It was under the male pseudonym George Eliot that Mary Anne Evans (November 22, 1819 – December 22, 1880) became one of the most revered voices in literary history — a choice dictated as much by the biases of the Victorian era, in which women writers tended not to be taken seriously for anything beyond romance novels, as it was by Evans’s desire to keep the turbulence of her private life out of the public eye.
Evans received little formal education after the age of sixteen, but thanks to her father’s position as manager of the Arbury Hall Estate, she was permitted to use the local library. There, with her voracious appetite for reading, she gave herself a makeshift classical education. From a young age, she had learned to escape into her own head for refuge. In an 1839 letter to a friend, she wrote:
When I was quite a little child I could not be satisfied with the things around me; I was constantly living ina world of my own creation and was quite contented to have no companions that I might be left to my own musings and imagine scenes in which I was chief actress. Conceive what charater novels would give to these Utopias. I was early supplied with them by those who kindly sought to gratify my appetite for reading and of course I made use o the materials they supplied for building my castles in the air.
Evans was not considered beautiful by common standards — so much so that the unusual size of her head was often remarked upon — and this was something of which she was exceedingly aware and painfully self-conscious. A former schoolmate once described her as “keenly susceptible to what she thought her lack of personal beauty, frequently saying that she was not pleased with a single feature of her face or figure,” but was quick to acknowledge her “intellectual power … capable of any effort” and “the great charm of her conversation.” In fact, this notion of her intellect as a counterpoint to her perceived physical shortcomings was a recurring theme both in the impressions of others and in Evans’s own self-assessment. Herbert Spencer noted her intellect’s “latent power,” writing that her ideas were “the products of a large intelligence working easily” — but he, too, made a note of her awkward appearance and especially her head, “larger than is usual in women.”
Still, Evans was not the type of person who found relief for her insecurities in trying to lift herself up by lowering others down. To the contrary, alongside her intelligence was also enormous generosity of spirit. The famed British social reformer Charles Bray, who grew to be a close friend of Evans’s for many years, captured this quality of hers beautifully:
She had little self-assertion; her aim was always to show her friends off to the best advantage — not herself. She would polish up their witticisms, and give the credit to them.
Bray also remarked upon the two faces of Evans’s genius, its “sunny and shady side,” noting — as many others who knew her did — that she was frequently depressed. And yet Evans understood that happiness is a skill to be learned and actively cultivated, not a state to be passively beheld. She wrote in a letter to a friend at the age of twenty-five:
One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science.
Above all, however, stood Evans’s formidable literary talent — a product of the confluence of that enormous intellect and those all-too-human insecurities. Legendary critic Martin Amis famously proclaimed her “the greatest writer in the English language ever” and her 1872 novel Middlemarch “the greatest novel.”
Learn more: George Eliot: Interviews and Recollections | George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals | Wikipedia