Correspondence - The John Cross Collection

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Digitizing the Cross Collection

Our motivation

The Cross Letters are the collection of George Eliot’s correspondence that John Walter Cross included in his George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (1885). We have converted all 894 of them into individual PDF files easily sortable by date or correspondent. In addition, we’ve utilized optical character recognition (OCR) to make the full text of each letter searchable at the word level. It is simple to sort and determine proportionally how frequently and during which years Eliot corresponded with specific individuals. We find it useful to compare these dates against the highly detailed 60,000-word chronology we provide on the site for those searching for specific biographical information. In future iterations, we plan to link these two databases.

Our team did this work because we saw the need for scholars to be able to search Eliot’s correspondence but could find no publicly accessible digital editions. We’ve adapted Toni Morrison’s advice about writing the book you can’t find: “If there is a resource that you want to access but it hasn't been created yet, then you must create it.”

Uses and limitations of the Cross Letters collection

The nearly 900 digitized Cross Letters will enable researchers to gain valuable insights into George Eliot’s correspondence, but one should be aware that this collection represents only about one-third of the extant George Eliot's letters. We are working to rectify this deficiency; our long-term goal is to partner with the Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and other repositories to provide manuscript images and transcriptions on our website and theirs. As much as we'd love to provide page images of Gordon Haight’s nine volumes of George Eliot Letters, the standard resource used by all Eliot scholars, the copyright, owned by Yale University Press, prohibits reproduction, and will for some fifty years more. The copyright on Cross’s biography, however, has long expired, meaning these letters now exist in the “public domain” for everyone to use and share. We invite you to search, excerpt, and incorporate the Cross Letters into your writing about George Eliot, with reference to the George Eliot Archive, <https://GeorgeEliotArchive>, as your source edition. 

But how accurate are the Cross Letters?

Gordon Haight compiled The George Eliot Letters not only because the letters in Cross’s Life were an incomplete record but also because he found fault in the letters Cross had included. In his "Preface" to The George Eliot Letters (1954) and in an essay titled "Cross's Biography of George Eliot" (1950), Haight explains why a new collection of George Eliot’s letters was necessary. He credits Cross for informing his audience that the letters were not comprehensive, but Haight raises other concerns. Haight found, for example, that Cross had not always dated the letters accurately, that he had mixed up the order of some sentences, and that he had even combined several different letters into one. Haight also noted that words, phrases, and paragraphs sometimes were omitted altogether from the letters Cross reprinted. Haight sums up his complaints in both essays with assertions that Cross’s Life, “created a George Eliot who never really existed, a marmoreal image that could never have conceived of Mrs. Poyser or Mr. Brooke or the Gleggs and Pullets. The legend of lofty seriousness… became, through Cross's efforts, so firmly fixed that it colored her reputation as a novelist.”

Although it would have been too time-consuming to compare all 894 of Cross’s transcriptions to Haight’s, we did do a line-by-line comparison of fifteen corresponding letters. We found very little difference in Cross's and Haight's editions, although we did notice that Cross omitted large portions of some letters, more concerned with providing an interesting excerpt rather than the complete correspondence, as Haight and Cross both had observed. The transcription errors, however, appear to have been infrequent and Cross does not appear to be intentionally censoring anything scandalous. As Rosemarie Bodenheimer has established, Eliot’s letters were models of self-censorship already, so eager was she to perform an ideal self to a real or imagined future audience.

Cross’s achieved goals

In his "Preface" to George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals, Cross freely admits that “each letter has been pruned of everything that seemed to me irrelevant to my purpose—of everything that I thought my wife would have wished to be omitted.” When we consider the well-known fact that Eliot was a very private person, one cannot blame Cross for taking extra care to select letters that would balance competing goals of preserving his wife’s voice, maintaining her privacy, and promoting his wife’s legacy as one of England’s greatest writers. 


[1] George Eliot. The George Eliot Letters (GEL). Edited by Gordon S. Haight. Nine volumes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954-78. 

[2] Gordon S. Haight. “Cross’s Biography of George Eliot.” The Yale University Library Gazette, July 1950, Vol. 25, No. 1 (July 1950), pp. 1-9.  

[3] GEL Preface, xv; “Cross’s Biography,” 9 

[4] Rosemarie Bodenheimer. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Cornell University Press, 1994. 

[1] John Walter Cross, George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals, Arranged and Edited by her Husband, J. W. Cross. Edinburgh & London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1885. George Eliot Archive,