My hero: George Eliot by Lisa Appignanesi

'Though she comes to us wrapped in swaths of Victoriana, Eliot was a radical of the boldest kind'

George Eliot increases in stature for me with each passing decade. She didn't throw herself into the writing of fiction until she was nearing 40, and it took me almost that long to appreciate her capacious intelligence, her wisdom and, yes, her wit. From Adam Bede to Daniel Deronda, she questioned her times. She plumbed ideas, politics, religion, race, and above all the vagaries of the heart.

Virginia Woolf characterised Middlemarch as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". No happy ending of marriage here for her bookish, youthful heroine, Dorothea, who dedicates herself to the dried-up old scholar Casaubon – satirical renditions of herself and Herbert Spencer, who hadn't requited her infatuation. No happy end either for her Dr Lydgate, who thinks marriage to a pretty airhead will see him through in his great scientific adventure.

Though she comes to us wrapped in swaths of Victoriana, George Eliot was a radical of the boldest kind. In a way, her "ill-favoured" looks served her. They made her estate-manager father decide to send her to school, since marriage might not be an option. Books and ideas became Mary Anne Evans's passion and in part led to her loss of faith. For 14 years, she was housekeeper to her increasingly estranged father. Along the way she learned German, read the Bible sceptics Feuerbach and Strauss, and translated the latter's bestselling Life of Jesus. A few days after her father's funeral, she left for Geneva with progressive friends, and stayed on alone after they had left. On her return, she became, in all but name, editor of the Westminster Review.

Her openly transgressive union with the married social critic and philosopher George Henry Lewes sealed her fate as an outsider. She metamorphosed into the novelist George Eliot. Greatly respected, she was still not respectable. Her brother didn't communicate with her until after Lewes's death, when she finally married: she was 60, her husband, the 40-year-old John Cross.

Contributor

Lisa Appignanesi

The GuardianTramp

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