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Discussion - Middlemarch > Background: George Eliot and her times

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments A place for discussing George Eliot and the historical setting of the book. To avoid too many threads I have combined these, but if need be we'll break them out later.


message 2: by Adelle (new)

Adelle | 127 comments I took notes when I read George Eliot background in 2007. Some is rather fragmented, but I browsed through it and most of it seems fairly understandable. What complicated human relations in her life.


Except for where I've noted CARROLL all the information is from George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes

Nov 22, 1819. Mary Anne Evans [George Eliot:] was the 5th child… and she was only a girl. Her father was aged 45. Her father was moving up. Managed a huge estate.

Alexandrina Victoria [later known as Queen Victoria:] had been born 6 months earlier… she was only a girl and was so far down the line of inheritance that she, too, was of no great importance. Her father was 52.

MAE had wonderful memories of standing between her father's legs as he would direct the horses and they would travel through the woods that he managed to check on various aspects of the estate.

MAE read Darwin. Saw societies as evolving over 1000s of years – not radical change. MAE believed in idea of society evolving very slowly. {She wrote that after 30years of living in London, her 1st thought regarding the weather was still, how would it affect the crops?}

She had an Uncle George. There was talk of heavy drinking. “The family” turned it’s back on his children when he died young. [They didn’t appear to be big on empathy.:]


Mary Anne’s mother was the 2nd wife. Didn’t seem very nurturing to me. Mary Anne sent to “day school” when she was little. Memories of age 3 @ “day school” trying to get past big girls to the fire. Memories of being cold and of feeling being kept out.
Sent off to boarding school at 5. Book said something along the lines: within a very few years the new Mrs. Evans had managed to get rid of all the children. Author of this book writes that the early w/d of mother’s affection left Mary Anne [George Eliot:] with a vulnerability to rejection all her life.

Mary Anne. Very religious growing up. Baptists “sisters.” MAE called home from school at 17. Mother dying. At 22 she tells her family she cannot attend church. Arguments. She agrees for a few months to compromise. She will attend church, but will know that she does not believe. She finds that she can not continue this way. Father pretty much sends her away. { She and her father at this time are living near Rosehill which is where the Brays live and Mary Anne spends more and more time there.}

Years later when MAE is living with George Lewes, Issac, her beloved brother, tells his sisters, Mary Anne's sisters, too, never to write or talk to her. [Tom from The Mill on the Floss is pretty much Isaac.:]

Mary Anne is Baptist. Issac is High Church. [due to where they boarded:]

MAE had headaches and screaming fits. Religion/ambition.

During what she would refer to as The Holy War [1840-41:] “she learned about the authority of individual experience in determining personal morality.”

Loved reading Wordsworth. The importance of feelings. The importance of landscape and childhood in shaping the adult self.

She had a belief in full potential. Came to believe that it was the duty of each to follow the truth wherever it might lead.

Robert Evans {her father}. Cold and sullen rage over Mary Anne’s refusal to attend church. She had put herself outside respectable society. Less religion would have been nice {in the view of Mr. Evans}; no religion was unacceptable.

The Brays. A sexually open marriage. {publicly touted marriage to remain in society}

They gave her a sense of being wanted.

She was working on translations – some German guy. {I forgot who} He wondered: Did the apostles see Jesus or interpret Jesus as the Messiah because that’s what they had been conditioned to look for?

Mary Ann {she has changed her name by this point} has learned an important lesson: she elevates the community of feeling over the hair-spitting of intellectual debate.

Some years pass.

Her family/Isaac are upset that she is wasting the family resources by not marrying. {“not till 34 would she risk falling in love with an ALMOST AVAILABLE man [that would be George Henry Lewes with whom she lived for 25-26 years until his death:]” [Hughes:].

Mary Ann’s sister was named Chrissy. She had a Doctor husband. There were money problems. The husband [who controls Chrissy’s assets:] mtgs Chrissy’s inherited home to her father [Robert Evans:]. 6 children. 9 born. Chrissy’s husband dead at 45. Her home not her own property. Isaac dutifully makes arrangements. Though there was talk of sending Chrissy and the children to Australia where it would be less expensive for them to live; alternatively, there was talk of putting some of the children into an orphanage to cut expenses.


1848. MAE reading Jane Eyre.

From Rosehill [where the Brays lived:] to John Chapman’s (editor/publisher type) “The Strand” – also “intellectual hub”, also “irregular” sexual mores.

Mary Ann is now Marian

Over the years… Mary Ann had to often “abruptly” leave where she had been staying…men…usually married… usually older…no concrete details… just that she needed to leave.

“the more studiedly casual her tone when speaking/writing of a man, the deeper her interest”

Herbert Spencer. Found her intellectually stimulating. London thought them engaged. Spencer writes to her: between us there’s “nothing romantic, you know;” letting her know that there was nothing romantic between them and that he hopes she didn’t have such an idea. She writes him back: how tiresome- it had never occurred to me. But then perhaps she does something to make him think that she sees him romantically…..had she been too bold? P122 she writes two letters begging for his affection and for continued contact--- at least for conversation. Later, he writes her AND lets London know publicly that she was too ugly… he never married.

Timing: Spencer publishes these judgments just as Eliot was falling in love w/G.L. [Spencer’s best friend:]. As GHL and MAE become intimate, Spencer suffers emotional/physical collapse---but: though GREATLY concerned that the public would think him the jilted not the jilter, he sealed her two begging letters “until 1985”



CARROLL: “you can maintain that the mill on the River Floss is a piece of property w a 5% mtg or you can see it as the embodiment of your emotional life” [That sentence SO hit home to me.:]



Lewes: at least 4 of the 9 children that were born by his wife were actually Hunt’s {Lewes’ friend and co-editor}

MAE has most of her correspondence addressed to Mrs. Lewes. {But too, the landlady would be less than pleased if she were to discover that “Mrs. Lewes” was single. Perhaps not as much of a concern after GHL and GE bought their own home.} Pleased when Agnes writes “Mrs. Lewes” to her.

