George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819 at the estate of her father’s employer in Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire, England. She was sent to boarding school, where she developed a strong religious faith, deeply influenced by the evangelical preacher Rev. John Edmund Jones. After her mother’s death, Evans moved with her father to the city of Coventry. There she met Charles and Caroline Bray, progressive intellectuals who led her to question her faith. In 1842 she stopped going to church, and this renunciation of her faith put a strain on Evans’s relationship with her father that did not ease for several years.
Evans became acquainted with intellectuals in Coventry who broadened her mind beyond a provincial perspective. Through her new associations, she traveled to Geneva and then to London, where she worked as a freelance writer. In London she met George Lewes, who became her husband in all but the legal sense—a true legal marriage was impossible, as Lewes already had an estranged wife. At this point in her life Evans was still primarily interested in philosophy, but Lewes persuaded her to turn her hand to fiction instead. The publication of her first collection of stories in 1857, under the male pseudonym of George Eliot, brought immediate acclaim from critics as prestigious as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as much speculation about the identity of the mysterious George Eliot. After the publication of her next book and first novel, Adam Bede, a number of impostors claimed authorship. In response, Evans asserted herself as the true author, causing quite a stir in a society that still regarded women as incapable of serious writing. Lewes died in 1878, and in 1880 Evans married a banker named John Walter Cross, who was twenty-one years her junior. She died the same year.
Eliot wrote the novels Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) before publishing Silas Marner (1861), the tale of a lonely, miserly village weaver transformed by the love of his adopted daughter. Eliot is best known, however, for Middlemarch (1871–1872). Subtitled “A Study in Provincial Life,” this lengthy work tells the story of a small English village and its inhabitants, centering on the idealistic and self-sacrificing Dorothea Brooke.
Eliot’s novels are deeply philosophical. In exploring the inner workings of her characters and their relationship to their environment, she drew on influences that included the English poet William Wordsworth, the Italian poet Dante, the English art critic John Ruskin, and the Portuguese-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose work Eliot translated into English. The philosophical concerns and references found in her novels—and the refusal to provide the requisite happy ending—struck some contemporary critics as unbecoming in a lady novelist. 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. Eliot’s break from tradition inspired the modern novel and inspired numerous future authors, among them Henry James, who admirered Eliot.
Silas Marner was Eliot’s third novel and is among the best known of her works. Many of the novel’s themes and concerns stem from Eliot’s own life experiences. Silas’s loss of religious faith recalls Eliot’s own struggle with her faith, and the novel’s setting in the vanishing English countryside reflects Eliot’s concern that England was fast becoming industrialized and impersonal. The novel’s concern with class and family can likewise be linked back to Eliot’s own life. The voice of the novel’s narrator can thus, to some extent, be seen as Eliot’s own voice—one tinged with slight condescension, but fond of the setting and thoroughly empathetic with the characters. Though Silas Marner is in a sense a very personal novel for Eliot, its treatment of the themes of faith, family, and class has nonetheless given it universal appeal, especially at the time of publication, when English society and institutions were undergoing rapid change.
“A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts.”
At his death, eleven years before the publication of Silas Marner, William Wordsworth was widely considered the most important English writer of his time. His intensely personal poetry, with its simple language and rhythms, marked a revolutionary departure from the complex, formal structures and classical subject matter of his predecessors, poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Unlike the poetry of Dryden and Pope, Wordsworth’s poems are meditative rather than narrative. They celebrate beauty and simplicity most often most often located in the natural landscape. Wordsworth’s influence on English poetry—at a time when poetry was unquestioningly held to be the most important form of literature—was enormous. Along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth set in motion the Romantic era, inspiring a generation of poets that included John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron.
George Eliot evidently felt a kinship with Wordsworth and his strong identification with the English landscape. Like Wordsworth, Eliot draws many of her metaphors from the natural world. However, the Wordsworth epigraph she chose for Silas Marner also highlights the philosophical aspect of her affinity with Wordsworth. Like Eliot, Wordsworth had tried his hand at philosophy before turning to more literary pursuits, and in his poetry he works out his conception of human consciousness. One of Wordsworth’s major ideas, radical at the time, was that at the moment of birth, human beings move from a perfect, idealized “otherworld” to this imperfect world, characterized by injustice and corruption. Children, being closest to that otherworld, can remember its beauty and purity, seeing its traces in the natural world around them. As they grow up, however, they lose that connection and forget the knowledge they had as children. However, as described in the quote Eliot has chosen, children and the memories of childhood they evoke in adults can still bring us close to that early, idyllic state. It is not hard to imagine that Eliot had this model in mind when she wrote her story of a child bringing a man out of isolation and spiritual desolation.