Picks and Pans Review: Book Note

updated 05/02/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

>AN UNCONVENTIONAL WOMAN

"I'M IN LOVE WITH THIS GREAT HORSE-faced bluestocking," said Henry James of Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot, the author of Middlemarch, which Virginia Woolf called one of the few English novels written for grownups. (The book has been reissued by Modern Library to coincide with the current PBS Masterpiece Theatre production.)

Born in rural Warwickshire in 1819, Eliot was a Victorian who ignored Victorian conventions. In an age when women writers focused on the heart or the hearth, she trespassed into such male domains as politics and law, writing coarse, provincial dialogue. Worse, she lived openly for 24 years with the married writer and editor George Lewes.

Eliot began her career as a translator and editor before turning to fiction. She took a male pseudonym ("George" in Lewes's honor) and published Adam Bede (1859) before her true identity was exposed. The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861) followed, but it was Middlemarch (published in installments 1871-2) that cemented her reputation as a major novelist.

Two years after Lewes's death in 1878, Eliot again courted scandal when, at 61, she married a man 21 years her junior. Several months later she died, leaving admirers from Robert Browning to Queen Victoria in mourning. "It was," said the British historian Lord Acton, "as if the sun had gone out."

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