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29 March 2023

George Eliot’s marriage plot

In her work, the novelist developed a radical philosophy of relationships. In her life, she put it into practice.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“Something should be done,” George Eliot wrote to her publisher in 1874, “in the matter of literary biography.” She had read John Forster’s life of Charles Dickens and found it a troubling experience. “Is it not odious that as soon as a man is dead his desk is raked, and every insignificant memorandum which he never meant for the public is printed for the gossiping amusement of people too idle to reread his books?” The genre is “a disgrace to us all”, the literary equivalent of “the uncovering of the dead Byron’s club-foot”.

Elsewhere she condemned the form as “a disease”. Eliot was at this stage a famous novelist in the last decade of her life – we might read her comments as revealing anxieties about the prospect of her own biography. (Of course, there is an irony in reading these “insignificant memoranda” – which protest loudly but ineffectually at their publication – at all.) Did she dread a hungry-eyed writer rifling through her own desk, combing for material for a scandalous biography of Mary Anne Evans, or Marian Lewes, or Mary Ann Cross – thus undermining George Eliot, the carefully constructed persona who wrote Middlemarch? “Any influence I have as an author,” she wrote in 1876, “would be injured by the presentation of myself in print through any other medium than that of my books.”

Eliot’s fear was unfounded: the dozens of biographies that have been written about the author have not rocked her reputation as one of the greatest novelists in the English language. But while sympathetic, they have not all been flattering. Eliot is often cast as a rather pathetic figure in her youth – lonely, ugly, desperate for a partner – until she meets the love of her life, George Henry Lewes, who saves her not just from spinsterhood but obscurity, enabling her to write.

Her early biographer Mathilde Blind describes Eliot’s “plain” face, “prominent under-lip” and “massive jaw”. (Such comments were not limited to her biographers: Dickens thought her one half of “the ugliest couple in London”.) The Victorians were struck by her big, “masculine” head residing on a “feminine” body – multiple biographers reference a phrenologist’s claim that Eliot’s skull showed she was “not fitted to stand alone” but needed “someone to lean upon”. Blind sees Eliot as victim of her “clinging, womanly nature”, whose “dormant faculties were roused” by Lewes. Gordon Haight’s biography from the mid 20th century repeats the phrenologist’s phrases.

Some later biographers, such as Phyllis Rose in Parallel Lives, have pushed against “the myth of George Eliot’s dependency” as incompatible with the daring independence of her literary imagination. Virginia Woolf caught these contradictions when she pictured Eliot as “despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification” but “at the same time reaching out with ‘a fastidious yet hungry ambition’ for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind”.

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Claire Carlisle’s The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life offers no new information on a life already so well mined, but explores these conflicts, and Eliot’s relationship with Lewes, in a philosophical context. (Her title comes from a line in Eliot’s letters: “How happy I am in this double life which helps me to feel and think with double strength.”) Carlisle, a philosophy professor at King’s College London, laments that “our marriage questions – whether to marry, whom to marry, how to live in a marriage, whether to remain married – are often close to the heart of our life’s meaning”, yet are rarely treated as intellectually significant. We peer into the lives of others to reflect on our own; when we think about marriage, we “stumble across great philosophical themes: desire, freedom, selfhood, change, morality, happiness, belief, the mystery of other minds”. For Eliot, Carlisle argues, marriage was a moral and sociological issue as well as a personal one – and is expressed as such in her fiction, essays, letters and life. Long before she wrote novels, these questions took hold of Eliot’s mind. They simmered within her – urgent and hot.

[See also: Why Middlemarch still matters]

When Mary Ann Evans met George Henry Lewes, she was in love with another man. Herbert Spencer, a philosopher and editor of the Economist, had taken Eliot out several times when she was 33 and working as an editor at the Westminster Review. But he soon wrote to her to explain that he saw her only as a friend. Eliot at first merely said she was not in a “habitual state of mind to imagine that anyone is falling in love with me”; but later admitted that this was exactly what she hoped. In this letter we see Eliot at her most wanting – she pleads with him to “always be with me”, insisting “I do not ask you to sacrifice anything” and “I can be satisfied with very little”. “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather the courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me.” Even here, in such exquisite, desperate need, claiming she needs a man’s love to create work, she shows a resolute self-possession – a sense of her worth, and the worth of her writing: “I suppose no woman ever before wrote such a letter as this – but I am not ashamed of it, for I [know] I am worthy of your respect.”

Spencer continued to see Eliot, but with a friend – George Lewes. Lewes, a prolific journalist well-known in literary circles for his anecdotes and “immense ugliness”, was married with children. He was separated from his wife, who had just had her third child with another man, but continued to support her and his sons. Eliot wrote to friends that despite his “mask of flippancy”, Lewes was “a man of heart and conscience” who “won my liking, in spite of myself”.

