15 Intriguing Facts About George Eliot

Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

Born in England in 1819, novelist and poet George Eliot is best remembered for writing classic books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner. Despite the time period she wrote in, the author—whose real name was Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans—was no stuffy Victorian. She had a famously scandalous love life and, among other linguistic accomplishments, is responsible for the term pop music. Here are 15 things you might not know about the beloved British writer.

1. SHE WAS BORN ON THE ESTATE WHERE HER FATHER WORKED.

Eliot was born on the grounds of Arbury Hall and Estate, a sprawling mansion in Warwickshire, England with hundreds of acres of surrounding gardens and farmland. Her father, Robert Evans, worked for the estate's owners, the Newdigate family, as a manager and agent. His job entailed collecting rents from tenant farmers and overseeing the property's coal mine.

2. HER RURAL UPBRINGING INSPIRED HER LATER NOVELS.

Arbury Hall
Arbury Hall
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Eliot was just an infant when her family moved from Arbury Hall to a home in a nearby town. But Arbury and the Warwickshire countryside left their mark on her. In Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Eliot's collection of three short stories, she wrote about the area and drew inspiration from real places and people. And some of her stories mirrored reality pretty closely. For instance, she turned Arbury Hall into Cheverel Manor, and Sir Roger Newdigate, Arbury's owner, into Sir Christopher Cheverel.

3. SHE EDITED A JOURNAL FOR PROGRESSIVE THINKERS.

In the early 1850s, Eliot wrote for The Westminster Review, a London-based periodical founded by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, contributing essays and reviews using the name Marian Evans. She soon became the de facto editor of the progressive journal, though her role was anonymous. Years later, other writers reviewed Eliot's own pseudonymous works in the journal she once edited.

4. SHE WORKED AS A TRANSLATOR.

Throughout her life, Eliot put her language skills to work translating foreign works into English. She translated books like David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a highly controversial German treatise that argued that Jesus Christ was a real person, but not divine. (Upon reading her translation, one English nobleman called it "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.") Eliot also translated The Essence of Christianity by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the Latin Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, incorporating facets of these philosophical and religious ideas into her own writing.

5. SHE WASN'T A FAN OF MOST WOMEN WRITERS OF HER DAY.

Eliot was by no means a misogynist, but she did have some harsh words for fellow women writers. In an anonymous essay titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Eliot lamented the frivolous characters and unrealistic plots that she argued were nearly ubiquitous features of novels written by women at the time. Published in The Westminster Review in 1856, Eliot's essay asserted that these books, full of cliches and improbable romantic endings, made educated women look foolish. She also criticized the writing style of other women of her time, saying they mistook "vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality." However, she did allow that not every book written by a woman fell into this trap, praising writers like Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Elizabeth Gaskell.

6. SHE WAS NOT CONSIDERED CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE …

George Eliot, circa 1868.
George Eliot, circa 1868.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Eliot's appearance was a source of avid discussion during her lifetime, and her looks continue to fascinate readers today. Eliot herself joked about her ugliness in letters to friends, and the novelist Henry James once described her in a letter to his father as "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." He went on to say that the "horse-faced" writer had a "vast pendulous nose," a low forehead, and bad teeth, among other physical flaws.

7. … BUT MEN LOVED HER.

Despite her plain appearance, men were drawn to Eliot. In the same letter where he called her "deliciously hideous," James explained his counterintuitive attraction towards her like this: "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her."

After various dalliances and a marriage proposal that she turned down, she spent more than two decades with the philosopher and critic George Lewes. But Lewes was already married, and as a result, many in Eliot's social circle (including her brother) shunned her. Though Lewes couldn't obtain an official divorce from his estranged wife, he and Eliot lived together as partners until his death in 1878, and she referred to herself as Mrs. Marian Lewes.

8. HER PEN NAME PAID HOMAGE TO HER LOVER.

In 1856, both to avoid the sexism of the publishing industry and distance her literary work from her scandalous romantic situation, she adopted the pen name George Eliot, a male nom de plume that paid homage to Lewes. In addition to adopting his first name, some historians have also suggested that "Eliot" derives from "To L(ewes), I owe it."

