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`Middlemarch' Author Defied Conventions

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.

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``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. Books and new friends exposed her to unconventional ideas, including the rejection of religion. The radical move was the first strain in relations with her socially obsessed family.

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Evans earned her living anonymously editing Chapman's influential Westminster Review and working as a journalist for a number of other publications.

After a series of disastrous romances, including one with a man who found her ``morbidly intellectual,'' Marian fell in love with Lewes, a critic and journalist. He was married to a woman he didn't love but couldn't divorce under Victorian law.

Encouraged by Lewes, Eliot wrote eight novels, including ``The Mill on the Floss,'' ``Adam Bede,'' ``Silas Marner,'' and ``Middlemarch,'' which is considered the best.

Eliot, as a woman living out of wedlock with a man, was snubbed by many of her contemporaries and, most painfully, by her family. It wasn't until after Lewes died and Eliot, at 60, married John Cross that her family considered her respectable enough to reopen communications.

Cross, 20 years Eliot's junior, realized the marriage was a mistake while they were honeymooning in Venice, and he tried to commit suicide by pitching himself into the Grand Canal. The couple returned to England, where Eliot died seven months later.

The bestseller status of ``Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life'' waned as everything Victorian fell out of favor.

British readers rediscovered the book after World War II, when Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis included Eliot in ``The Great Tradition,'' published in 1948, which traced the cultural continuity of English life and literature.

``She is not as transcendently great as Tolstoy, but she is great, and great in the same way,'' Leavis wrote.

Penguin Books refuses to give out sales figures, but British press reports say ``Middlemarch'' has sold more than 100,000 copies since the BBC production was broadcast, beginning in January.

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