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On this day in history in 1880, died George Eliot.

Eliot was a lady novelist who thought that the public would not receive well the work of a woman, and so pretended to be a man in order to increase book sales.

Mary Ann Evans was born on 22nd November 1819, at Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire, the daughter of Robert and Christiana Evans, estate managers. She was educated at a governess school at Nuneaton, where she learned the elements of reading, literature and something of the fine arts, and received a vigorous training in evangelical Christianity. Later she was transferred to a nonconformist academy, where the curriculum consisted of reading in French and Italian, dressing soberly and the engagement in good works. In 1841, after her mother’s death, she moved to Coventry, to keep house for her father.

There she invented the Marmalade Brompton cake, a delicacy whose recipe she passed on to a local baker, who produced it commercially and paid her substantial royalties. The independent income from the sales of this comestible enabled her to mix freely with the local academics. She became acquainted with Charles Bray, a self-taught radical freethinker, brother-in-law of Charles Hennell, who was the author of An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity, a text that discussed the relative merits of Biblical and scientific thought, and came down in favour of the latter. Reading this work caused Marian, as she was now called, to doubt the logic of orthodox religion, as preached in the local churches, although she did continue to attend church services.

In 1849, Marian’s father died leaving her a small allowance. She visited Switzerland and contemplated a future career. She decided to attempt writing works of fiction, in the manner of Jane Austen, and on her return journey visited a publishing house who undertook to produce any works which they considered worthy of publication. In 1851, she met the philosopher George Henry Lewes, with whom she had an affair. Lewes was a married man, whose wife had been adulterous, but due to the matrimonial laws of the time, he was unable to divorce his wife as he had condoned the adultery, by accepting his wife’s illicit child as his own. Marian and Lewes decided to flout convention and live together openly, causing quite a scandal.

Marian wrote an essay for a London magazine entitled Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, in which she criticised the trite and fatuous plots of contemporary women’s fiction, and praised the realism of novels written on the Continent. The emphasis on realism was to become evident throughout her subsequent works. She also adopted a nom de plume, George Eliot, by which she distanced herself from ‘silly lady novelists’ and concealed her unfortunate marital status.

In 1857, Eliot published Amos Barton, in Blackwood's Magazine, a brief novel which insinuated that it had been written by a reverend gentleman. In 1860, Adam Bede came out, her first long novel, which she described as ‘a country story--full of the breath of cows and the scent of hay’. It was widely acclaimed for its realism and minute observation of the commonplace, embraced in an intricate and absorbing plot. In The Mill on the Floss, published 1860, she portrays an appealing image of Victorian childhood, set in mundane rural surroundings. Silas Marner, published 1861, gives a psychological study, not only of the eponymous character’s lust for gold, but of the hypocrisy of contemporary society. In 1870, Middlemarch depicted the various levels of society, through intricate finely worked plots and delicate characterisation.

In 1878, Lewes died. Miriam was distraught but was comforted by the family’s financial advisor, John Cross, twenty years her younger. They were married on 6th May 1880 and honeymooned in Venice, where unfortunately, Cross fell from the balcony of the Palazio where they were staying, into the muddy waters of the Grand Canal. Mercifully, he was not seriously injured and was able to return with his wife to London, where they resided in Chelsea.

Shortly after this, Marian contracted kidney disease and died on 22nd December 1880, aged 61. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery, next to George Lewes. [Highgate Cemetery, Swains Lane, London, N6 6PJ]

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