Fun facts from the life of Victorian novelist George Eliot, author of Middlemarch
1. She received £20 for her first book – which was a translation of a work of biblical scholarship. Before she reinvented herself as ‘George Eliot’, Mary Anne Evans (it’s also been spelled Mary Ann and Marian) was a translator of German works of ‘Higher Criticism’. Although of course she never attended university – no woman could until later in the century – Evans was exceedingly well-educated and undertook the translation of David Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu, or ‘Life of Jesus’, when she was in her mid-twenties. The book was controversial because it claimed that although a historical Jesus had probably existed, he was not the son of God.
2. She is the first person to refer to modern tennis and to ‘pop’ music. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Eliot with the earliest known references to both lawn tennis (in 1878) and ‘pop’ in relation to music (in 1862).
3. At one time George Eliot was close to celebrated evolutionary biologist Herbert Spencer. But Spencer was supposedly put off by Eliot’s unconventional looks, which were often remarked upon. Henry James said she was ‘magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous’, a ‘great horse-faced bluestocking’, while William Michael Rossetti, brother of his two more famous siblings, Dante Gabriel and Christina, remarked that Eliot was ‘a woman with next to no feminine beauty or charm or of countenance or person’. Ouch. Female commentators often agreed with these descriptions, but none could deny Eliot’s prodigious intellect.
4. For her novel Romola she received the then-record payment for a novel of £10,000. By 1862, Eliot was the leading female novelist in Britain and the success of works such as Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss had made her hot property. For her ambitious 1862-3 novel Romola – set in fifteenth-century Florence around the time of the infamous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ – she earned the biggest publisher’s advance that had yet been bestowed upon a novelist. Romola is, however, now among Eliot’s least-known works, along with Felix Holt, the Radical, about the First Reform Act of 1832 and the political upheaval attending it. Eliot was by this stage a literary superstar: when Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd was published anonymously in 1874, some people thought Eliot was the author. Eliot is now best-remembered for Middlemarch, her masterpiece (which we include in our pick of the best Victorian novels), though her novels Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Daniel Deronda continue to find admiring readers.
5. On her gravestone in Highgate Cemetery, the name ‘George Eliot’ appears in quotation marks; her real name is given, but it isn’t Evans. Marian Evans/George Eliot lived for over twenty years as the common-law wife of Victorian critic and man of letters, G. H. Lewes. Between them, they helped to define the literary tastes of the era. However, Lewes was already in an open marriage and could not obtain a divorce from his wife, so he and Evans could never marry in the eyes of the law. They lived together, however, until Lewes’s death in 1878. A couple of years later, ‘George Eliot’ married a man named John Walter Cross. It’s one of the more curious facts about her life that, when she died a few months after the wedding, in 1880, she died as ‘Mary Ann Cross’, so that is the (official) name on her gravestone in Highgate Cemetery – the illustrious final resting place of many other noted figures, including Karl Marx and Douglas Adams.
Image: George Eliot, via Wikimedia Commons.