry Lewes, a drama critic and philosopher.
The pair fell in love but could not marry because Lewes already
had a wife, from whom he was estranged. In a rather scandalous move
for the age, Eliot and Lewes later lived together in 1854,
even though Lewes was married and could not divorce his wife. At
this point in her life, Eliot was still primarily interested in
philosophy, but Lewes encouraged her to focus on fiction. Because
writing was considered a male profession, Eliot chose a male pseudonym,
George Eliot. Under the pen name, Eliot published her first collection
of short stories in 1858, bringing immediate
acclaim from critics as prestigious as Charles Dickens and William
Makepeace Thackeray. Eliot began working on Adam Bede on
October 22, 1857,
and completed the novel on November 16, 1858.
The book was published in 1859, and its success
led a number of imposters to claim authorship. In response, Eliot
asserted herself as the true author, causing quite a stir in a society
that still regarded women as incapable of serious writing.
Eliot’s personal life likely influenced Adam Bede in
several ways. First, the portrayal of Methodists as a positive social
force possibly stems from Eliot’s own rejection of some organized
religions. While Methodism is an organized religion, Eliot was particularly
drawn to the religion’s belief that salvation is possible for all
people through personal effort. Second, the character of Dinah,
who is strong and powerful beyond normal social conventions, is
perhaps inspired by Eliot’s own willingness to step outside normal
social convention in her common-law marriage to Lewes and her novel
writing. Finally, the sardonic tone that the narrator takes toward
social convention and the “lady reader” suggests a rejection of
tradition. Such a rejection fits with Eliot’s life, in which she
was criticized for moving in with her lover and rejecting traditional
religion because its tenets could not be derived by reason.
Eliot drew the plot of Adam Bede from
the death of Mary Voce, who was executed in 1802 for
killing her child. Eliot’s Methodist aunt told her about Voce, whom
her aunt visited and converted in jail. According to Eliot’s account
of the writing of the novel, the character of Dinah Morris is based
very loosely on Eliot’s aunt, and Adam Bede himself is based very
loosely on Eliot’s father as a young man. Eliot’s detailed and insightful
psychological portrayals of her characters, as well as her exploration
of the complex ways these characters confront moral dilemmas, decisively
broke from the plot-driven domestic melodrama that had previously
served as the standard for the Victorian novel.
Adam Bede is widely considered to be
one of the best examples of realism in English literature. Realism
concerns itself with recording life exactly as it is, not with inventing
plots or characters to fit with a preconceived notion of how the
world ought to be. Realist literature dominated in England for about
fifty years beginning around 1840. The American
expatriate author Henry James, another realist writer, considered
Eliot to be one of the most profound influences in his writing.
Realists usually focus more on characters than on plot, and Adam
Bede typifies this throughout. Methodism also plays an
important role in Adam Bede. This Protestant movement began
in England in 1729 and was founded by the
preacher John Wesley and his brother Charles. The religion rejects
the doctrine of predestination, the idea that only those whom God
has chosen can be saved. Wesley, like Dinah Morris, often preached
in open fields because members of the Church of England prevented
him from preaching in churches. Methodism was widely popular among
the working classes of England in the late eighteenth century and
largely derided by the upper classes, who saw it as simplistic.
The characters in Adam Bede almost uniformly appear
in this view: the more sophisticated, socialite characters laugh
at the Methodists and take a haughty view toward Dinah Morris, whereas
the simpler villagers are attracted to the gentle love with which
she preaches. Wesley encouraged work among the poor, and his efforts
have affected the work and doctrine of the Methodist church even
Eliot wrote several works of fiction under her pen name.
Eliot’s best-known works are The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas
Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1872),
and Daniel Deronda (1876).
Lewes died in 1878, and in 1880 Eliot
married a banker named John Walter Cross, who was twenty-one years
younger than she. Eliot died the same year from a throat infection
and is buried in London.