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George Eliot

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English Literature

George Eliot was one of the most prolific writers of the Victorian era. She is now regarded as a leading female author who became highly influential. Eliot was a novelist, poet, translator, and journalist. Some of her best-known works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1871-2).

Below is a biography of George Eliot. You will also find an exploration of her works, novels, short stories, and poems included, and some important quotes from these works.

George Eliot: biography

George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans on 22 November 1819 in the UK. She was the third child of Robert and Christiana Evans. Robert Evans was the manager of a large estate. Eliot had quite a comfortable childhood.

The name George Eliot was in fact a penname adopted by Eliot when she began publishing fiction. She did this presumedly for multiple reasons. Adopting a male pseudonym would ensure that Eliot's work would be taken seriously and not brushed off as women's fiction. George Eliot was also living with a man who was married to another woman. This unusual social situation would have been harshly judged by Victorian society. Eliot may have been trying to avoid her work being linked to this.

George Eliot grew up in a rural community in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. She also lived in close vicinity to the new industrial towns that were forming in England at the time. Her upbringing would go on to significantly influence her work. Unusually for a young girl at this time, Eliot received quite a good education, showing intelligence and promise from a young age. She attended boarding school until her mother's death in 1836.

After this, Eliot had to return home and perform the domestic duties that her mother had previously taken care of. She often clashed with her father at this time over her education. Eliot wanted to read and study subjects that were thought to be only for men, like Latin and Greek. Eliot did have access to a substantial library on the estate her father managed. She read widely, particularly the Greek classics, and this is evident in her later work. Eliot also often fought with her father on matters of religion. Eliot's family was Anglican, but she had begun to have doubts about religion. Her father was particularly displeased with her reluctance to attend church.

George Eliot and her father moved to Coventry in 1841. Coventry afforded Eliot many new opportunities to interact with intellectuals that shared her ways of thinking, particularly Charles and Cara Bray. They were a couple that often used their home to host intellectuals discussing new and radical ideas, often about matters such as religion. Eliot attended many of these discussions.

These discussions inspired Eliot to translate D.F. Strauss's highly controversial work Life of Jesus (1846) which posed many questions about traditional religion. Eliot's translation proved just as controversial. She continued translating for the years that followed. After her father's death, Eliot also began to write and edit the Westminister Review. She published many articles about Victorian society and organised religion.

Eliot met the critic and philosopher George Henry Lewes in 1851. The two began a relationship and started living together in 1854. This was highly scandalous at the time as Lewes was already married and had children with another woman. He and his wife were estranged and had an open relationship, but this was not recognised by Victorian society. Eliot and Lewes had a loving and intellectual relationship. He encouraged her to explore fiction-writing as well as her journalistic and translation work. It was then that she adopted the pseudonym George Eliot. Eliot began writing some short stories and in 1859, she published her first novel, Adam Bede.

This novel was quickly followed by two more: The Mill on the Floss in 1860 and Silas Marner in 1861. Her next work, Romola, which was inspired by time spent in Florence, was serialised between 1862 and 1863. Eliot's novels were proving to be very successful. She was earning a substantial amount of money from them and at that time was becoming quite wealthy.

Eliot gradually began to write more overtly political novels. This led to the publication of Felix Holt, Radical in 1866. From 1871 and 1872, she published her best-known and most-recognised work, Middlemarch, a detailed exploration of life in a provincial town and all its complications. Three years later, in 1876, Eliot published Daniel Deronda. This was to be George Eliot's last novel.

Lewes passed away in 1878. Eliot and Lewes had never married but had lived as husband and wife since 1854. Eliot found solace for her grief in her banker, J.W. Cross. The two married in May 1880 but had very little time together. Eliot passed away from complications from kidney disease in December 1880. She was 61.1

George Eliot: books

Let's take a look at some of George Eliot's best-known novels.

