Tuesday, October 26, 2010

George Eliot in Love

Many years ago when I first became aware of George Eliot as a Victorian woman who openly lived with a man without benefit of marriage, I eagerly sought out her novels thinking they would be as scandalous as her life. Imagine my disappointment upon discovering that the books were conventional Victorian novels, no different from the books of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope or Henry James, all of whom she knew and with whom she socialized.

The mystery of how a woman who flouted Victorian conventions while writing stories observing those conventions has finally been solved for me by Brenda Maddox’s excellent biography, George Eliot in Love. This small volume, which the author calls a "…short life of the great Victorian author…." is a sympathetic treatment of Eliot’s life and career.

It is in some ways, a typical Victorian love story. A woman, Mary Anne Evans, too ugly for marriage has several brief love affairs before finally finding a man, George Henry Lewes, who can ignore her looks and love her for herself. But there the story becomes more modern. They are unable to marry because he is already married and has acknowledged his wife’s children by her lover as his own thereby depriving himself of grounds for divorce. Nevertheless, George and Mary Anne live as man and wife, she taking his name.

She had been a journalist and editor but with his encouragement, turned to writing novels using the pseudonym George Eliot. He nurtured her talent, shielded her from critical reviews and managed all of her business affairs. Her fame grew and people began to "forget" that she was not married to the man she was living with. Their love also grew. This book is as much a love story as a biography.

Unlike most modern biographies, this one does not dwell on its subject’s flaws. The author mentions the possible physical relationships Eliot had before meeting Lewes, but doesn’t speculate. She also mentions but dismisses rumors that Lewes was unfaithful to Eliot. She doesn’t make a big deal of Eliot’s marriage after Lewes' death to a much younger man. There is no titillation here, only the story of two soulmates who defied society to be together.

Having gained a better understanding of George Eliot as a person as well as an author, I am keen to re-read her novels.

Review copy courtesy of Palgrave MacMillan

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