As we have seen, before and after Mary Anne Evans became George Eliot, reading was an essential part of her life. The fact that she read more widely than any other Victorian novelist – as well as the often densely allusive nature of her writing – means that identifying the major “influences” on her work is particularly complex and challenging. In recent years literary critics have tended to approach the connections between literary works as questions of “intertextuality,” detecting linguistic similarities that reflect broader cultural discourses. When attempting to understand Eliot's writing in the context of her life and times, the more literal notion of influence can be a useful part of that historical contextualization. This chapter will concentrate on a set of literary texts that pervade her writing and implicitly or explicitly influenced both its style and content.
Eliot gained proficiency in Greek and Latin – a notable accomplishment for a woman who could not attend the universities where young men pursued their studies of classical languages and texts. It is not surprising then that she made the exclusion of a girl from a classical education and the folly of force-feeding Latin to a boy central to the first book of The Mill on the Floss. In trying to explain the psychological harm inflicted on Tom Tulliver by Mr Stelling's insistence that he swallow an uncongenial and impractical curriculum of geometry and Latin, Eliot's narrator tells us that Tom was as uncomfortable “as if he had been plied with cheese in order to remedy a gastric weakness which prevented him from digesting it” (Mill, II:1).
Reviews and essays
Even in her early letters, it is evident that Mary Anne Evans was a natural born critic. She read constantly and extensively and wrote to share her opinions about what she read with friends, as when she observed that L. Vernon Harcourt's Doctrine of the Deluge – one of many attempts to uphold the veracity of the biblical flood in the face of geographical evidence refuting it – seemed to “shake a weak position by weak arguments” (GEL, I:34). In these letters, she exercised her critical mind even more than her creative imagination, and it seemed inevitable that when she considered a career, she thought of participating in the lively literary and intellectual exchanges taking place in the thriving Victorian periodical press.
In the review essays that Marian Evans wrote for various periodicals between 1849 and 1856, we can follow several strands of thought that help us to understand why she began to write fiction and also how she thought fiction ought to be written. Her journalism was the training ground for the penetrating analysis of her narrators. Her reviews and essays are important because they display the impressive range of her reading and knowledge by the time she was in her thirties, and because in them she works out some of the ideas about realist representation that she would later practice. She measured the writing of others according to a standard of “truth” and argued passionately for the moral necessity of such truth.
George Eliot's life provides as compelling a narrative as any she ever invented. Born the same year as Queen Victoria, the woman known successively as Mary Anne Evans, Marian Lewes, George Eliot and Mary Ann Cross lived through dramatic personal and cultural changes that track those of the nineteenth century. While George Eliot refused to sanction any biography during her life, she showed a lively interest in the biographies of others. After reading J. G. Lockhart's Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1839), for example, she wrote: “All biography is interesting and instructive” (GEL, I:24). Her novels are devoted to following the shape of her characters' lives. Just as she emphasized the significance of early events as clues to the psychology of characters such as Maggie Tulliver, Silas Marner, Tertius Lydgate, and Daniel Deronda, so her well-documented life experiences – of both her childhood and adult years – help us to understand her as a person and artist and provide insight into aspects of her fiction.
Mary Anne Evans was born on 22 November 1819 at South Farm on the Newdigate family estate of Arbury Hall near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in that central part of England known as the Midlands. Her parents were Christiana Pearson Evans and Robert Evans. Christiana was Robert Evans's second wife and Mary Anne's family included two children from her father's first marriage (Robert and Fanny), as well as her sister Chrissey (b. 1814) and brother Isaac (b. 1816).
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