Mary Ann Evans is best known by her famous pen name: George Eliot. In her time Mary Ann became the most famous British novelist of the era, and accordingly made a lot of money as a writer. When she died in 1880 she was something of a major celebrity.
The youngest child of Robert Evans and Christiana Pearson Evans, Mary Ann had four siblings: Robert, Fanny, Chrissey, and Isaac. Mary Anne shared an especially close relationship with her brother Isaac. When Mary Ann was sent away to boarding school she first turned to books as a source of amusement. She was always considered a serious, sensitive, and introspective child.
In 1828, after finishing her experience under one tutor, Mary Anne went to study at the school of a Mrs. Wallington. Here she met the woman who was to be the most influential figure of her early life, then unmarried Maria Lewis. She was exceptionally kind and held strong evangelical beliefs. Maria took an immediate interest in the shy Mary Anne, seeing an unusual quality of mind in her. By the time Mary Anne was thirteen, she had learned all that Mrs. Wallington's school had to offer. When she left, however, she maintained a close relationship with Miss Lewis−a relationship they kept up for nearly fourteen years. Later, in her teen years, Mary Anne became an accomplished pianist, studied French, was admired for her skill at writing, and read very widely. She also wrote poetry and fiction.
Mary Ann’s mother died in 1939, after a prolonged illness. Mary Anne, then 19, left school to take care of her father. Always close to her father, she tried to fill in for her mother while continuing her education at home. Robert Evans was so pleased with his daughter that he bought Mary Anne any that book she wanted. He even arranged for her to receive lessons in Italian and German.
Soon after her mother’s death (as a young teenage girl no less) Mary Anne began to entertain significant doubts about her religious convictions, but she did not give them up for some time. One has to think Maria Lewis was a major reason for her delaying for so long. Finally, in 1842 at the age of twenty-three, Mary Anne stopped going to church. Her longtime friend Maria was deeply disappointed and their correspondence began to slowly die—though no permanent break was made until Christmas four years later. Mary Anne's father was even more disturbed by his daughter's heresy and refused to speak to her for some time. Eventually, Mary Anne agreed to go to church with her father and he conceded that she had the right to think what she pleased (as long as she showed signs of outward conformity), but relations between the two remained strained. This story of an overbearing fathering use of religion, joined with the outward pretense of practice when the heart held no real interest, did nothing to help Mary Anne’s spiritual and emotional dilemma.
Mary Anne's father's health continued to worsen. She remained his caring nurse until he died in June of 1849. Though Mr. Evans did seem to soften towards Mary Anne in his final years he left her little in his will. Mary Anne was twenty-nine when he died. She was emotionally and physically exhausted. After a number of new friendships opened up she finally met the most influential man in her entire life, George Henry Lewes, in 1851. An unnamed biographer describes Lewes as an unattractive man, but loved by most who knew him because of his outgoing personality and wit. Lewes had married in 1841. About eight years into the marriage, his wife began an affair with a close friend of Lewes. Both Lewes and Agnes were believers in "free love" and felt that true feelings were stronger than legal bonds. So when Agnes gave birth to a son through her lover, Lewes claimed the illegitimate child as his own. In the coming years, she would bear this man, not her husband, four more children. George Lewes claimed all of them, but he ceased to view Agnes as his wife. One has to consider the time when you try to put yourself into a scenario such as this. As much as I despise the cultural and religious impact of the sexual revolution there are a few things that are better, or at least more honest, because of it.
When Mary Ann met George Lewes a relationship developed rather quickly. A biographer says that by April of 1853 their intimacy had grown far beyond what either of them could have expected. By November of 1853 Mary Ann and George had grown extremely close. In July of 1854, her translation of The Essence of Christianity, the famous work of Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804-1872), the German philosopher and anthropologist (portrait at right), appeared in English with her name on the title page. The book quickly became, especially in German, a kind of Bible for intellectuals who questioned the faith. This was the first and last time "Marian Evans" (the way she spelled her name at that time) appeared on a published work of hers. It is noteworthy, once again, to see the steady move of Mary Ann away from classical and orthodox Christianity. Her family’s standards, including harsh and censorious attitudes, and obvious intellectual attacks upon the faith, both impacted her profoundly. It is my own experience that the family, rather than intellectual arguments, has far more influence upon one’s ultimate repudiation of the Christian faith.
