Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 31 (2000)
There have been very many views expressed over the years about George Eliot - her genius, her behaviour and, inevitably, her looks. But what were the views of her family back in Nuneaton? It is well known that her brother Isaac, then very much the Victorian patriarch, dismissed her from the Evans family when he knew about her liaison with G. H. Lewes. They could not subsequently be unaware of her fame and there may have been many criticisms of her expressed within the family circle.
Some family letters still exist and are in my possession, but there are not enough to tell us how often Mary Ann was the subject of discussion between her relations. One letter (or perhaps it was part of an article for a local newspaper) dated 25 February, written by Isaac Evans's unmarried daughter Eleanor possibly in 1881 - two months after George Eliot's death - describes a visit to Griff House by a Miss Kingsley. Miss Kingsley, Charles Kingsley's daughter, was accompanied by her cousin, Miss Vivian. Miss Kingsley, Eleanor writes,
was much pleased at being asked to come in and stay for luncheon .... They both knew GE by sight. Miss K was once in the house where GE had been to luncheon and she, GE, was waiting for her carriage. Miss K said her eyes were piercing and seem to see through her, every glance making itself felt. They were rather small eyes, but had a marvellous glow in them, and more expression than she had ever seen in any other person's .... Miss Kingsley had a copy of Adam Bede which 'Aunt George' had sent to Charles Kingsley. He thought very highly of her, and deplored her life so much, speaking of 'O May I Join' etc and being absorbed into something other than one self.
What Isaac Evans thought of this visit goes unrecorded in Eleanor's narrative, but he was able to assist John Cross when we was preparing the Life of his famous wife. Amongst Isaac's own copy of notes he sent to Cross! are the following observations:
'I can think of no-one who gave GE books as a little girl unless it was her Uncle Everard'. 'I went to Fee School for a short time but Mary Anne never did.' 'Sharp features does not truly describe her face'. 'The dearth of literature could not have been acutely felt at that time. Looking back to that time from the midst of her ample literary surroundings in middle life she might well have seemed to her to describe the state of her childish surroundings thus, but I know that then she was fonder of digging pits in the garden and such like than of books .... I cannot believe in the Joe Miller Jest book. If it had been in the house I should have been more likely to discover it than Mary Anne.'
Family views can be very different, particularly of the black sheep.