MARY ANN EVANS, known to the world of literature and beyond by her pen name, George Eliot, was born on 22 November 1819 in a small farmhouse, a few miles from Nuneaton, in Warwickshire. Like every girl born then, her future held no prospects beyond marriage, children, and domesticity.
She defied all such expectations and — to a remarkable degree — contributed to the spirit, questioning, and restlessness of the Victorian age.
She became a novelist of the highest distinction, and, after the death of Dickens, came to be regarded as the country’s greatest living writer. She wrote seven novels. Middlemarch, published in 1871, is now regarded by critics as the greatest novel of the 19th century. Its memorable closing lines are deeply poignant, and represent part of her personal credo that the welfare of the world depends on quiet, unseen acts on the part of those who have sought to live faithful lives.
Evans herself was blessed with a fierce intelligence and a truth-seeking heart, and the wisdom and compassion that informed her work captivated thousands of readers. She was fêted as a celebrity and a seer. Passers-by sought to touch her hand. When she visited Berlin, ambassadors begged for an audience, and princes waited patiently to be introduced.
Behind her writings lay the remnants of an Evangelical faith, slowly but inexorably eroded by doctrines that she could no longer believe and moral teachings — promulgated in the name of religion — that she found reprehensible. The ethical implications of hell and everlasting fire troubled her, and she found no satisfaction in the easy answers of Christian teachers to the misery and suffering that she believed attended most human lives.
IN 1844, when she was just 24 and already struggling with personal matters of faith, she was invited to translate an important theological work that had been published in Germany ten years before. This book by a young New Testament scholar, David Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, challenged the historical foundations of the Old and New Testaments, and the trustworthiness of the Church’s teachings concerning the earthly life and deeds of Jesus.
Evans accepted what proved to be an enormous challenge: translating Strauss dominated her life for two years. Fifteen hundred pages of difficult German lay before her, peppered with quotations in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. She grew weary with the task — “Strauss sick”, as she once described herself — and was prone to dreadful headaches. Strauss’s arguments also distressed her, particularly when they concerned Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
At this early stage in her life, she still retained a measure of respect for Christianity, and, by way of resistance to the implications of what she was translating, she placed an image of the risen Christ by her desk.
The book came out in 1846, and, for her intense and sustained labours, Evans was paid £20. Her name appeared nowhere in the book, but her translation secured its status, described by the British theologian Don Cupitt as “perhaps the most important theological book of the 19th century”.
Strauss became famous — and, eventually, infamous. The book cost him his academic career, and he was prevented from teaching theology in German universities. In England, where conservative scholars feared that the book would offend or distress the faithful, it was kept off the curriculum.
More liberal-minded teachers objected to the ban, which they declared was a form of terrorism which made true theological education impossible. They were condemned in the church courts, before being acquitted on appeal to the Privy Council in 1864. It was not the Church of England’s finest hour, and was evidence of its refusal to engage with hard intellectual thought, or difficult questions that challenged its religious and moral claims.
IN CONTRAST, Evans, with her moral clarity and robust approach to the fraught business of living authentically without recourse to religion, became a secular guru. At a dinner in Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1868, she spoke solemnly about “the duties of life, the shallow immorality of believing that all things would turn out for the best, and the danger of fixing our attention too much on the life to come, as likely to distract us from doing our duty in this world”.
On a subsequent visit to Cambridge, she took as her text three words that had previously been the preserve of religion: God, immortality, and duty. With the earnestness of the most devout preacher, she pronounced “how inconceivable was the first; how unbelievable the second; and yet how peremptory and absolute the third”.
Her gospel resonated with both the educated classes and the less privileged who sought a higher moral standard for their lives. She urged them to try harder, to reject false hopes, and to do what they could to lessen the difficult and often undeserved burdens of others. Letters came from all over the world with testimonies to how her wisdom had led correspondents to renounce foolish ways, or love their partners better.
At her death, the distinguished and influential Roman Catholic historian Lord Acton acknowledged her as a great influence on his own intellectual formation, and praised her “spontaneous talent and great natural power to absorb, to think deeply and exactly, and to feel”.
FOR all her setting aside of orthodox Christianity, such praise suggests that — in her concern for truth and integrity — Evans reflected the moral strenuousness that lies at the heart of the New Testament, which once nurtured her worthiest adolescent intuitions.
She reminds us that life frequently resembles a cinder road, that our relationship to the future is unpredictable, that we have inescapable duties to others if the term “community” is to retain any real meaning, and that succumbing to defeat is sometimes a seductive but misguided form of moral cowardice.
She encourages us to think in questions rather than reject them, not least concerning matters of faith that order our lives and give them meaning. Perhaps most of all, as competing political narratives currently beguile us with the promise of endless glad, confident mornings to come, when progress will be inevitable and prosperity guaranteed, we should heed her advocacy of meliorism: the slow, often difficult, always consensual grasping towards something morally better.
This was not a teaching that was commonly heard from the pulpits of Victorian England. Preachers thundered about the damnation to come, and the urgency of repentance, while failing to see that Evans’s creed contained clear intimations of Christ’s Kingdom and the moral duty — enshrined in his teaching — to establish it here on earth.
Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian. He is writing a biography of Cardinal Newman, to be published in spring 2019.