George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss (1860)

The Mill on the Floss centres on the fractured relationship between Maggie Tulliver and her brother Tom. It is thought to be partly inspired by Eliot's own difficult relationship with her brother Isaac, as he disapproved of her relationship with the married George Henry Lewes.

The Mill on the Floss begins in the Tulliver family's mill on the fictional River Floss in Lincolnshire. Maggie and Tom have a complicated relationship. Maggie wants to be close to her brother, but they often struggle with this. Tom cares much for social status and success, while Maggie prioritises love, intellectualism, and connection with others. Maggie and Tom's father faces bankruptcy. Tom leaves his education to enter the business world and help his father with his debts. This pushes Tom to become a much more pragmatic and detached person.

Maggie also develops a relationship with Philip Wakem, an intellectual young man who shares many of her views. Tom and her father disapprove of this relationship. They despise Philip's father, as he has caused the Tulliver family to lose their mill. Maggie and Philip often meet in secret and Philip eventually encourages her to declare her love for him. Tom breaks this relationship up when he discovers it, which damages Maggie and Tom's relationship. A series of events occur over the following years in which Maggie and Tom's father loses his life.

Maggie spends some time visiting with her cousin, Lucy Deane, and Lucy's suitor, Stephen Guest. They are also friends with Philip Wakem. Maggie gets reluctant permission from Tom to see Philip again. However, Maggie and Stephen gradually realise they are attracted to each other. Philip too eventually realises this and becomes jealous. Maggie does not want her relationship with Stephen to become serious but he proposes to her. This proposal comes to nothing. Stephen leaves the area and Maggie is left humiliated and cast out by society.

Maggie spends some time living with friends, the Jakins. Lucy forgives Maggie and they are reconciled. Stephen sends a letter that insists Maggie marries him but she refuses. While staying at the Jakins, Maggie wakes in the night to find the River Floss is flooding. She manages to sail a boat to the Tulliver mill which Tom now owns to save her brother. The two sail the boat towards Lucy Deane's house but it capsizes. Maggie and Tom drown in each other's arms. It seems the two have finally been reconciled.

Many themes are covered in The Mill on the Floss. Some of the most important of these are estranged families and forgiveness. Gender is also key, as Maggie is often judged for her choices as a woman. Tom clearly has much more power and agency, often telling Maggie what to do.

George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871-2)

Middlemarch is undoubtedly George Eliot's best-known work. It originally appeared in eight volumes between 1871 and 1872. Middlemarch is now seen as one of the Victorian period's great realist texts. It is a very long novel that spans over three years and follows many complex characters whose lives are intertwined.

Realism is a literary genre. It is characterised by plausible plots that contain realistic characters doing everyday things. Realism began as a genre as a reaction to the fantastical genre of Romanticism. A key thing to remember about realism is that it contains stories that are plausible, but not necessarily possible. Other famous realist texts include Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott and Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869).

The central character of Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent and ambitious young woman. She lives in the fictional town of Middlemarch, as do the rest of the characters in Eliot's novel. Dorothea and her sister are orphans and live with their uncle Mr Brooke. Dorothea has many plans for her life. She wants to be involved in charitable projects and intellectual research. Dorothea believes she can achieve this by marrying the wealthy and studied Reverend Edward Casaubon. There is a significant age difference between the two. Dorothea is only nineteen but Casaubon is forty-five.

This marriage soon turns out to be a mistake. Dorothea realises that Casaubon has no interest in her intellectual goals. He only cares for his own work. Casaubon believes that Dorothea should fit the traditional mould of a Victorian wife. Their marriage soon becomes loveless.

The Vincy family also live in Middlemarch. The patriarch of the family is the mayor of the town. Fred and Rosamund are the eldest children in the Vincy family. Fred's inability to finish university has resulted in him being seen as a failure, but he is due to inherit a fortune from his uncle, so he does little to change this. However, Fred soon falls into debt. Rosamund is superficial and cares deeply for appearances.

Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor, moves into Middlemarch. He has lots of new scientific ideas that the citizens of the town are sceptical of. When Fred falls ill, Lydgate treats him. Rosamund meets Lydgate and sees him as a good marriage prospect because he is from a wealthy family. Lydgate is also interested in Rosamund. After some uncertainty, the two marry. Just like Dorothea and Casaubon, this marriage also fails. Lydgate finds Rosamund superficial and self-obsessed. Rosamund realises that Lydgate cares more about his work as a doctor than her.

Dorothea grows close to Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's cousin whom he financially supports. Casaubon grows jealous of their connection. Casaubon falls ill and passes away. It is discovered that he has placed a condition in his will that states if Dorothea marries Will Ladislaw, she will lose her inheritance from Casaubon. Dorothea had not thought of Ladislaw in a romantic manner up until this moment. Ladislaw, on the other hand, does have feelings for Dorothea. Both gradually come to terms with their attraction to each other.

Dorothea and Ladislaw eventually marry. Eliot details that they live a happy life together. Fred also marries happily. Scandal engulfs Lydgate in Middlemarch. He and Rosamund are forced to leave the town. They remain quite unhappily married until Lydgate dies at the age of fifty. Rosamund goes on to marry a wealthy man.

Gender and marriage are key in Middlemarch. Eliot shows how confining marriage can be for women in the Victorian period. Science and religion are also important. Through the character of Lydgate and his experiences, Eliot shows how reluctant many were to scientific advances. She also seems to promote a personal sense of religion instead of organised religion in Middlemarch.

George Eliot: short stories

George Eliot was a versatile writer. Some of her lesser-known works include the various short stories she wrote. Eliot's first published fiction text was a collection of short stories, Scenes of Clerical Life (1858). It was also the first of her works to be published under the pseudonym of George Eliot. This came a year before her first novel, Adam Bede (1859). Scenes of Clerical Life contains the following short stories:

'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton' follows the tragic life of a reverend that has been newly assigned to a small parish in an English village. Barton has new ideas and struggles to get the congregation on his side. He suffers scandals and death, losing both his wife and newborn daughter. Barton eventually forms a relationship with his congregation only to be abruptly moved to another parish. Eliot humanises the often lauded figure of a religious leader in this story.

'Mr. Gilfil's Love Story' follows the life of another clergyman, Maynard Gilfil. The story centres around his time as chaplain of the large Cheverel Manor estate when he was a young man. Maynard falls in love with a young Italian woman, Caterina Sarti. It is a story of unreciprocated love. Maynard loves Caterina but she does not return his feelings. She is in love with another man who is due to be married to someone else. After a long series of complications, Maynard and Caterina do marry but Caterina tragically dies in childbirth.

'Janet's Repentance' centres around a dispute in the English town of Milby. Reverend Edgar Tryan has been newly appointed clergyman of the town. Many of the congregation disagree with this and would prefer the old reverend be returned. Eliot deals with theological and religious differences in this short story. Much of the story focuses on Janet, the wife of one of the main citizens opposed to Tryan's appointment. Her husband is abusive and this pushes Janet to rely on alcohol. She eventually seeks Tryan's help with her alcoholism and comes around to approving of him as reverend.

Tryan and Janet become closer after her husband's death. Tryan works hard and lives in poor conditions to better understand his poorer parishioners. This impacts his health and he passes away. Unusually for the time, George Eliot gives quite an honest depiction of domestic abuse in her short story.

Can you see any thematic similarities between Eliot's short stories and her novels?

George Eliot: poems

Another often neglected part of George Eliot's career is her poetry. Eliot's poetry followed some of the same themes as her fiction did. She particularly focused on issues of religion. Eliot struggled with her religious beliefs and became disenchanted with organised religion as she became older and involved with intellectual groups.

Some of Eliot's poetry includes:

  • 'God Needs Antonio'.
  • 'Day is Dying'.
  • 'The World Is Great'.
  • 'Brother and Sister'.

