George Eliot: A Life by Rosemary Ashton. Allen Lane/Penguin, 465 pp., $32.95.

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John Stuart Mill is often called “the saint of rationalism.” Perhaps his contemporary George Eliot should be called “the muse of rationalism.” The conflict between faith and reason, tradition and progress, was the central drama of the nineteenth century. Mill expounded it in treatises; Eliot embodied it in novels; both lived it in emancipated, unconventional relationships. And Eliot was arguably the braver of the two, for while Mill was, in a way, born to dissent -- his father was James Mill, the eminent Benthamite radical -- she had to struggle from the outset with her conservative upbringing as well as, of course, the fundamental constraint of being a Victorian woman.

Mary Anne Evans was born in rural Warwickshire in 1819, the youngest of five children. Her father managed a large local estate, which gave his observant daughter an excellent vantage point on English society in the years before and after the momentous Reform Bill of 1832. Robert Evans reappeared the admirable Caleb Garth in Middlemarch and her beloved brother Isaac as the imperious Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss The “fat [ i.e., prosperous] central England” of her childhood was the setting of both novels and also of Adam Bede and Silas Marner.

The adolescent Mary Anne was sensitive, studious, devout, and -- perhaps not coincidentally -- plain. When she was sixteen, both parents fell ill, her mother fatally. Mary Anne left school and came home to nurse them. For the next six years she managed her father’s house, all the while reading widely and deeply in several languages.

One day in 1842 she refused to attend church any longer. Her father more or less threatened to disown her. They were partially reconciled and lived together uneasily for another seven years, during which she continued her astonishing self-education and also translated one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century, David Strauss’s Leben Jesu ( Life of Jesus) When her father died in 1849, Marian (as she now called herself) faced the uninspiring prospect of life in the provinces as a maiden aunt. Instead she chose the precarious independence of a literary freelancer in London.

Fate stepped in. She found lodgings with John Chapman, an adventurous publisher who was about to revive the Westminster Review (roughly the Victorian equivalent of Partisan Review). Recognizing her gifts, Chapman offered to make her the Review’s unpaid and anonymous editor. The magazine was a brilliant success, and the thirty-year-old Marian Evans found herself at the center of London literary journalism.

Though Marian had renounced religion, she had not given up on romance. She was still not conventionally attractive -- she called herself, only half-jokingly, an “Ugly Duckling” -- and this made her a little overeager and vulnerable. Her innocent crush on Chapman led to a misunderstanding, and she had to move out. She became fast friends with the sociologist Herbert Spencer, but he declined to go further.

Fate stepped in again. She got to know George Lewes, a noted man of letter, amateur scientist, and Westminster Review contributor. Lewes’s wife had taken up with another man and borne him several children, whom Lewes magnanimously refused to disown. So he, like Marian, found himself loveless in middle age. They admired each other, needed each other, and soon fell in love with each other.

It was brave of Lewes, but it was positively heroic of Marian. He forfeited a bit of respectability, but she placed herself beyond the pale. Everyone condemned her for living with a married man, even -- especially -- her family and oldest friends. She had to give up editing the Review along with any hope of publishing under her own name. But she was happy, and her full powers were finally released.

For once, behind a great woman stands a good man. Lewes was talented and has his own minor place in intellectual history. (He wrote an excellent biography of Goethe and a well-regarded book on the physiology of mind, among other services to literature.) But his chief and immortal glory is that he stood by his woman. Marian was painfully, pathologically diffident; it required immense tact, generosity, and good humor to shore up her self-confidence, even after she was the most popular novelist in England. Lewes rose to the challenge. They were everything to each other: lovers, intellectual collaborators, business partners, best friends; and their isolation eventually became almost a blessing.

Loved and encouraged at last, Marian found her vocation. Her first effort, Scenes of Clerical Life was a modest success. Her next, Adam Bede swept all before her. From Jane Carlyle to Queen Victoria, everyone was touched and charmed. Suddenly “George Eliot” was rich, famous, and admired throughout Europe -- though Marian Evans still couldn’t be invited to respectable English homes. More well-received novels followed: The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Romola and Felix Holt, a series crowned in 1872 by Middlemarch which quite a few astute critics (and some of us duffers) consider the greatest novel in English. Her last work, Daniel Deronda is more controversial, though a consensus is gradually solidifying that it, too, is a masterpiece.

Rosemary Ashton’s biography is an ideal introduction to George Eliot’s real and fictional worlds. In a way George Eliot’s biographer has it easy: her life was so dramatic, her personality so appealing, and her work so engaging that it may seem impossible to write an uninteresting biography. Perhaps; but we should still be grateful for Ashton’s warmth, judiciousness, and narrative skill.

Nowadays a small cloud hangs over George Eliot’s reputation. A few feminist critics have suggested that she let down the cause: that even her strongest heroines -- Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, Esther Lyon in Felix Holt -- give up too much in the end and live primarily through their husbands. Was George Eliot a good enough feminist?

The best answer to this question is her own example, which has surely liberated more women than all subsequent feminist scholarship and criticism. But there is another, complementary answer implicit in the sublime conclusion of Middlemarch:

"Many who knew [Dorothea] thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. ... But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."


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