George Eliot was the pen name of the novelist Mary Ann Evans. She grew up in Warwickshire at a time when industrialisation was transforming the countryside. Her mother died when she was 17, and in 1841 she and her father moved to Coventry which she would use as inspiration for the fictional town of Middlemarch. There she joined a circle of free-thinking intellectuals, and lost her Christian faith. After her father died in 1849, she travelled abroad before settling in London working as an editor at the left-wing Westminster Review. This led to her meeting the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes, married but separated from his wife. Eliot lived with Lewes openly and started referring to herself as Marian Lewes, in defiance of Victorian notions of propriety.
Lewes encouraged her to write fiction, for which she adopted a male psuedonym, partly in order to avoid her work being judged in relation to her scandalous domestic situation. Her first Warwickshire-set tales, profoundly influenced by the interest in ordinary people typical of both Wordsworth’s poetry and contemporary genre painting, appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1857; they were published as Scenes From Clerical Life in 1858. Adam Bede followed in 1859, and The Mill on the Floss in 1860. She published three more novels in the following decade, including Silas Marner (1861), as well as some poetry. Her most famous book, Middlemarch, was published in eight instalments from 1871 to 1872.
A year and a half after Lewes’s death in November 1878, Eliot married the much younger John Cross, but she died from kidney disease within a year.