George Eliot Writes
In order to support themselves and Lewes's family, and also Chrissey, whose doctor husband was proving unable to provide for his family (some consider Edward Clarke is the model for Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch), it was essential that Marian and Lewes worked hard at their writing.
It was George Henry Lewes who, in 1855 persuaded Marian to try her hand at writing fiction. The result was the first of the stories in Scenes of Clerical Life: The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton which was sent by Lewes to his Edinburgh publisher, John Blackwood. No name was given for this unknown author but Blackwood knew immediately that he was dealing with a potentially great writer. He began corresponding with the author via Lewes, addressing her as 'My dear Amos'. He was to tell 'Amos' that he had confided to Thackeray that 'he had lighted upon a new Author who is uncommonly like a first class passenger'. Marian replied to this praise on 4th February 1857 signing herself for the first time 'George Eliot'.
Blackwood published The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton in his magazine in January 1856. This first story brought Marian - for a month's writing - the sum of fifty guineas (about £3,500 today). Encouraged by this success Marian went on to write two more stories, Mr Gilfil's Love Story and Janet's Repentance, the latter bringing in the equivalent of £8000 to the Lewes household. The three stories were published together in 1858 as Scenes of Clerical Life for the first time under the name of George Eliot.
The most famous author of the day Charles Dickens wrote to 'George Eliot' to express his admiration: 'the exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of'. He joked that he was almost tempted to address the author as a woman because 'no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began'. Dickens seems to have been alone in thinking the book was by a woman: most people assumed the author was a clergyman.
Background picture is a watercolour by Jim Kirkwood of Chilvers Coton (Shepperton) church.It was used as the cover of the 150th anniversary edition of 'Scenes of Clerical Life', published by Wordsworth Classics for the Fellowship. We gave away 7,500 copies.
Partly because of her anomalous social position Marian chose to write under a pseudonym, but George was obviously her beloved Lewes' first name. The name also echoed the male disguise of the scandalous French novelist George Sand who portrayed the struggles of women against a repressive society. Marian said that Eliot was a 'good sounding, mouth-filling, easily pronounced word'. There had also been a 'George Eliot Close' on a seventeenth century map of Chilvers Coton in her father's office at Griff House. When the Visitors' Centre opens at Griff in one of the former outbuildings that the George Eliot Fellowship is thrilled to have recently saved from demolition and with a promise of a grant of £85,000 from Whitbreads (who now own Griff House) to restore the building, we plan to display a copy of this map.
Constructing her tales with Midlands scenes and some of the characters using broad Warwickshire dialect, Marian was following the doctrine of realism according to John Ruskin's Modern Painters. But her gift went beyond describing physical details and reproducing local voices; Eliot was conveying the feelings and thoughts of her characters in a way that brought them alive to the reader. Her ability to describe her characters' internal mental processes and motivations, their anxieties and struggles was seen as groundbreaking for the novel. Writing about psychological realism in the novel, D. H. Lawrence commented: 'It was George Eliot who started it all'. Her characters were so true to life that local people in Nuneaton had recognised themselves. Charles Newdigate Newdegate, Conservative MP for North Warwickshire met John Blackwood on Derby Day at Epsom on 29 May 1858 and congratulated him for publishing a 'capital series all about my place...and County'. Locally a key to characters' identities had been circulating! Rumours abounded that a local man, Joseph Liggins was 'George Eliot'. Liggins did nothing to stop these rumours, and letters from his friends even reached The Times claiming he was the author of Scenes of Clerical Life. Because of the Joseph Liggins affair, Marian was finally forced to reveal her identity after the publication of her second novel, Adam Bede, in 1859.
Adam Bede was instantly a success. Set in 1799, the novel featured the titled gentry, the great house, the canal, the rural parties, the country dancing, the Warwickshire wildflowers and the furnishings of a farmhouse, and, as if bringing him back to life, her father - the tall workman with dark eyes and an iron grip. Marian's estranged brother Isaac told her friend Sara Hennell that nobody but his sister could have written it - especially the passages about their father. Within four months of its publication, Queen Victoria had read it having enjoyed Scenes of Clerical Life a year ealier. The Queen commissioned Edward Henry Corbould to paint two scenes from the novel - one of Dinah Morris preaching on Hayslope Green and the other of Hetty Sorrel making butter in the dairy, paintings which still hang in Buckingham Palace. Queen Victoria advised her uncle Leopold I of Belgium and her daughter Princess Louise to read the novel. In its first year the book sold 10,000 copies. French, German, Dutch, Russian and Hungarian editions followed. It outsold Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities! Adam Bede effectively bought George and Marian Lewes a house: Holly Lodge in Wimbledon Park Road, Southfields, where they were joined by Lewes' eldest son, Charles.
