On this day in 1819, the great writer Mary Ann Evans was born. You probably known her better as George Eliot. It is often hard to fully appreciate older authors. For example, people often miss much of the social commentary in Jane Austen, who is read as little more than a particularly witty Harlequin romance. And don’t even get me started on Shakespeare, who almost no one gets much out of. But Eliot doesn’t so much have this problem because of her deep characterizations.
Another aspect of this is how she approaches people on the margins of society. That’s especially true in her first three books. The crux of Adam Bede is Hetty’s desperate and foolish behavior leading to the death of her baby and the ramifications of that. The Mill on the Floss if mostly about Maggie’s isolation and the results of it. I’ve never understood why Tom and Maggie have to die at the end of the book. I guess it was the style of the time, but the book is hardly a tragedy. And Maggie’s sins are minor — even by the standards of time.
Both of these books seem to me just a lead up to Eliot’s masterpiece, Silas Marner. Okay, I admit it: I’m just a soft touch who is easily charmed by an infant melting the heart of a miser. But there is so much more in that little book. Above all, it is highly positive but still realistic rendering of community. People can be very messed up, but in a situation like this, I think this is how people behave. Of course, it is still 19th century literature, so we have to have villains like Dunstan Cass and low-born opium addicts like Molly Farren.
I guess I have to stop there because I haven’t read anything else by Eliot. She is also known for her German translations and for her work as a left wing journalist. She also led quite a scandalous life. She rejected Christianity. And she lived in sin with philosopher George Henry Lewes for twenty odd years. And then, at the age of 60, she married John Cross who was twenty years younger than she was. On their honeymoon, he apparently tried to kill himself. And then when they returned, she caught some kind of infection and died a couple of months later. But hell, she lived a hell of a lot longer than the much better behaved Jane Austen and all the Brontë sisters.
Happy birthday George Eliot!