Victorian Literature George Eliot
Gail Marshall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0026


George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire in 1819. Before she died in 1880, she had become one of the most notable women of the century and one of its leading novelists. Eliot’s early life in Warwickshire was crucial to her life as a writer: her surroundings provided her with material and inspiration for her later work and instilled a sense of the importance of memory to the individual’s development. In 1828, she became a fervent Evangelical, but when Eliot and her father moved to Coventry in 1841, she encountered the free-thinking Bray family, who initiated in Eliot an intellectual inquiry into the tenets of evangelicalism, which led her to disavow her earlier faith. In this new intellectual context, Eliot began her translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (published anonymously in 1846). Following her father’s death in 1849, Eliot fully embraced a new life; she moved to London, where she began work editing and writing for the radical Westminster Review. In the same year, she met the married George Henry Lewes. In 1853 he and Eliot began a relationship that lasted until Lewes’s death in 1878. They left England in 1854 for an eight-month stay in Germany, during which they read together and fully immersed themselves in the cultural life of that country. In 1856, inspired by Lewes’s confidence in her, Eliot began to work on “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton.” Thus began a highly successful career as a writer of fiction, which was marred only by the difficulties initially caused by Eliot’s living as the wife of a man married to another. Fear of the implications of this situation for her work, and a general awareness—expressed in her 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”—of the ways in which women’s writing was often read, or misread, led Eliot to adopt her pseudonym. In 1859, however, her identity became widely known following the indiscretion of a friend, Herbert Spencer, and the efforts of an impoverished cleric to claim credit for the success of her early texts. Eliot was a prolific essayist, reviewer, poet, and letter writer, but it is for her full-length fiction that she is best known. Her long fiction includes Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862–1863), Felix Holt (1866), Middlemarch (1871–1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). In her fiction Eliot developed the primary tenets of Victorian realism, and she insisted on the fundamental moral import of the text. By the end of her life she seemed to have overcome social resistance and was read and visited by the most respectable figures in the country, including members of the royal family. However, after Lewes’s death, she chose to marry the much younger John Cross in 1880 and reignited the sense of scandal that her earlier relationship had also provoked. She was married to Cross for only six months before her death in December 1880. She was buried next to Lewes in Highgate Cemetery. Her posthumous reputation initially suffered because of Cross’s efforts to whiten her memory, and the inevitable shift in reading tastes at the end of the century, but since the 1910 her reputation has flourished.

General Overviews

The following texts represent just a few of the many useful introductions to the work of George Eliot currently available. More than many writers, perhaps, George Eliot invites, even necessitates, the creation of companion volumes, as she was one of the best-read Victorian writers, and to attempt to encompass her learning and awareness would be daunting for any modern reader. The scope of entries on the George Eliot page on the Victorian Web gives ample evidence of this. The entries in Rignall 2000 give a far more detailed sense of the scope of Eliot’s writings and intellectual ability, as well as her cultural milieu, and also give very useful accounts of Eliot’s works, with full publication details. Dolin 2008 and Henry 2008 are single-author introductions to Eliot via key topics in her work, such as religion and science. Both are critically astute, while enabling a new reader to read on for herself. Dolin’s is the more detailed account and might usefully be a preparation for Levine 2001, which is more interpretive. Beer 1986 is included here because this comprehensive work manages both to introduce key texts and concepts (feminism/gender) to the reader while performing exemplary, historically informed criticism. Haight 1966, a collection of criticism from 1859 to 1959, gives an excellent sense of the critical debates and controversies that have shaped responses to Eliot’s fiction since she began to write.

  • Beer, Gillian. George Eliot. Brighton: Harvester, 1986.

    Probably the best short critical text on Eliot’s works, packed full of inspiring readings and grounded in extensive knowledge of the period and Eliot’s writings. Particularly interesting on Eliot’s position as a mid- to late-19th-century woman writer.

  • Dolin, Tim. George Eliot. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    The most detailed available introductory text on Eliot, with intelligent and highly detailed essays on science and religion in particular.

  • Haight, Gordon S., ed. A Century of George Eliot Criticism. London: Methuen, 1966.

    Useful collection of reviews and criticism from 1858 to 1962, which includes some landmark essays, including Virginia Woolf’s 1919 “re-discovery” of Eliot, and Henry James on Daniel Deronda.

  • Henry, Nancy. The Cambridge Introduction to George Eliot. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    Useful student-friendly introductory work that includes sections on each of Eliot’s major works, as well as reviews and poetry, her life, literary influences, and historical contexts.

  • Levine, George, ed. The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Topics covered in this helpful collection include identity, realism, early and later works, philosophy, religion, politics, gender, publishers, and Eliot’s critical heritage. Levine states that the object of the volume is “to help lift George Eliot from the frozen condition of literary monument, to make the resistant richness of her art more clearly visible.”

  • Rignall, John, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    This extensive Companion contains information on individuals, topics, critics, and critical approaches, Eliot’s reading, and full accounts of the publication and initial critical reception of each of Eliot’s works. It also contains useful maps, a George Eliot family tree, timechart, list of characters, and bibliography.

  • Victorian Web. George Eliot.

    This provides links to further pages on her biography, works, political history, social history, religion, science, genre and mode, literary relations, visual arts, themes, characterization, imagery, narrative, setting, bibliography and a range of other web resources.

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