Holly Lodge c 1900 and 2013
Marian's success was saddened by the news that Chrissie had died from consumption. Chrissey had given birth to nine children, five of whom had died in childhood. Despite Isaac forbidding the family to communicate with Marian there had been some correspondence between the two sisters and they had planned to meet; but Chrissie had been too ill. It is significant that Eliot's first fictional writing was about the 'sad fortunes' more of the curate's wife, Milly Barton, who died following the birth of her seventh child. (The story is based on the real life clergyman who had christened Mary Anne Evans in 1819, the Rev John Gwyther of Chilvers Coton church, whose wife Emma died in 1836 and is buried in Chilvers Coton churchyard). The George Eliot Fellowship marks the importance of Chilvers Coton Church (called 'Shepperton Church' in Eliot's fiction) by taking visitors to the family grave in the churchyard, also to Emma Gwyther's grave on our literary tour. Together we read aloud Eliot's very first words of fiction under the 'eye' of the clock of 'Shepperton Church'.
The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860. The new novel began as 'Maggie', or 'Sister Maggie' for the name of the heroine, Maggie Tulliver. Lewes's choice was 'The House of Tulliver'; but Blackwood, having offered Eliot £2000, more than twice he'd paid her for Adam Bede, won with his choice: The Mill on the Floss. This novel is seen as the most autobiographical of Eliot's novels. As well as the official literary tour which includes South Farm, Griff House, Arbury Hall and Astley Church, The George Eliot Fellowship arrange walks around the sites associated with Eliot's childhood in Nuneaton. A popular one is The Mill on the Floss walk starting at Griff House, down 'Gypsy Lane', along the canal, into 'Red Deeps' - walking in Mary Anne & Isaac's footsteps through the wonderful North Warwickshire countryside.
The canal where Tom and Maggie Tulliver go fishing. Illustration of the flood from an early edition of The Mill on the Floss. Front cover of Silas Marner, illustrated by Hugh Thomson.
Silas Marner followed in 1861, the story of which 'thrust' itself upon her, while she was researching and preparing to write her great Italian novel, Romola. She remembered once in childhood, quite possibly in Stockingford, Nuneaton, she had seen a 'linen weaver with a bag on his back'. Written in four months this novel was another immediate success. However Marian was determined to continue with Romola, set in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century. The story had been suggested by Lewes when they were on holiday in Florence. In his journal GH Lewes writes: 'This morning, while reading about Savonarola it occurred to me that his life and times would afford fine material for a historical romance. Polly (his name for Marian) at once caught at the idea with enthusiasm'.
Excitement grew as the world waited for this next novel from the pen of the woman who seemed incapable of penning a dud novel. Another publisher, George Smith of Smith Elder, made her a 'magnificent offer' for this manuscript which would work out at nearly half a million pounds in today's currency. Unfortunately Romola had a mixed reception and the publisher came to regret his generosity. Romola however remains a great novel, a real favourite with local members of The George Eliot Fellowship, who not only studied it as a reading group for ten weeks during 2012 (notes written by Denis Baylis from the reading group will be posted on this web site) but also visited Florence in November of the same year -150 years after its publication.
For her remaining publications Marian returned to Blackwood's and to her native Midlands. Felix Holt was published in 1866 and on 2nd August 1869 Marian began what is generally held to be her masterpiece: Middlemarch - A study of Provincial Life, published in 1871. Her last novel Daniel Deronda appeared in 1878 and won her admiration for its sympathetic treatment of Judaism. Eliot also wrote poetry, including a long narrative poem The Spanish Gypsy, and essays. George Henry Lewes remained her unfailing support and encouragement; but he was always careful to shield her from any adverse criticism. Throughout Lewes's life, all negotiation and business was conducted through him; but in an ironic twist to the story of her names, when Lewes died, in order to claim her own property and fortune Marian had to change her name by deed poll to Mary Ann Evans Lewes.
In 1863 the Leweses bought The Priory, close to Regent's Park and here Marian established the custom of receiving visitors on Sunday afternoons. One of these was John Cross, a successful accountant who, with his mother and sisters, became firm friends. Cross took it upon himself to find them a country house, and in his search he found 'The Heights' at Witley, close to his own home in Weybridge, Surrey. After they moved in (1876) he continued to be their most frequent visitor.