By June of 1854 Mary Anne had decided to live openly with George Lewes as his lover and “spiritual wife.” The decision was not an easy one. Mary Anne knew that this bold move would bring public censure. She also clearly knew that if George ever left her she would be alone and an outcast. She wrote to a friend, John Chapman: "I do not wish to take the ground of ignoring what is unconventional in my position. I have counted the cost of the step I have taken and am prepared to bear, without irritation or bitterness, renunciation of all my friends. I am not mistaken in the person to whom I have attached myself.” One can hear, in words like these, a clear commitment to count the cost, die to her own success in the world, and follow the way of sin, not the cross!
Mary Ann would soon begin to write serious novels. Through this work she became internationally famous. Her writing was almost immediately greeted with approval, though the knowledge of who
she really was (Mary Ann Ev
ans), and of her relationship with George Lewes, brought disapproval in some quarters. She lived with George until his death many years later. Mary Ann then married again, rather soon after his death, but died only seven months after the wedding, at the age of 61. By then her legacy as a writer was well established when she died in 1880. Her most famous novels included: Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, Romola, Silas Marner, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronoda.
Most of these novels have been read by those who love nineteenth century English literature. Some of us read them, especially Silas Marner and Middlemarch, in college classes that required English fiction. I read Daniel Deronda as a young adult and enjoyed it immensely. Most of her novels are considered classics by almost every standard. The life, struggles, depressions and doubts of Mary Ann Evans all play an obviously important role in her fiction. But one novel seems to include as much of her personal life as any of them and it was this novel that was twice presented in BBC film classics: The Mill on the Floss.
It was in this Masterpiece Theater version of the novel that I came to know the story of The Mill on the Floss. (The Floss is an imaginary river.) The story is both a brilliant character-driven novel and quite compelling.
As a child, Maggie Tulliver adores her brother Tom and desperately seeks his love and approval. Yet she never fully receives it until the end of life. When Tom grows up to be the kind of person she approves of, both dutiful and proud, Maggie becomes the kind of woman the world will judge harshly. She is a woman who was ahead of her time, and possessed unusual intelligence and imagination. Maggie is difficult for her brother, and the rest of her family for that matter, to understand. (Once again one hears a portion of Mary Ann’s own story for sure.)
Through a deep hunger for intellectual stimulation Maggie finds a kindred spirit in her childhood friend Philip Wakem, who is physically challenged but very keen mentally. She eventually falls in love with Philip, to the surprise of most everyone, but then finds her true romantic passion is actually for her cousin Lucy’s fiancé. This creates an immense emotional turmoil for Maggie as she tries to sort out what to do. She is challenged to be loyal to her dear friends, both Philip and Lucy, and to submit to her brother, who disapproves of Philip because he is the son of their late father’s most bitter rival. (There is a death bed scene where Tom and Maggie’s father refuses to forgive his bitter rival and dies! This is pretty gripping stuff for those who know the words of Jesus at all.)
Maggie has a bitter choice. Should she choose Philip, and defy her brother Tom, or choose Lucy’s fiancé, and thus destroy her cousin’s potential happiness? This is the classic struggle between following one’s heart or following one’s duty. It is the choice that the author of the novel made since Mary Ann chose her heart over a sense of duty and propriety, living in a “spiritual” (non-legal) marriage against the beliefs of her Christian background and family. While one applauds Maggie’s courage to face the dilemma in the story, one can also sense the call of the narrow way Mary Ann openly refused to choose. The Mill on the Floss ends in a powerful way (this is a no spoiler review) that I will not reveal lest someone not familiar with the novel, or the film adaptation, misses the impact of the rather surprising conclusion.
In this 1997 production Emily Watson, who received an Academy Award nomination for best actress (Hillary and Jackie) provides a superb performance as Maggie. James Fain (The Tudors) plays the role of Philip. The film runs 112 minutes and is not rated. It is suitable for anyone age twelve or older. In fact, Eliot’s story, so accessible in this visual form, makes such a powerful case for the human dilemma faced by dealing with honor, duty and conflicting passion that it provides a great resource for serious Christian discussion. I highly recommend this film, especially if you like nineteenth century British culture and story as much as I do.
The famous writer Henry James said of Eliot, "She is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous . . . in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her."