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Senate House Library

Celebrating George Eliot


Written by
Tansy Barton

Ahead of next year’s 250th anniversary of her birth, the inaugural Nineteenth Century Study Week at the Institute of English Studies takes George Eliot as its subject.  To mark this, a small display of material related to Eliot’s life and work will be in the Seng Tee Lee Centre on the 4th floor.  The Display’s features material from across the Library’s collections, including Eliot’s early periodical contributions, first editions and letters.

Portrait of George Eliot c.1865 (Wikimedia Commons/BNF-Gallica)

Marian Evans, journalist and editor

George Eliot’s career began as a contributor to monthly and weekly periodicals. One of Marian, or Mary Anne, Evans, her given name, first published works was a translations of The Life of Jesus by David Freidrich Strauss.  This brought her into contact with the writer, publisher and bookseller John Chapman, who in 1851 bought the liberal journal The Westminster Review. George Eliot contributed to and edited The Review for its first few years under Chapman’s ownership, bringing together a group and writers and intellectuals to support the journal. Before moving into fiction, Eliot also contributed to several other leading journals, including The Saturday Review, Fraser’s Magazine, and The Leader, edited by her partner, George Henry Lewes. The display includes her first contribution to The Westminster Review and a reprint of articles she contributed to the Coventry Herald and Observer in 1846-47.   


An unconventional life

At the ‘Rosehill Circle’ of her friends Charles and Cara Bray in Coventry and at Chapman’s home and business premises at 142 Strand, George Eliot was involved with many radical thinkers, reformers and writers. Through these she met the philosopher Herbert Spencer, with whom she had a life-long friendship, and two letters to Spencer from Eliot are on display. She also met George Henry Lewes and would spend most of her life with him.  But it was not a conventional Victorian relationship; Lewes was already married and had an open relationship with his wife, Agnes Jervis. They could not divorce, but from 1854, Lewes and Eliot began living as husband and wife, with Eliot referring to herself as Mrs Marian Lewes. After Lewes death in 1878, in her grief Eliot grew close to their friend John Cross, and they married in 1880, just eight months before her death.  Cross’s George Eliot's Life, edited from her journals and letters left out much of her unconventional life, including all mention of John Chapmen, but did much to establish her posthumous reputation.      


The Successful author

In September 1856, Eliot began her first work of fiction: The first part of Scences from Clerical Life, ‘The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton’. Lewes sent the manuscript of the first part of the story to the publisher and proprietor of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, John Blackwood, in November 1856 as a proposal for a series of clerical scenes on behalf of a friend. The first part appeared in the January 1857 and on 4th February 1857, Marian Evans first signed a letter to her publishers as George Eliot.  The first novel to be published under that name, Adam Bede followed in 1859, published by Blackwood’s as a complete work, and Eliot was soon established as one of the leading authors of the day.  The display includes first editions of Adam Bede and her greatest work Middlemarch, alongside the first serial publications of Scenes and Romola.


The display can be viewed in the Seng Tee Lee Centre, accessed via the Special Collections Reading Room on the 4th floor of the Library and our holdings of works by and on George Eliot can be explored through the Library catalogue. More information on summer schools and study weeks can be found at the Institute of English Studies.

About the author

Tansy Barton
Research Librarian