How Mary Anne Became George

George Eliot
George Eliot; drawing by David Levine

A sonnet sequence is traditionally addressed to a lover and recounts a turbulent, romantic love. Mary Anne Evans, writing under the pseudonym George Eliot, is perhaps unique in having dedicated such a sequence to her brother, Isaac Evans. Published in 1869, when the novelist turned fifty, the poems focus on her and Isaac’s early infancy and the exquisite complementarity of older brother and younger sister, he teaching her, she adoring him, he learning from the need to protect her, she afraid of disappointing him, the two laying down together the emotions and values that would structure their lives. The canals, bridges, fields, and wild flowers of their infant wanderings, the writer tells us, were nothing other than “my growing self” and even today are still “part of me,/My present Past, my root of piety”; while “His years with others must the sweeter be/For those brief days he spent in loving me.”

Why brief? “School parted us,” we hear in the last sonnet, then “the dire years whose awful name is Change…grasped our souls still yearning in divorce.” It’s a curious formulation, as if brother and sister were forcibly held together, “grasped,” in being separated, “divorced,” a word more usually associated with the end of marriage than sibling relationships. Outside the poetry, the story was that when in her mid-thirties Mary Anne had set up house with a married man, her beloved brother cut off all communication with her. Yet despite his insistence on Victorian proprieties and her refusal to bow to them, Evans remained committed to a relationship that lay at the core of her identity: “But were another childhood-world my share,” the sequence concludes, “I would be born a little sister there.”

Ten years earlier, in her first novel, Adam Bede, Eliot had written, “Nature…ties us by our heartstrings to the beings that jar us at every movement.” The character Adam Bede was based on the novelist’s father, the other great love of Mary Anne’s early life. A carpenter’s son, Robert Evans had worked his way up to become an estate manager for a wealthy landowner near Nuneaton in the English Midlands. He had two children by a first wife who then died in childbirth. Mary Anne, born in 1819, was the third child of a second marriage, arriving three years after her brother Isaac and five after an elder sister, Christiana. Their mother too was called Christiana, a woman who sank into gloom and ill health after losing twins just days after their birth in 1821. Judgmental, austere, and caustically practical, she seems to have passed her qualities on to her favorite, Isaac, while Mary Anne was closely attached to her father.

With the mother not well enough to look after her children, at age five the youngest daughter was sent to boarding school, where she suffered from nightmares, panic attacks, and loneliness. But she shone at the various schools she…

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