How often does a biography make you think better of a writer? Even those whose works leave us inspired or reverent are likely to have a closet full of moth-eaten principles. George Eliot, however, really did embody the great-hearted view of life that shone through her work, and Brenda Maddox’s biography makes this clear. It is the latest in HarperPress’s series of Eminent Lives, short biographies that aren’t meant to provide a complete account, but rather to whet the appetite for one, which this certainly does.
Maddox should not have trusted her memory for the plot of Adam Bede – Hetty Sorrel gives birth in a house, not a wood – and she seems as eager to find lovers for Eliot as the novelist’s early admirers were to disclaim them (the jury is still out). It is an understandable wish, however, because not only philistines might consider Eliot’s romantic career her greatest achievement. Before her immensely happy, 23-year liaison with the author George Henry Lewes, she had attracted the attentions, if nothing else, of several personable and distinguished men. And after Lewes’s death, she married the handsome John Cross, a banker who was 20 years younger than she. It is a record that a beauty might envy, and yet Eliot was notoriously ugly, the bulbous nose and huge chin in one of her rare photographs showing why she always claimed there weren’t any. Her intelligence and generous personality were compensation enough, apparently.
“Mrs Lewes” was the name by which Eliot and her first lover insisted on her being addressed. Lewes once reproved a friend who had addressed a letter to Marian Evans (Eliot’s real name): “That individual is extinct, rolled up, mashed, absorbed in the Lewesian magnificence!” Eliot’s brother Isaac, however, would not accept the fiction that she and Lewes were married, and refused to see her or write to her for 33 years, unmoved even by the tremendous ending of The Mill on the Floss, in which a puritanical brother who has disowned his sister is united with her in death. Isaac Evans broke his silence only when Cross made an honest woman of Eliot. It is one more illustration of her goodness that she replied, to a letter signed “Your affectionate brother”, with assurances that she felt the same.
Lewes and Marian had no children, but together they created “George Eliot”, and not only because she used his given name in her pseudonym. It was Lewes who suggested that Evans, nearly 40, forsake translation and journalism for fiction, becoming her editor and agent, and protecting her from critics and her own melancholia. (It was not only her appearance, but her mother’s rejection that made Eliot prey to self-doubt – she was packed off to boarding school, less than a mile away, when she was five.)
Lewes and Eliot both also suffered from trouble with their teeth, stomachs and kidneys; they were prone to headaches, earaches, gout, intestinal maladies and rheumatism. Yet none of Eliot’s pain and anxiety seems to have found its way into her serene, high-minded fiction. Perhaps she was philosopher enough to endure the toothache stoically.
Her income certainly made their life easier to bear. Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda and her other books brought in the modern equivalent of £200,000 a year. Even the terrible, turgid Romola (then as now, publishers were guided more by past performance than taste) sold in 1862 for a sum equivalent to half a million pounds today.
Maddox explains that Cross’s bizarre conduct on the couple’s honeymoon – he jumped out of their hotel window into a Venetian canal while she was in the room next door – was caused by a fit of mental and physical illness. However, gossip down the years has had it that sexual terror of his ancient but demanding bride pushed him over the edge.
One wonders how long Eliot will continue to be read. After all, the close-knit agricultural communities described in her fiction are a distant memory for most of us, and her emphasis on moral instruction – her abandonment of conventional Christianity made her feel it was important to show that morals could exist without religion – seems alien. We can identify with Jane Austen’s characters, who probably wouldn’t know what to call a spade if they saw one, and who share our concern with making a good match. We are still entertained by Dickens’s grotesques, since we live, as they do, in squalid, segregated cities; and, if we no longer weep at the death of Little Nell, we respond to his sentimental-hysterical pleas for tolerance and charity. Will Eliot find a new audience of idealists receptive to her lessons in virtue, or will they end up as a record of the vanished hopes of a distant century?