In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section George Eliot

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Scholarly Journals

British and Irish Literature George Eliot
Fionnuala Dillane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0016


George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans near Coventry, England, in 1819, embodied in her life and work many of the defining transformations of her turbulent age. A crisis of faith in her twenties saw her abandoning traditional religious practices. It is no coincidence that her first major publications were translations of leading European secular thinkers (David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined in 1846, and Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity in 1854), though the attempt to establish a meaningful moral life that balanced the needs of the individual and the community remained central to her work. That moral seriousness was a defining quality of her fiction for many of her first readers and contributed to her immense popularity; the same quality became a point of attack in the decades following her death. Her depiction of organic rural communities in her early fiction in particular—though never simply nostalgic, grounded as it was in the personal experiences of her Warwickshire childhood—was also core to the positive reception of her work by contemporary audiences grappling with the transformations of industrial modernity. Her considerable intellectual interests (philosophical, scientific, political) often alienated those same readers, especially as those interests were seen to feature more and more in her later writings. Evans (who renamed herself “Marian”) moved to London in her early thirties to work from 1851 as coeditor of the leading intellectual quarterly, the Westminster Review. Her fellow editor, the owner of the journal, John Chapman, whom she met through her Coventry neighbor Charles Bray, played a significant role in her initiation into metropolitan publishing and literary life. In London she started a relationship with the married George Henry Lewes and left England to travel to Germany with Lewes in 1854. She and Lewes returned in 1855 and remained together until Lewes’s death in 1878. Their mutually supporting personal and intellectual relationship provided the secure base from which both writers embarked on hugely productive professional writing careers. Evans wrote for a range of London-based periodicals from 1854 to 1857. Her first fiction was published anonymously in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in January 1857, with Lewes acting as a go-between with the magazine’s editor, John Blackwood. Blackwood became an early champion and cultivator of the writer he soon came to know as “George Eliot.” The cover of her pseudonym, a necessary strategy to ensure the unbiased reception of her first novel, Adam Bede (1859), given both her gender and the scandal of her unconventional living arrangements, did not last long. Her identity was soon widely known, but she remained an intensely private figure throughout her life. Much of the speculation about the writer during her lifetime derived from readings of her creative work. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s she published fiction, essays, and poetry under her pseudonym, including The Mill on the Floss (1860); Silas Marner (1861); Romola (1862–1863); Felix Holt (1866); The Spanish Gypsy (1868); Middlemarch (1871–1872), Daniel Deronda (1876) and Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879). In 1880, Marian Evans married her close friend, John Walter Cross. It was a short marriage: she died just over seven months later in December 1880.

General Overviews

There are two types of works in this section: general introductions by individual critics that aim to provide a brief overview of the life and career with compact contextualizations, and edited collections that offer more specialized approaches to specific themes and issues; summaries of diverse critical approaches that reflect theoretical trends; and fuller historical contextualization. Both formats aim, successfully, to make George Eliot “less abstract by attending to some of the ‘wider relations’ that establish coordinates on her life and work” (Harris 2013, xvii). Of the former, McSweeney 1991 gives equal attention to the intellectual development of Marian Evans and to issues of gender and sexuality as played out in the fiction. Dolin 2005 includes useful historical contextualization. Beer 1986 provides incisive readings of the works as well as considered attention to cultural and scientific contexts. The George Eliot page on The Victorian Web gathers a range of accessible material on aspects of the life, wider contexts and, very usefully, form and style. Levine 2001 is a substantial overview of influential approaches in key areas: intellectual, personal, creative, and critical. Harris 2013 covers more ground than Levine, with comprehensiveness and sustained critique deliberately sacrificed to offer denser and more varied approaches than those that characteristically feature in such overviews. Anderson and Shaw 2013 differentiates itself from the other types of texts gathered here with innovative critical readings of individual works and broader themes and contexts. Rignall 2000, unlike the others, is in dictionary format covering all aspects of Eliot’s life, work, and contexts, but also includes illuminating interpretations of her major texts as well as adroit summaries of critical trends in Eliot studies.

  • Anderson, Amanda, and Harry E. Shaw, eds. A Companion to George Eliot. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

    Refreshingly eclectic, intelligent collection. Diversity in methodological approaches means inconsistencies in terms of coverage of the critical field (e.g., Tucker’s comprehensive critique of responses to Eliot’s poetry versus Nunokawa’s more personal response to the essays). Original essays address biographical, intellectual, and cultural contexts; literary form; all of the novels; and most of Eliot’s other writings.

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

    Illuminating readings of the works, grounded in a richly detailed but compact overview of contexts; particularly useful for an introduction to the wider gender dimensions of Eliot’s work.

  • Dolin, Tim. George Eliot. Authors in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Accessible, solid, historically-inflected account of the context in which Eliot’s work was written and to which it responds. Emphasizes the influence of her origins in the English midlands to argue her “unorthodoxy was intellectual, her conservatism, sentient” (p. 5).

  • George Eliot (1819–1880). In The Victorian Web.

    Extensive resource that gathers together in clear categories a diverse range of original materials, extracts from published studies, and book reviews of critical works on George Eliot; addresses all aspects of her life and works, wider contexts, and formal features of style. Includes a selective bibliography.

  • Harris, Margaret, ed. George Eliot in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    Wide-ranging, fascinating overview of familiar and new contexts for Eliot studies that reflect persistent and emerging trends in Victorian studies more broadly. Includes chapters on Interiors, Etiquette, Race, Secularism, Metropolitanism, and Law and Money, for instance, preceded by a section relating to Eliot’s life and the publication history of her works.

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

    Eleven thematic essays by experts in the field on major topics (philosophy, science, religion, politics, gender), a useful, annotated bibliography, and particularly fine essays on early and later fiction by Josephine McDonagh and Alexander Welsh, respectively. Eliot’s other writings suffer somewhat, with no chapters on poetry or the journalism.

  • McSweeney, Kerry. George Eliot (Marian Evans): A Literary Life. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1991.

    Concise and full of insightful observations on the life and the work in terms of content, form, and what McSweeney calls “presentational calculations” (p. viii), bringing a canny businesswoman to the fore with interesting readings of her views on fiction and fiction writing as articulated in her essays.

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

    Indispensable user-friendly reference work with over five hundred entries, arranged alphabetically, covering Eliot’s writings, historical and cultural contexts, her family, friends, associates, and significant contemporaries and influences. Substantial entries on the development, publication details, main themes, and critical reception of all of her writings. Useful cross-referencing throughout and helpful indices.

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