24 February 2010

Love Affairs: George & George

By Zoe Archer

George Eliot's personal life proved to be just as fascinating as her novels. Born Mary Ann (sometimes written as Marian or Mary Anne) Evans in 1819, Evans largely educated herself in liberal arts, theology and foreign languages. She joined a collection of unconventional thinkers that included Charles Bray and Charles Hennell, and their humanist principles helped shape her own ideals and spiritual convictions. In January 1842, Evans refused to accompany her father to his evangelical Protestant services, and their religious differences remained a source of conflict that lasted until his death.

Evans moved to London in the early 1850s and became the assistant editor of the Westminster Review. She had an affair with the owner of the Review, John Chapman, but not only was Chapman married, he had another mistress. In 1851, she met critic and novelist George Henry Lewes. Lewes was a bohemian in an open marriage. His wife, Agnes Jervis, had three children by Lewes, and several children by other men. Within a year of meeting Lewes, he and Evans began a relationship that became the basis of much controversy.

By the end of 1852, Evans and Lewes began living together. In every way but legally, Evans and Lewes considered themselves married. Friends and relatives disparaged the couple and the effect their relationship had on their professional careers. Evans called herself Mrs. Marian Evans Lewes. She and Lewes travelled many times to the Continent a number of times and shared several homes. Lewes supported Evans' literary ambitions and encouraged her to write fiction. Their relationship caused considerable public scandal, especially considering that the relationship was conducted openly. She persisted in her writing endeavors. She began to use the pseudonym George Eliot both as a means of eluding criticism of her private life as well as to separate her fiction from other, more domestic genre work written by female authors. Many admirers of her novel Adam Bede were shocked when it was revealed that novelist George Eliot was, in fact, the scandalous Mrs. Evans Lewes. It was years before she and Lewes were accepted in polite society, despite the popularity and acclaim her work received.

Evans and Lewes remained together until his death in 1878. In 1880, she legally married a man twenty years her junior. She and John Walter Cross were reportedly very happy together, but their time as a married couple was not long. Evans died seven months into their marriage. Her wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey was denied, due largely to her spiritual beliefs and her unconventional relationship with Lewes. She was buried beside Lewes in Highgate Cemetery, but in 1980, a commemorative stone was placed in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, solidifying her reputation as one of the most accomplished, influential and remarkable authors in the English Language.