`Middlemarch' Author Defied Conventions

Article excerpt

GEORGE ELIOT'S face was her fortune. She was so ugly that her father feared she would never attract a man, so he made sure she had an education.

"To begin with she is magnificently ugly - deliciously hideous," the American novelist Henry James wrote to his father. "She has a low forehead, a dull gray eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth.

"Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, falling in love with her."

Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, was fortified both by education and by an enduring but unconventional affair with a married man, George Lewes. He privately called her Dorothea or Dodo, because she was so like the heroine of her novel "Middlemarch."

The novel was one of Eliot's great successes, a bestseller in its day and once again this year following an acclaimed television version. The BBC production of "Middlemarch" was an instant hit when it was broadcast earlier this year in England. The series is airing in the United States on PBS.

The author and Dorothea shared a respect for certain middle-class values, including women subjugating their own work to help their husbands. But Eliot's rejection of provincial life, her bald interest in money, and her scandalous living arrangements were a far cry from Dorothea's quiet, pious existence.

Mary Ann Evans, who preferred to be called Marian, was born in 1819, the daughter of a land agent in the English Midlands. She went to school in Nuneaton and later moved with her father to Coventry, which became the model for the fictitious, insulated town of Middlemarch.

Robert Evans, the model for Caleb Garth in the novel, gave his daughter a better-than-average education, because he thought her large head, prominent chin, and bulbous nose could hurt her marriage chances, and she would be left to her own resources.

She studied French, Italian, Greek, and Latin so that she could read more widely. …