'The Choir Invisible' (1884) by George Eliot

Perhaps the best-known George Eliot poem, this is a forty-four-line poem focused on the topic of religious struggles. In 'The Choir Invisible', Eliot muses on the idea of heaven and how to access it. She departs from traditional Victorian religious beliefs, which leaned towards the idea that if a person strictly followed religious doctrine, they would easily enter heaven.

Eliot's view in this poem is much more unconventional. She suggests that the way to truly get into heaven is to be a part of groups that are trying to make the world a better place. This theme is clearly linked to the intellectual circles she was a part of during her lifetime. These were much more humanist than religious, as is the message of 'The Choir Invisible'.

Humanism is a way of seeing the world. It believes that humans are more important than religious or supernatural issues. Humanism focuses on bettering the world based on what humans know to be real.

George Eliot: quotes

QuoteLocationExplanation
'The duties of her married life, contemplated as so great beforehand, seemed to be shrinking with the furniture and the white vapour-walled landscape.'Middlemarch, Ch. 28This quote relates to Dorothea and her life as Casaubon's wife. She had great expectations for her marriage and believed it would help her grow intellectually. Dorothea soon feels trapped and confined by life as a wife in the Victorian era.
'Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably.'Middlemarch, Ch. 15The town of Middlemarch, or the community of people that live there, are very important in this novel. Lydgate is new to the town. He has lots of new and progressive scientific ideas. The townspeople are often resistant to these and think they can change him. Eliot is showing how stubborn communities such as these can be about their long-held beliefs.
'Maggie always writhed under this judgment of Tom’s: she rebelled and was humiliated in the same moment.'The Mill on the Floss, Ch. 4This quote shows the complicated relationship between Maggie and Tom. Tom is often harsh towards Maggie and this upsets her greatly. But the way in which this embarrasses her also shows how much she cares about his opinion.
'Brother and sister had gone down in an embrace never to be parted: living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisy fields together.'The Mill on the Floss, ConclusionThis marks both Tom and Maggie's last moments together and their last moments alive. They drown in the river while holding hands. This shows that, at the last moment, they have been reconciled.
'A worthier image for the sanctuary, And shap’d it forth before the multitude, Divinely human, raising worship so To higher reverence more mix’d with love,''The Choir Invisible', ll, 27-30George Eliot's humanist view of life is encapsulated here. She emphasises the importance of focusing on the human aspects of life. She also focuses on the importance of love in all of this.

George Eliot - Key takeaways

  • George Eliot was a prolific Victorian writer born on 22 November 1819.
  • Two of her best-known novels are The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch (1871-2).
  • Eliot also wrote short stories, including an 1858 collection called Scenes of Clerical Life.
  • Eliot's poetry is not widely read but her most famous poem is 'The Choir Invisible' (1884).
  • Some common themes found in Eliot's work are gender, marriage, religion, and science.

References Used

1 Nathan Uglow. 'George Eliot'. The Literary Encyclopedia. 2002

George Eliot

George Eliot was a Victorian novelist, poet, journalist, and translator. She is known for challenging Victorian societal norms.

George Eliot attended boarding school until she was 16. She then educated herself in many of the Greek and Latin classics by using the library of the estate her father managed.

George Eliot moved away from religious beliefs as she grew older. She believed much more in humanism and in doing good to improve humanity.

Mary Ann Evans adopted the male name George Eliot so her work would be taken seriously. She also did not want her work to be associated with the fact she was living unmarried with an already married man.

George Eliot's real name was Mary Ann Evans.

Final George Eliot Quiz

Question

When was George Eliot born?

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22nd November 1819.

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Why did George Eliot adopt a pseudonym?

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Eliot adopted a male pseudonym so her work would be taken seriously. She also didn't want her work to be associated with her unusual personal life.

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What era did George Eliot write in?

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The Victorian era.

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What themes can be found in The Mill on the Floss?

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Estranged families, forgiveness, and gender.

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Can you remember what the definition of humanism is?

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Humanism is a way of seeing the world that prioritises human aspects of life over religious or supernatural.