9. SHE MARRIED A MAN TWO DECADES HER JUNIOR …

After Lewes's death, Eliot channeled her grief by editing his writing and spending time with her lawyer and accountant, John Cross. Although Eliot was 60 and Cross was just 40, the two friends fell in love and married at London's St. George's Church in the spring of 1880.

10. … BUT THEIR HONEYMOON TOOK A DARK TURN.

After their wedding, the pair traveled to Venice, Italy for their honeymoon. Although Cross wrote a letter to his sister indicating that he was having a delightful time, Eliot knew something was wrong. Her new husband was depressed, agitated, and losing weight. She called a doctor to their hotel room and was speaking with him when Cross jumped off the balcony into the Grand Canal.

Cross was rescued by a hotel worker and the personal gondolier the couple had hired to take them around the waterways. The newlyweds eventually continued on their trip, and they remained married until Eliot's death later that year. Historians continue to speculate about the reason for his jump, and whether it was a suicide attempt—Cross may have had a personal and family history of mental illness—or some kind of heat-induced delirium. The mysterious incident was recently turned into a novel.

11. SHE INVENTED THE TERM POP

You probably don't associate George Eliot with Lady Gaga, but the Oxford English Dictionary credits the Victorian novelist with coining the term pop to refer to popular music. In November 1862, Eliot wrote in a birthday letter to a friend, "We have been to a Monday Pop. this week to hear Beethoven's Septet, and an amazing thing of Bach's played by the amazing Joachim. But there is too much 'Pop.' for the thorough enjoyment of the chamber music they give."

12. … AND A NEW MEANING OF THE WORD BROWSER.

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK
George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK

Diamond Geezer, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eliot coined a number of other now-common terms in her writing. For instance, she was the first to use the word browser in the modern sense of someone who is casually looking around (like a browser in a bookstore). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, the word browser meant “a person who cuts the leaves and twigs of trees to use as food for animals in winter." Later, it came to mean an animal that searched for leaves and twigs to eat. Eliot's historical novel Romola marked the first recorded time the word was used to mean a person generally surveying something. In it, she describes several friends of Florentine politician Bartolomeo Scala as "amiable browsers in the Medicean park."

13. SHE WAS ALSO A POET.

Although Eliot was most famous for her novels, she also produced two volumes of poetry. Her first published piece of writing was a poem called "Knowing That Shortly I Must Put Off This Tabernacle." Published in The Christian Observer in 1840, the poem refers to the Bible and imagines a person who is about to die saying goodbye to Earth. In a later poem, "O May I Join the Choir Invisible," Eliot argues that improving the world during one's lifetime is the only way to achieve permanence.

14. VIRGINIA WOOLF ADMIRED HER WRITING.

Author Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch's mature prose, referring to it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And modern readers seem to agree. In 2015, a BBC poll of 82 book critics from around the world named Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time. Several authors, including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, have also listed the book as one of the greatest English novels ever written.

15. HER FORMER HOME IS NOW A STEAKHOUSE.

Griff House, where Eliot lived as an infant until her early twenties, still exists, but it's now home to a steakhouse and hotel. Called the Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Travel Inn, the spot also features a pond, gardens, and a play area for kids.

7 Surprising Facts About The Giving Tree

Harper Children's
Harper Children's

Some readers remember The Giving Tree as a sweet picture book about the strength of unconditional love. To others, it was a heartbreaking tale that messed them up during story time. No matter your interpretation of the story, The Giving Tree is a children’s classic that helped make Shel Silverstein a household name—even if it took him a while to get there.

1. Multiple publishers rejected The Giving Tree.

Shel Silverstein had only sold one children’s book—Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back—when he went about finding a publisher for The Giving Tree. The book’s somber themes made it a hard sell. One editor at Simon & Schuster described it as “too sad” for kids and “too simple” for adults, while another editor called the titular tree “sick” and “neurotic.” Other publishers were moved by the story, which follows the relationship between a boy and a tree over the course of his lifetime, but ultimately felt it was too risky for the genre. After four years of searching for a publisher, Silverstein finally found a home for the book at Harper Children’s, when editor Ursula Nordstrom recognized its potential.

