Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Marian Evans [pseud. George Eliot] (1819–1880)

My own experience and development deepen everyday my conviction that our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joy.

Letter from George Eliot to Charles Bray
(15 November 1857)

Although, as a child, Marian Evans was not considered physically attractive, she was very intelligent and a voracious reader. Her father, recognizing her intelligence and her dim prospects for marriage, ensured that she had an excellent education, one not often offered to young women. By her thirties she was an editor for the Westminster Review, an English journal founded by Jeremy Bentham.

Evans became very interested in religion. She translated The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Volume 2, by David Strauss in 1846,  The Essence of Christianity, by Ludwig Feuerbach in 1854, and Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics in 1856.

Having resolved to become a novelist, Evans’s last essay in the Westminster Review in 1856, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” criticized the ridiculous plots of contemporary women novelists. Evans assumed a nom-de-plume, George Eliot, and three years later published her first novel, Adam Bede, which was a huge success in England. The popularity of Adam Bede led to Evans revealing that she was the author behind the name George Eliot. Other novels by this leading writer of the Victorian era include The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Middlemarch.

Evans lived a somewhat unorthodox life and considered herself married to George Henry Lewes, though he was officially married to Agnes Jervis. Despite her popularity in England, Eliot was not buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey due to her denial of Christianity and her unconventional relationship with Lewes.

The Armstrong Browning Library owns twenty-three books written by George Eliot during her lifetime, many first editions. The ABL also owns a copy of Essays and Leaves from a Notebook, by George Eliot, published shortly after her death. The preface is signed by Charles Lee Lewes, Henry Lewes’s eldest son, who curated his father’s library after his death in 1878.

Only one letter from George Eliot to Robert Browning [24 March 1864] is part of our collection at the ABL. In this letter Eliot encourages a visit from Browning after her return from Scotland, and notes that, “By that time I hope to be a less headachy wretch than I happen to be this week, and all pleasant things will be pleasanter to me.”

Letter from George Eliot to Robert Browning
[March 24, 1864]
Courtesy of the Armstrong Browning Library

Melinda Creech

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