Location: Newdigate Square, Nuneaton
Artist: Denise Dutton
Novelist Mary Ann Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot, was born on the 22nd November 1819 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England. Although in her time, female authors were allowed to publish under their own names, she wished to escape the stereotype of women's writing being limited and overlooked lighthearted romances. Under her pseudonym, Eliot published over seven novels with a focus for the human psyche and philosophy, famous for the detail and empathy which could be felt when she wrote of life in the fields or poverty in her stories.
In her younger years she was a avid reader and bursting with clever, curious intelligence. She was not considered conventionally physically beautiful, Evans was not thought to have much chance of marriage, and this, coupled with her intelligence, led her father to invest in an education not often afforded women.
Thanks to her father's important role on the estate, she was allowed access to the library of Arbury Hall, which greatly aided her self-education and breadth of learning. Her classical education left its mark; Christopher Stray has observed that "George Eliot's novels draw heavily on Greek literature (only one of her books can be printed correctly without the use of a Greek typeface, and her themes are often influenced by Greek tragedy".Her frequent visits to the estate also allowed her to contrast the wealth in which the local landowner lived with the lives of the often much poorer people on the estate, and different lives lived in parallel would reappear in many of her works. The other important early influence in her life was religion. She was brought up within a low church Anglican family, but at that time the Midlands was an area with a growing number of religious dessenters.
She is also most well known for her love affair with fellow writer and philosopher George Lewes.
The two met in 1851, and by 1854 they had decided to live together. Lewes was already married to Agnes Jervis, although in an open marriage. In addition to the three children they had together, Agnes also had four children by Thornton Leigh Hunt. In July 1854, Lewes and Evans travelled to Weimar and Berlin together for the purpose of research. Before going to Germany, Evans continued her theological work with a translation of Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity, and while abroad she wrote essays and worked on her translation of Baruch Spinoza's Ethics, which she completed in 1856, but which was not published in her lifetime. In 1981, Eliot's translation of Spinoza's Ethics was finally published by Thomas Deegan, and was determined to be in the public domain in 2018 and published by the George Eliot Archive. It has been re-published in 2020 by Princeton University Press. The refusal to conceal the relationship was contrary to the social conventions of the time, and attracted considerable disapproval.
Throughout her career, Eliot wrote with a politically astute pen. From Adam Bede to The Mill On The Floss and Silas Marner, Eliot presented the cases of social outsiders and small-town persecution. The roots of her realist philosophy can be found in her review of John Ruskin's Modern Painters in Westminster Review in 1856.
Readers in the Victorian era praised her novels for their depictions of rural society. Much of the material for her prose was drawn from her own experience. She shared with Wordsworth the belief that there was much value and beauty to be found in the mundane details of ordinary country life. Eliot did not, however, confine herself to stories of the English countryside.
She was at her most autobiographical in Looking Backwards, part of her final published work. By the time of Daniel Deronda, Eliot's sales were falling off, and she had faded from public view to some degree. This was not helped by the posthumous biography written by her husband, which portrayed a wonderful, almost saintly, woman totally at odds with the scandalous life people knew she had led. In the 20th century she was championed by a new breed of critics, most notably by Virginia Woolf, who called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". In 1994, literary critic Harold Bloom put Eliot in the category of one of the most important writers of all time, In a 2007 authors' poll by Time, Middlemarch was voted the tenth greatest literary work ever written. In 2015, writers from outside the UK voted it first among all British novels "by a landslide".The various film and television adaptations of Eliot's books have re-introduced her to the wider reading public.
"It is never too late to become what you might have been" - George Eliot
In 1986 a statue of the novelist was made by John Letts and unveiled in her hometown of Nuneaton which also is home a hospital, hospice and school named after her.