2. The Giving Tree was a surprise success.

The Giving Tree received a small release in 1964 with just 5000 to 7500 copies printed for the first edition. Though its publisher clearly underestimated its potential popularity, it didn’t take long for the book to explode into a modern classic. It quickly became one of the most successful children’s books of the era and made Silverstein an important figure in the industry. Today, nearly 55 years after it was first published, The Giving Tree has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

3. There are various interpretations of the relationship at the center of the story—not all of them positive.

The Giving Tree centers on the relationship between a tree and a boy throughout the stages of his life—from his childhood to his elderly years. In each stage, the tree provides the boy with whatever he needs, ultimately giving him a stump to sit on when the tree has nothing else to give. Positive interpretations of this story paint it as a parable of unconditional love: When it first hit shelves, The Giving Tree was a hit with Protestant ministers, who applied Christian themes to the book. But according to some critics, the book depicts an abusive relationship, with the tree literally allowing herself to be destroyed to keep the perpetually dissatisfied boy happy while receiving nothing in return. Other interpretations compare the relationship between the tree and the boy to those between a mother and child, two aging friends, and Mother Nature and humanity.

4. The author’s photo is infamous.

The author’s photograph on the back of The Giving Tree—depicting a bearded, bald-headed Silverstein glaring at the camera—has gained a reputation of its own. A Chicago Tribune writer called it “demonic” while a writer for NJ.com pointed out his “jagged menacing teeth.” In the children’s book Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw, there’s an entire passage where the main character’s dad uses Silverstein's photo to terrorize his son into staying in bed.

5. The Giving Tree isn’t Shel Silverstein’s favorite work.

The Giving Tree may be among Silverstein's most successful and recognizable works, but when asked what his favorite pieces of his writing were in a 1975 Publisher’s Weekly interview, he left it off the list. “I like Uncle Shelby's ABZ, A Giraffe and a Half, and Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back—I think I like that one the most," the author said. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of the book that helped launch his career. On the book’s popularity, he said "What I do is good ... I wouldn't let it out if I didn't think it was."

6. Silverstein dedicated The Giving Tree to an ex-girlfriend.

The Giving Tree’s short dedication, “For Nicky,” is meant for an old girlfriend of the children’s book author.

7. Silverstein hated happy endings.

In case The Giving Tree doesn’t make it clear enough, Silverstein stated in an 1978 interview that he detests happy endings. He told The New York Times Book Review that he believed cheery conclusions “create an alienation” in young readers. He explained his stance further, saying "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back." The Giving Tree features what is perhaps Silverstein’s best-known sad ending, if not one of the most infamous endings in children’s literature.

How to Download Thousands of Classic Books and Movies That Just Entered the Public Domain

iStock.com/hocus-focus
iStock.com/hocus-focus

You may want to check the amount of available storage space on your e-reader, because classic books by Lewis Carroll, Agatha Christie, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf are now in the public domain. As Motherboard reports, the copyright on tens of thousands of books from 1923 expired on January 1, which means that these titles are now in the public domain and can be legally downloaded for free.

Because the copyright on works published between 1923 and 1977 is good for 95 years, this marks the first time in decades that a large number of books, movies, and songs has entered the public domain. Next year, items from 1924 will be available for download, and so on.

The list of titles up for grabs includes Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, The World Crisis by Winston Churchill, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, and many more.

Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain has painstakingly listed nearly all of the new public domain works in an Excel spreadsheet, and a condensed list of the top titles is also available on its website. Unfortunately, you can’t get them all in one place, but a few reliable sources probably have what you’re looking for.

Project Gutenberg, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive are a few of the digital libraries that let you download or read books online for free. You can also check the selections available on Read Print and The Literature Network. If those options fail, try searching for a specific title on Google Books.

A few noteworthy movies also recently entered the public domain. Some of them include Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Charlie Chaplin's The Pilgrim. This essentially means these films can now be shown in theaters or public screenings without fear of violating copyright laws. Some of them are also available for viewing or download on the Internet Moving Image Archive.

[h/t Motherboard]

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