We know little of how Eliot came to defy social convention and build a life with a man she could not legally marry – it was not a topic she could discuss in her letters. The first words of Carlisle’s biography are simply: “She had decided.” Still, Carlisle puts this leap in the context of Eliot’s reading life – from her reaction against the matrimonial moralising of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, to her work translating Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, which argues that marriage should not need the formal recognition of the Church. In July 1854, Lewes and Eliot set off on their “honeymoon” to Germany – she would refer to herself to friends as “Mrs Lewes” hereafter.

Though their time away was blissful, on her return Eliot found she was in disgrace – friends and her siblings refused to speak to her. In an 1855 letter, she defended herself against charges of “immorality”: “If there be any one subject on which I feel no levity it is that of marriage… if there is any one action or relation of my life which is and always has been profoundly serious, it is my relation to Mr Lewes… Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done – they obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.”

In her essay “George Eliot’s Husband”, Elizabeth Hardwick writes that Eliot and Lewes “led the literary life from morning to midnight”, exemplifying that “peculiar English domestic manufacture”, the literary couple. “Before the bright fire at teatime, we can see these high-strung men and women clinging together, their inky fingers touching.” Carlisle’s depiction of Eliot and Lewes’s days are quietly moving. “We work hard in the mornings till our heads are hot, then walk out, dine at three and, if we don’t go out, read diligently aloud in the evening,” Eliot wrote. “It is impossible for two human beings to be more happy in each other.”

It was on their honeymoon that Eliot first broached the idea of writing fiction, reading Lewes a chapter about village life she “happened” to have with her. “Though he distrusted, indeed disbelieved in, my possession of any dramatic power,” Eliot recalled, “he began to think that I might as well try.” Back in England Lewes encouraged her to write a story – not least as they needed money, and fiction was more lucrative than journalism.

[See also: How Nan Shepherd shaped modern nature writing]

One morning in bed, she came up with a story titled “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton”. Lewes sent John Blackwood of Blackwood’s Magazine a draft by “a friend”. In January 1857, the first story was published by George Eliot. Lewes was soon in awe of her talent, devoting himself to it – negotiating with Blackwood (who became her long-time publisher), reading drafts, and handling her correspondence to shield her from criticism and protect her time. His pride is palpable on the page. So, too, is Eliot’s gratitude for a husband she loved who also enabled her vocation.

Carlisle explores how questions of matrimony illuminated Eliot’s fiction: Dinah Morris’s sense of marriage as vocation in Adam Bede (1859), the tensions between a passionate nature and provincial morality in The Mill on The Floss (1860), the suffocating misalliances of Middlemarch (1871). In a milieu that valued science over emotion, Eliot was committed to the idea that “surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him… Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in… the life and death struggles of separate human beings.”

After two of Lewes’s sons died, mortality loomed in Eliot’s mind. She wrote to his living son Charles: “I think too much, too continually of death now.” To a bereaved friend, she wrote, death had become her “most intimate daily companion… I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it any more. And I think it is possible for this sort of impersonal life to attain greater intensity – possible for us to gain much more independence… We women are always in danger of living too exclusively in the affections; and though our affections are perhaps the best gifts we have, we ought also to have our share of the more independent life – some joy in things for their own sake.” For Carlisle, Eliot here lays bare the tensions “at the heart of her philosophy”: between the self and the other, thought and feeling, independence and dependence.

Lewes died in 1878. The grieving Eliot did not attend his funeral or go outside for weeks. Many were surprised when, in 1880, Eliot defied convention again to marry a close friend 20 years her junior: John Cross, whom she once called “Nephew”. But Carlisle sees this as a “natural growth” in their relationship, borne from shared grief (Cross had just lost his mother). It was a short marriage – Eliot died seven months later, aged 61.

Eliot wanted her private self – Marian Lewes – to remain hidden from public view. Responding to a letter from a friend who mentioned a fading copy of the only photograph of her, she wrote: “The fading is what I desired… Pray let it vanish.” However, she thought often of George Eliot’s legacy. Shortly after the success of Middlemarch, she wrote that she could have no “greater blessing than this growth of my spiritual existence while my bodily existence is decaying”.

Did Eliot’s views on biography soften in her final years? Her relationship with Lewes stayed private to the last: their letters were buried with them in Highgate Cemetery. But in the end, it wasn’t a stranger rifling through her desk but Cross who compiled Eliot’s life. Carlisle wonders if this was part of her motivation for marrying him. (“When he reaches this part of the book, my editor is shocked,” Carlisle writes in an awkward meta aside.) There isn’t much to support this – but for those who read of Eliot’s private life with a guilty, devotional fervour, it’s reassuring to imagine. So here’s the evidence Carlisle can offer, told third-hand: while they were married, Eliot told Cross many stories from her early life. Once, she encouraged him to produce “one work”, “a contribution” to the world. He joked that he could only do so by writing her life. Eliot, he recalled, “smiled and did not answer – did not protest”.

The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life
Clare Carlisle
Penguin, 384pp, £25

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special