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Reassessing George Eliot's union with George Henry Lewes and her literary representations of marriage

Beverley Park Rilett, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Every biographer who has studied George Eliot's twenty-four year domestic partnership with George Henry Lewes, which lasted from 1854 until his death in 1878, has concluded it was ideal union, despite its illegal status as a marriage. In Eliot's literary depictions of marriage, however, we find a pervasive pattern of domestic dysfunction. Nearly all her narrative works explore the plight of idealistic heroines who either narrowly avoid marrying an abusive man or else find themselves trapped wives, submitting in silence to cold, authoritarian, and repressive husbands in a society that cannot fathom and must not be told about their suffering. The schism between the way Eliot wrote about her own relationship with Lewes in her letters and journals (Eliot herself called their union "blessed" and a "sacred bond") and the persistent marital alienation of her characters inspired this reassessment of the Eliot-Lewes dynamic, which analyzes not only what she reported about it, but also some incongruous observations by others. My findings suggest that Eliot turned to fiction during her third year with Lewes not out of a sense of perfect contentment, as most of Eliot's biographers contend, but to vent her frustrations under the protective cover of fiction. Though we can never know what went on inside the privacy of their domestic partnership, my revisionist interpretation of the biographical evidence demonstrates a closer correspondence with the experiences of many of her fictional protagonists than previous scholars have acknowledged, and complicates the standard perception that George Henry Lewes was a consistently loving and nurturing partner.^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Rilett, Beverley Park, "Reassessing George Eliot's union with George Henry Lewes and her literary representations of marriage" (2013). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3590987.