Conversations in Management: George Eliot

It’s never too late to become what you might have been.

George Eliot

George_EliotMary Anne Evans should know. When she was born in 1819, the life expectancy of a woman was 40 years. She might have been content just reaching that milestone, but when she did, she capped it off by publishing her first novel. She’d go on to write six more, including the bane of 10th graders everywhere, Silas Marner and Middlemarch, which a century later would be given new life as a Masterpiece Theater production. Becoming an influential Victorian author after the age of 40 was quite an accomplishment but it was only one of Evans’ many lives.  She was raised as an evangelical protestant on a large country estate managed by her father. While her family was by no means wealthy, she benefitted from a good boarding school education. Evans was 20 when her mother died and she left school to care for her father. Her father encouraged her continued education and additionally provided her with both German and Italian lessons. With his death just before her thirtieth birthday, she abandoned country life and her evangelical beliefs and moved to London. If the first thirty years of Evans’ life were routine, the next phase would be anything but.

In London, Evans moved in literary circles where she met John Chapman the editor and publisher of the Westminster Review. Shortly after they met, he offered her a behind-the-scenes job as editor and writer. She eagerly took the job and just as eagerly began a long term affair with the philandering Chapman—much to the chagrin of both his wife and mistress. If this wasn’t enough to scandalize Victorian England, her next affair would bring a whole new dimension to the term. While working at the Review, she was introduced to George Lewes, a critic, philosopher and actor. Always considered plain—Evans described herself as, “a withered cabbage in a flower garden”—she was perfectly matched to Lewes whose friends called him “Ape” and, “the ugliest man in London.” They were immediate soul mates. Complicating things, however, was the fact that Lewes was married. Further complicating things, Lewes wife was living with another man by whom she’d had three children. This was alright to Lewes because he and his wife believed in “free love.” Even the free-spirited Evans struggled with this, but they moved in together none-the-less. And it was a good thing, because it was Lewes who convinced Evans to begin writing fiction.

There were other women writers at the time but they were largely confined to the Romance genre. Unlike these women, Evans wrote realistic and psychologically insightful stories and so adopted the nom de plume, George Eliot to avoid being marginalized. She chose “George” in honor of Lewes and “Eliot” because it was, “a good mouth-filling word.” The Eliot novels would define the rest of her life.

Evans reinvented herself three times and that’s something we should carefully consider. A recent Gallop survey found that 50% of employees weren’t engaged in their work. Another 20% were “actively disengaged.” That’s a lot of people who might be wondering what they “might have been.” It’s just possible that your life to this point is a prologue to what you might be. Evans’ thirty years as a country spinster provided the background for her novels. Her ten years as a literary editor honed her writing skills. Both were prologue to a successful career as an author. Most of us can’t upend our lives and start something new. But we can start examining our lives to see how what we are doing today can contribute to what we might be tomorrow. We each have the potential to reinvent ourselves. No matter where you are on life’s path, it’s never too late. The best is yet to come. —Ebert

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