It’s George Eliot’s birthday this week and as the New Yorker and actress Lena Dunham recently pointed out, there’s a lot more to Eliot than her supposedly unattractive appearance and her remarkable (for the time) sex drive.
Like Maggie in The Mill on the Floss, her most autobiographical novel, she was smart, impulsive, and passionate–qualities then frowned upon in a woman. The author and her character also faced the disfavor of a beloved brother for engaging in romantic entanglements that flew in the face of Victorian convention.
Chief among them was her relationship with married philosopher and literary critic George Henry Lewes, whose wife had caused a scandal of her own by having four illegitimate children with another man. Before Eliot embarked on her relationship with Lewes, the bookish, homely spinster had resigned herself to a lonely life. As a result of her large nose, long face and oversized chin, her unattractiveness was regularly remarked upon by others and lamented by her mother, who believed her daughter would never be able to make a suitable match.
Nonetheless, many men, including Henry James, found her mesmerizing. Although he described Eliot as “horse-faced” and “magnificently ugly” he enthused that “in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very minute, steals forth and charms the mind.” George Henry Lewes—notoriously ugly himself because of his pitted complexion, large head, and small body—immediately fell for the 31-year-old aspiring novelist upon meeting her in 1851.
Having separated from his philandering wife, Lewes determined to live openly together with Eliot. The pair “honeymooned” in Germany and began referring to themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Lewes. Considering themselves wed in every respect except legally, they went on to live together in domestic harmony for 25 years.
After Lewes died, the 60-year-old writer incited another scandal by marrying a man twenty years her junior. During their honeymoon in Venice, the groom jumped into the Grand Canal, an act gossips buzzed was a suicide attempt or horror at the thought of making love to his bride.
For more insider stories on the love lives of famous writers, be sure to check out our new book, Writers Between the Covers.