Introduction to George Eliot: Life and Major Works

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  • 0:04 Mary Ann Evans, AKA…
  • 1:06 Eliot's Early Life
  • 2:39 Enter Career & Controversy
  • 4:13 Major Themes
  • 5:44 Key Novels
  • 9:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, is one of the premiere writers of Victorian England. Watch this video lesson to see how she combined her interests in realism and rural life into an epic output of novels.

Mary Ann Evans, AKA George Eliot

Pen names are pretty common in English literature. You've got Lewis Carroll. You've got Sapphire. Even J.K. Rowling is a bit of a pen name. If you walk away with just one thing from this lesson, please let it be that George Eliot is a pen name. I mean, that name seems boring enough that you would probably assume it's real - who would choose George Eliot as their fake name? But that was probably the point of choosing it. In fact, George Eliot's real name was actually Mary Ann Evans. She was a woman! Oooh, scandal.

Really, at the time that Evans was writing (which was the second half of the 19th century), female authors weren't uncommon, but she wanted to make sure that her novels were taken seriously and not instantly dismissed into that category of light, tawdry romances that female writers were typically associated with. The words 'chick lit' didn't exist then, but I think that's what she was trying to avoid. She also wanted to draw attention away from her not-so-standard personal life. But we'll come back to that in a little bit.

So, first thing to note: George Eliot - not her real name; George Eliot - actually a woman.

Eliot's Early Life

So, we're going to start by talking about the life of Mary Ann Evans before the writer George Eliot even existed. She was born in a rural English family in 1819. Because many didn't consider her conventionally attractive, she was more or less deemed unmarriageable (which seems harsh), and therefore her father decided to invest a more-than-average amount of money into her education, which is sort of like the ultimate backhanded compliment. This extra schooling went hand-in-hand with her already considerable intelligence and voracious appetite for reading. Probably something that you might notice is a real similarity amongst the writers that we cover in these videos is that they grew up loving to read and loving stories, and Mary Ann Evans was no exception.

At the age of 16, sadly, her mother passed away, and she had to leave school and come home and act as her father's housekeeper. After this point, her education mostly would come through self-study. While she was helping out her father, Evans was exposed to things that would later really influence her writing, including the differences that she observed between the upper and lower classes, between urban and rural communities and the many differing religious opinions that exist everywhere.

Her father died when she was 30. After his death, she spent a little time traveling and then moved to London and became the assistant editor of a left-wing journal called The Westminster Review. This provided her with an introduction to the world of professional writing, and it was in this position that she produced a lot of essays and works of criticism.

Enter Career and Controversy

This move to London also brought on some changes in her personal life that weren't too well-accepted at the time. In essence, Evans entered a relationship with philosopher and critic named George Henry Lewes. He was already married and already had children, so that was very much frowned upon. He and his wife had agreed on an open relationship, so there wasn't really anything unethical going on per se, but proper Victorian society was pretty taken aback with the openness with which they carried on this extra-marital relationship.

By the mid-1850s, Evans had built up some steam in her writing career, and she was ready to take that leap into fame. It was at this point that she adopted her pen name. As we mentioned, the reasons for this were really two-fold: she wanted to draw attention away from her fairly scandalous lifestyle (she didn't want to be known as Mary Ann Evans, the woman who was carrying on a relationship with a married man), and also, she didn't want to be thought of as 'just another female writer.' The inspiration for that second point is detailed in her popular essay from 1856, which has come to be seen as her statement of purpose of her writing career. It's called 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,' and I recommend checking it out.

Now, we're going to talk about George Eliot the writer, using the pen name. Eliot's first published fiction was a three-part series of serialized short stories entitled Scenes of a Clerical Life.

A year after this, in 1859, her auspicious output of novels began. Eliot crafted seven full-length books, and though we're not going to talk about all of them here, we're going to hit three of the big ones.

Major Themes

But first, as we look at some of Eliot's most important works, let's keep in mind some of the major themes she's dealing with in them. Any study of her work isn't complete without mentioning the following themes that almost all of her novels seem to tackle in some way.

The first of these is realism, or basically, an attempt to write about things as they are. As you might have guessed so far, Eliot was a pretty no-nonsense woman; she didn't want to be considered a 'silly novelist.' It was important to her that her work be real. She wanted to capture what she saw as real people with real problems; fantasy didn't hold an appeal for her.

This goes hand-in hand with her next trait, which was a real emphasis on rural life. She had a rural upbringing and really was starting to pay attention to those differences between the rural and the urban lifestyles. You really see this in her novels. Many of her novels were focused on realistic characters in small towns who lead more mundane lifestyles. It's not kings and queens or knights and fairies, just regular people. Eliot thought it was important to focus on this because rural people were considered more common and more average and thus closer to pure human nature. In other words, in Eliot's perspective, the rural way of life, their opinions and their struggles were just more real than the people in the cities who maybe had a different sort of lifestyle that didn't have those same aspects.

You can see those two really complement each other nicely - her interest in realism and her interest in rural life. So, let's talk about a few of her books.

Key Novels

Her first novel came in 1859, and it was called Adam Bede. As you might have guessed, the novel has a rural setting in the fictional town of Hayslope. It focused on what we would think of as a 'love rectangle' of four characters whose emotions are all tangled up. Unrequited love - it's tough, right? We've all been there.

Describing the plot in more detail would take more time than I have, so I'm just going to talk about why the novel's important and why people still love it today. It was incredibly popular at the time and built interest and excitement around this mysterious George Eliot. It was said that Queen Victoria liked it so much that she commissioned an artist to paint scenes out of the novel for her (it's cool to be queen.)

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