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What genre does Middlemarch fall under?

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Middlemarch is a realist text.

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What was the name of George Eliot's first short story collection?

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Scenes of Clerical Life.

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What does Eliot show through Dorothea and Casaubon's relationship in Middlemarch?

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Eliot shows how confining marriage could be for Victorian women.

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In 'The Choir Invisible', how does Eliot suggest one should get into heaven?

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Eliot puts forward the idea that people should be part of groups trying to do good for the world.

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Which novel is considered Eliot's best-known work? 

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Middlemarch.

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What genre is Middlemarch?

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Social realism.

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What was George Eliot's real name?

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Mary Ann Evans.

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What two themes are key to Middlemarch?

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Marriage and community.

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What does Middlemarch showcase about Victorian marriages?

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Middlemarch shows how confining marriage was for women at this time.

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What does the treatment of Lydgate say about the community of Middlemarch?

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Lydgate's treatment shows how judgemental and gossip-obsessed the community is.

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Which character in Middlemarch can be considered the best developed by the end of the novel?

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Fred Vincy.

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Why does the relationship between Rosamond and Lydgate fail?

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Because they never truly understand each other.

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When was Middlemarch published?

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1871-2.

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Why can Dorothea not marry Will after Casaubon's death?

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Because Casaubon has placed a condition in his will that states Dorothea will lose her inheritance if she marries Will.

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Why does Dorothea originally marry Casaubon?

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Because she sees it as an opportunity to advance her learning and realise her charitable ambitions.

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What two genres does Middlemarch fit under?

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Social realism and historical fiction.

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What are two key themes in Middlemarch?

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Gender and science.

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What are two important parts of historical context to remember for Middlemarch?

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The Reform Act of 1932 and railway building in nineteenth century Britain.

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What issue does Lydgate face in trying to promote his new scientific ideas?

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The townspeople of Middlemarch are very resistant to change and progress.

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What is the term used for what Rosamond learns at Mrs. Lemon's school?

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Accomplishments

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What did the Reform Act of 1832 do?

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It expanded to vote to more men than ever before and made voting more democratic.

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Who did the Reform Act of 1832 not permit to vote?

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Women and working class men.

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For Dorothea, what is the main issue with her marriage to Casaubon?

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She feels trapped and cannot pursue any of her ambitions.

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How do the townspeople of Middlemarch react to an attempt to build railway lines?

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They are very resistant and react with fury and violence.

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Can you remember how to define historical fiction?

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Historical fiction is set in a time period that precedes the one that the text is being written in. Writers of this genre often make an effort to accurately capture the period.

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What is a summary of The Mill on the Floss?

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The Mill on the Floss is a novel about Maggie, an intelligent and unconventional woman who sacrifices much to appease her family. 


With a focus on sympathy over morality, the conflicted relationship between Maggie and her brother, Tom is a central focus. 


The novel ends with their reconciliation and unfortunate deaths.

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Who wrote The Mill on the Floss?

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George Eliot wrote the Mill on the Floss.

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What are George Eliot's other names?

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Mary Ann Evans and Marian Evans

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What is the central theme of The Mill on the Floss?

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Sympathy over rigid morality.

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What aspects of George Eliot's life can be found in The Mill on the Floss?

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The relationship between Maggie and her brother Tom, reflects George Eliot's relationship with her own brother.

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Who does Maggie give up in order to appease her father and brother?

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Maggie gives up her relationship with Philip Wakem when her brother makes her chose between her family and Philip.

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Who else does Tom judge and reject based on his rigid moral principles?

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His childhood friend, Bob Jakin.

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Which family members stand by Maggie when she is labelled a 'fallen woman'?

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Her mother and her cousin, Lucy.

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What is the difference between George Eliot's choices in life and Maggies?

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George Eliot chose to live with Lewes and lose her family while Maggie chose ti give up Philip to appease her family.

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What happens in the end of The Mill on The Floss?

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Maggie and Tom die in the flood after a brief reconciliation.

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