Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name “George Eliot,” was a Victorian writer known for her novels’ realism and political themes. She wrote under a male pen name so that her novels would be taken seriously and judged separately from her critical work.
Evans was born in 1819, in Nuneaton, England. As a girl, she was fiercely intelligent but not considered conventionally attractive. Because it was assumed she would never marry, her parents invested in her education instead, sending her to a number of private schools. Evans also had access to the library of Arbury Hall, the estate where her father was employed. The breadth of her education and reading tastes showed in her writing.
At age 21, Evans moved to Foleshill, near Coventry, where she met Charles and Cara Bray. The Brays introduced Evans to a number of progressive writers and thinkers, and those connections served her well. Evans’ reviews were soon published in the Coventry Herald and Observer. After her father’s death in 1849, Evans visited Swizerland with the Brays and decided to stay in Geneva for a while.
Evans returned to England in 1850 and moved to London. She became the assistant editor of the Westminster Review in 1851, where she did most of the editing work on the journal. During this time, several men in her social circle became infatuated with her–including John Chapman, who was her boss at the Review. And married. She did not return their affections.
In 1851, Evans met writer George Henry Lewes. They moved in together in 1854, right around the time Evans left the Review. Lewes was married, but it was an open marriage–his wife also saw other people. While Lewes and his wife could not legally divorce, Evans considered herself married to Lewes. During their “honeymoon” in Germany, Evans continued working on translations and writing critical essays.
Evans became interested in the realism of European novels and dissatisfied with the “silly” and “trivial” novels produced by other female writers. She adopted the “George Eliot” pen name and published her first novel in 1859. Her true identity was initially a secret, and many in the literary world became fascinated with the mystery of who “George Eliot” really was. A man named Joseph Liggins even claimed to be Eliot. Eventually, Evans stepped forward and revealed that she was the author of Eliot’s novels. This shocked the literary community, but didn’t diminish her popularity. Evans continued to write for the next 15 years, publishing 7 novels.
Lewes died in 1879, and Evans spent the next two years editing his last work, Life and Mind. In 1880, she married John Cross, who was 20 years younger than she was (get it, girl). Unfortunately, Evans fell ill and died later that year. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery under both of her names, next to George Henry Lewes, the love of her life.