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George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans in November 1819. She was the daughter of Robert Evans and his second wife Christiana; Robert was the agent to a landlord, Francis Newdigate on his property in Derbyshire. Later Newdigate moved to a larger estate in Warwickshire, and took Evanís with him. Mary Ann was the youngest of his children and lived for the first thirty years of her life in the countryside. Only from about 1828 to about 1830, she was sent away to school in the town of Coventry. In fact, Coventry is felt to have been the original town on which Middlemarch is based.
Mary Annís father was a very competent estate manager and respected by his employer. He also got work at other local estates in the district. He was very conservative in his political and religious views. Though his daughter grew up thinking very differently from him, she continued to respect his sincerity and loved him deeply. Many feel the character of Caleb Garth is an idealized version of her father.
Mary Ann was a clever and hard working student. Even as a child she was quite happy reading the classics-Walter Scot, Bunyan, Dr. Johnson, and Aesop's Fables - and had little interest in children's stories. Yet given her background, she had to be skillful at all the traditional tasks on a farm baking, butter and cheese making, spinning yarn, from wool and flax; even making jellies and jams which she disliked. She knew how hard the life, which she disliked. She knew how hard the life of a housewife was, and though her own ambitions were very different, she always presented them with great sympathy, as she does with Susan Garth or Harriet Bulstrode in Middlemarch. In fact Midland scenes, tasks and rural people are graphically and sympathetically depicted in all her novels.
Mary Ann was sent to school but girlís education was very limited in those days. Hence, she educated herself, devouring all the books she could get hold of. Her parents were also sympathetic and helped her. She and her sister were very close, although very different in personality, and she loved her brother Isaac, the closest to her in age. Both older siblings married and left home and when her mother died in 1836, Mary Ann had to keep house for her father. This kept her very busy and did not work. She particularly enjoyed. Yet she went on with studies including mathematics, literature, music, ancient and modern languages. Having mastered French and German, she also learnt Latin and Greek at the age of twenty. Up to this time she was an intense and deeply religious person. But this was to change.
In Coventry, Mary Ann met two couples, the Brays and the Hennells, who were parts of this ferment. While the Brays were free thinkers and vaguely socialist in their ideas, the Hennells were Unitarians a religious sect which was more rationalistic and modern. They, along with noted women writers, Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau and others, formed part of a vanguard of intellectuals, who tried to create a religion based not on faith but on reason and ethics. Mary Ann became an active member of this group, though it meant a breach, at least partially, with her father and brother.