George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans, who was born in a country house at Nuneaton, Warwickshire, in 1819. The plains and hedges of her native region furnish the setting of many of her novels, including Silas Marner. With her sister, Evans attended two boarding schools for girls, where she was strongly influenced by evangelical Christianity. Miss Lewis, the principal of the second of these schools, was especially influential with her, and it was here that Mary Ann adopted the religious devotion and self-repression that dominated her youth.
Following the death of her mother and her sister's marriage in 1837, Evans took charge of her father's household. In 1841, they moved to a house near Coventry. As she matured, Evans’ religious beliefs changed, and friends whom she met here further shook her faith in Christianity. She soon decided that she could no longer attend church in good faith. Her father refused to live with her on those terms, and she went to her brother for three weeks. A reconciliation was arranged by her brother and her friends, and she agreed to resume church attendance and returned to her father. Nevertheless, her renunciation of all religious dogma was complete, and she remained agnostic until her death.
Evans had continued her studies of Italian, German, Greek, and Latin. Her first published work was a translation of Das Leben Jesu ("The Life of Jesus") by the German theologian David Strauss. She was also contributing articles and reviews to a periodical edited by her friend Charles Bray. After the death of her father in 1849, she moved to London and became assistant editor of the Westminster Review, a liberal periodical. In London, she met George Henry Lewes — a professional drama critic and man of letters, actor, and author of a history of philosophy — and fell in love with him. Lewes was married, but his wife had abandoned him. However, there was no chance of a legal divorce. In 1854, Lewes and Evans sailed together to Germany, and from that time they lived together as man and wife until his death in 1878. Their union at first made them social outcasts, but when it became apparent that this was no irresponsible affair, they were accepted by their friends and society as a married couple. After Lewes' death, Evans married, in 1880, an old friend, the American banker J. W. Cross. Soon after, on December 22, 1880, she died.
Lewes' encouragement had much to do with George Eliot's career as a writer of fiction, beginning with publication of three stories in Blackwood's Magazine. These were published together in 1858 as Scenes of Clerical Life. Adam Bede, published in 1859, was an immediate success. It was followed by The Lifted Veil in 1859, and her first great novel, The Mill on the Floss, in 1860. Silas Marner appeared in 1861. Her later works include Romola (1862-63); Felix Holt (1866); The Spanish Gypsy (1868), which is a drama in blank verse; a volume of verses, The Legend of Jubal and other Poems (1874); and a volume of essays, The Impressions of Theophrastus Such. The novel generally considered to be her masterpiece is Middlemarch, published in 1871-72.
Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede form a group that make use of childhood recollections and the rural world Eliot knew in Warwickshire. She said that Silas Marner came to her "first of all, quite suddenly, as a sort of legendary tale suggested by my recollection of having once, in early childhood, seen a linen-weaver with a bag on his back." The novel uses other aspects of her childhood as well, including her knowledge of both Anglican worship and the more enthusiastic forms of Christianity.
However, the story was shaped in the mind of a mature and highly intelligent woman, and it represents the beliefs of her maturity. Two ideas that are expressed in Eliot's letters of about this time are that "the idea of God . . . is the ideal of a goodness entirely human," and that "no man can begin to mould himself on a faith or an idea without rising to a higher order of experience." Eliot believed strongly in the interdependence of humanity, and in all her novels she is greatly concerned to discover what might be considered good and what bad in social relationships. Silas Marner is no exception. Eliot said of the book: "it sets — or is intended to set — in a strong light the remedial influences of pure, natural human relations."