George Eliot

That the great are ‘silly like us,’ as Auden said of Yeats, may seem by now a lesson we have learned over and over again. But among the shining dead, there are still a few who seem as though they must have been free of human foolishness. And among the English novelists, the most likely candidate for this company would appear to be Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot.

No writer comes closer to what God might sound like if He were to write fiction -compassionate, all-seeing, profoundly sane. Lord Acton compared her to Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted her novels alone from the ban on fiction he wished to impose on the London Library. The assumption was that as much as any moral philosopher, the author of  Middlemarch and Adam Bede could provide guidance on the great questions of living.

Yet she was, at least,¬†fallible like us. The same Herbert Spencer who called George Eliot ‘a female Shakespeare’ was one of a series of men on whom, well into her 30s, she was developing painful, messy crushes. Often they were married; in one case, the wife of her beloved demanded that she leave the house, fed up with her worshipful, hysterical presence. In another, the object of her affections, the editor John Chapman, had not only a wife but a mistress, and the two women joined forces to get rid of her.

Later in Eliot’s life, when she was finally loved and happy (having bravely flouted Victorian convention to live with the critic George Henry Lewes, who could not obtain a divorce from his adulterous wife), the¬†messiness took different forms. Lewes, whose idea it had been that she should start writing fiction (partly to bring in some much-needed money), learned to protect her from the slightest criticism of her novels, which could render her prostrate for weeks. Increasingly, she surrounded herself with adoring acolytes – young women whose relationships with her consisted of one act of homage after another (one of them saved a handkerchief that bore the imprint of her tears). When Lewes died, Eliot married a businessman 20 years her junior, partly, it seems, because he too was a worshiper (though he jumped into the Grand Canal on their honeymoon – horrified, the gossips claimed, at the thought of having to make love to his elderly wife).

It remains the task of Eliot’s biographers to reconcile, somehow, this dichotomy between the majestic wisdom of her fiction and the follies to which her hunger for love could lead her. Kathryn Hughes’s (¬†and¬†George Eliot: The Last Victorian (1999) is clearly an attempt to provide¬†just such a¬†balanced portrait.


If encouraged to read her fiction and then sharpen appreciation, go to the following:


Swinden, Patrick, ed. (1972). George Eliot: Middlemarch: A Casebook. London: Macmillan (


Daiches, David (1963). George Eliot: Middlemarch (


Beaty, Jerome (1960). Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel: A Study of George Eliot’s Creative Method (


Neale, Catherine, Middlemarch: Penguin Critical Studies, London, Penguin, 1989. (


Carroll, David, ed. (1971). George Eliot: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K Paul. (


Bennett, Joan (1966). George Eliot: Her Mind and Art (


The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (2001, edited by George Levine) This is a set of specially-commissioned essays providing accessible introductions to all aspects of George Eliot’s writing by some of the most distinguished new and established scholars and critics of Victorian literature. The essays are comprehensive, scholarly and lucidly written, and at the same time offer original insights into the work of one of the most important Victorian novelists, and into her complex and often scandalous career. Discussions of her life, the social, political, and intellectual grounding of her work, and her relation to Victorian feminism provide valuable criticism of everything from her early journalism to her poetry. Each essay contributes to a new understanding of the great fiction, from Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss to Daniel Deronda. This volume with its chronology and extensive bibliographies will launch you further into the journey of love for Eliot.¬† (


560 pages in Fourth Estate paperback edition

ISBN 978-1857028911

Picture of Kathryn Hughes

George Eliot                    Kathryn Hughes

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