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Eliot, George

(British, 1819–80)

George Eliot, whose real name was Marian Evans, broke with her conventional background, both by rejecting the Church and by living with a married man; and issues of morality and hypocrisy are central to her work. She is one of the greatest English novelists. Virginia Woolf described her masterpiece Middlemarch as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. Begin with Silas Marner (1861), the story of a lonely linen-weaver whose only pleasure is his hoard of silver and gold. His treasure is stolen, but soon after, a golden-haired little girl finds her way into his house after her mother has died in the snow. Marner adopts the child and comes to love her even more than his lost riches. This short, moving novel, about a man's isolation from humanity and his reconnection through love, offers a vivid picture of village life, with all its superstitions and restrictions, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Move on to The Mill on the Floss (1860), about the young life of Maggie Tulliver, bright, sharp, loving sister to her more stupid and self-satisfied brother, Tom. Maggie's childhood—as she runs away with the gypsies, incurs the displeasure of her dreadful aunts, and hungers rebelliously for school-learning—is unforgettable.

Middlemarch, a Study of Provincial Life (1871–2) has two central stories from which many others radiate. Dorothea Brooke is a young, idealistic, beautiful woman from an upper-class background. She hopes to find a useful role in marrying Casaubon, a man much older than herself, whom she imagines she can help in his scholarly researches. But Casaubon turns out to be a petty bully and his great studies a dead end. The second major story is that of Dr Lydgate, a newcomer to Middlemarch, ambitious to pursue scientific research which will benefit mankind. Lydgate marries Rosamund Vincy, a pretty spoilt child, whose social ambitions are the death of his youthful scientific hopes. The Vincy family in town, Lydgate's work as a doctor, and Dorothea's uncle's estate in the country, provide the links to vividly drawn characters of all classes, so that Eliot's portrait of English society in the early 1830s is wonderfully complete. At the heart of the book is the question about where those impulses—to do good, to break the stifling mould of social convention—can lead people, and whether characters who harbour such hopes must inevitably be crushed. Eliot has insight and sympathy for all her characters, but with a counterbalancing ironic humour. No one escapes lightly. The interweaving of numerous narratives (a technique developed in response to the problem of serial publication in a magazine, where readers might forget characters unless they all appear in each instalment) gives the novel tremendous narrative drive.

All of Eliot's novels and stories repay reading, from the early Adam Bede (1859), a story of ill-fated love and betrayal, to the last, Daniel Deronda (1876), which is partly an exploration of dedication and commitment (to the artistic goal of music, and the political cause of Jewish nationalism).

Leo Tolstoy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Arnold Bennett. See SOCIAL ISSUES  JR

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Co-Fi)