Spencer: eventually re-established relationship. He was her final visitor. He introduced her to John Cross [the man some 20 years her junior whom she married 6 months before she died. She was about 60; he about 40.:] After MAE marries John Cross, Isaac writes her [because she’s married now:]. Opening line is something like: My dearest sister… {BTW, John Cross jumped out of window in Venice while they were on their honeymoon. Ooooh, the gossip that THAT generated back in London.}

Lewes had known Shelley. Lewes and Agnes [Lewes’s legal wife:] had agreed when they married that monogamy was an unnatural obligation – permission to follow sexual desire – and they did … Lewes registered Hunt’s children as his own – Lewes’s youngest had died two weeks before the birth of Hunt’s child [whooping cough:] – Lewes was at this time just launching new magazine with Hunt {who continued throughout to continue to have relations with his own wife, too. 10 children with his wife. Some just weeks apart in birth from his children w/Agnes.]

Terrible, stressful, decision for both Marian and Lewes as to whether to make their relationship public. Lewes has to retire to countryside for a water cure. Lewes supporting the children. Mrs. Lewes… large spending habits and large debts.

MAE – her inheritance controlled by Issac. He sends payments 2x/year.

GE writing to support GHL children. Even after death, she sends an allowance to Agnes [Mrs. Lewes:]. Sent $ gifts to sister Chrissy for school fees.

Tries to describe “things as they are”
As a Greek drama: The Mill – Tullivers brought low by human failing and circumstance

Silas Marner – GE had considered writing it in verse
---Silas Marner was ostracized…as was she. Someone else’s child(ren) at 40 brings back feelings – Nancy will have no children, nor will Mary Ann…ponders this in her journal

Middlemarch written for money – to support Mrs. W, Agnes, Emily Clarke, Nursie, Bertie, Charlie, (Lewes’s other son was dead. He had come to them, I think, shortly after their trip to Germany to be nursed. He was dead within six months. Tuberculosis of the spine). Grandchildren to support, too. [The grandchildren of Lewis and his wife, Agnes.:]

GE suffered from black moods. GHL would hide the bad reviews; only show her the good ones.

“How must I live?”
the candle and the scratches

Lewes dies age 61. Cancer. ALL Marians’ assets were in Lewes’s name.
Old will was from 1859. Copyrights to his work goes to his sons. All else to Marian, executor. MAE had to go to court to prove will and to become MAE Lewes first.

Requests for money poured in from Lewes relatives.

MAE had requested burial at Westminster Abbey. Turned down.

w/in 10 years no one was reading her work.


message 3: by Adelle (last edited Mar 16, 2010 09:01PM) (new)

Adelle | 127 comments Ah, Everyman, I just saw your list of George Eliot biographies. They look rather more highbrow than the one I read. (Still, smile, the one I read by K. Hughes was a fun read.)

George Eliot The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes Kathryn Hughes


message 4: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Adelle wrote: "I took notes when I read George Eliot background in 2007. Some is rather fragmented, but I browsed through it and most of it seems fairly understandable. What complicated human relations in her ..."

Useful comments, Adelle. Thanks for posting.

One of the schools she attended was in Coventry, which she attended from ages 13-16, and she and her newly retired father moved there when she was 21 (1841). He died in 1849, and she moved to London. It is widely accepted that Coventry was the model for Middlemarch. When Eliot lived there it was still a modest provincial town of perhaps 20,000, not at all the large city we know today.


message 5: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Adelle wrote: "I took notes when I read George Eliot background in 2007. Some is rather fragmented, but I browsed through it and most of it seems fairly understandable. What complicated human relations in her ..."

BTW, the German she translated was D.F. Strauss, and the work was Das Leben Jesu, or the Life of Jesus.


message 6: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Hicks (goodreadscomlaurele) | 2438 comments Everyman wrote: BTW, the German she translated was D.F. Strauss, and the work was Das Leben Jesu, or the Life of Jesus.

Strauss was one of the German theologians who ushered in Christian liberalism, or modernist theology (no miracles, nothing supernatural, no resurrection, etc.)


message 7: by Adelle (new)

Adelle | 127 comments Thank you, Everyman,Laurele, Strauss was the name I had forgotten.

I suspect that schools in the 1700s, 1800s had more intense language courses. Eliot was translating. I see occasional sidenotes that other authors have worked as translators.

Me, I took 4 years of German in school, and would have been in no way qualifed to do solid translations.


message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks for the notes Adelle. I am intrigued by your comment aabout Mill on the Floss.

CARROLL: “you can maintain that the mill on the River Floss is a piece of property w a 5% mtg or you can see it as the embodiment of your emotional life” [That sentence SO hit home to me.:]

I suspect we will run up against something similar in Middlemarch: One non-material thing embodied in another.

Not having read that book, I have no idea what it really means or why it resonated so for you, but it is a really interesting way of looking at things.


message 9: by Adelle (new)

Adelle | 127 comments Zeke, I should have caught that sentence and edited it out, as it's off-topic. It's simply that I grew up in the House on the River and all of us children are emotionally tangled up with the house.

I liked the way your sentence was worded: "One non-material thing embodied in another."


message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Hawthorne does the same thing in House of the Seven Gables.


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George Eliot: The Last Victorian (other topics)

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