Eliot's most famous work, Middlemarch, is a turning point in the history of the novel. Making masterful use of a counterpointed plot, Eliot presents the stories of a number of denizens of a small English town on the eve of the... [more]
Eliot's most famous work, Middlemarch, is a turning point in the history of the novel. Making masterful use of a counterpointed plot, Eliot presents the stories of a number of denizens of a small English town on the eve of the Reform Bill of 1832. The main characters, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, long for exceptional lives but are powerfully constrained both by their own unrealistic expectations and by a conservative society. The novel is notable for its deep psychological insight and sophisticated character portraits.
Throughout her career, Eliot wrote with a politically astute pen. From Adam Bede to The Mill on the Floss and the frequently-read Silas Marner, Eliot presented the cases of social outsiders and small-town persecution. No author since Jane Austen had been as socially conscious and as sharp in pointing out the hypocrisy of the country squires. Felix Holt, the Radical and The Legend of Jubal were overtly political, and political crisis is at the heart of Middlemarch. Readers in the Victorian era particularly praised her books for their depictions of rural society, for which she drew on her own early experiences, and she shared with Wordsworth the belief that there was much interest and importance in the mundane details of ordinary country lives. Eliot did not, however, confine herself to her bucolic roots. Romola, an historical novel set in late 15th century Florence and touching on the lives of several real persons such as the priest Girolamo Savonarola, displays her wider reading and interests. In The Spanish Gypsy, Eliot made a foray into verse, creating a work whose initial popularity has not endured.
The religious elements in her fiction also owe much to her upbringing, with the experiences of Maggie Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss sharing many similarities with the young Mary Anne Evans' own development. When Silas Marner is persuaded that his alienation from the church means also his alienation from society, the author's life is again mirrored with her refusal to attend church. She was at her most autobiographical in Looking Backwards, part of her final printed work Impressions of Theophrastus Such. By the time of Daniel Deronda, Eliot's sales were falling off, and she faded from public view to some degree. This was not helped by the biography written by her husband after her death, which portrayed a wonderful, almost saintly, woman totally at odds with scandalous life they knew she had led. In the 20th century she was championed by a new breed of critics; most notably by Virginia Woolf, who called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". The various film and television adaptations of Eliot's books have re-introduced her to the wider-reading public.