LIFE OF GEORGE ELIOT: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Nancy Henry, Reviewed by Joanne Shattock

By Nancy Henry
(Wiley Blackwell, 2012) xiii+ 299pp.
Reviewed by Joanne Shattock on 2013-03-29.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

The Edinburgh-based publisher John Blackwood met his new author "George Eliot" for the first time in February 1858 during one of his regular visits to London. "She is a most intelligent, pleasant woman, with a face like a man, but a good expression," he wrote to his wife (George Eliot Letters vol.2 p. 436). The woman to whom he was introduced on that occasion would have looked very much as she does in the photograph taken in the same month by John Mayall, which adorns the dust jacket of this book. Having finally met G. H. Lewes's 'friend', whose identity had been kept from him for over a year even as Scenes of Clerical Life appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, Blackwood was sworn to further secrecy, lest the revelation of Lewes and Marian Evans's irregular union hurt the sales of her new novel, Adam Bede. Published in three volumes in 1859 , Adam Bede went through more editions and reprints and sold more copies than any of her other works. It set her reputation on an upward trajectory that lasted until her death in 1880.

In 1860s, as her literary fame overtook the gossip and scandal that dogged her early years with Lewes, the need to maintain strict secrecy about the identity of 'George Eliot' and the nature of their union became less urgent. . But for the rest of her life, the novelist cherished her privacy and balked at disclosing biographical details. Of contemporary biography she remarked that ' "biographies generally are a disease of English literature," , and 'the best history of a writer," she thought, "is contained in his writings' (qtd. 1). As Henry demonstrates, she worried about the posthumous reputation of her own writings, and did not want appreciation of them to be obscured by an interest in her personal life.

Given her disdain for contemporary biography, it is ironic that more than thirty-seven accounts of Eliot's life have been written since her death. They began with two lengthy and informative obituaries in the Westminster Review and Blackwood's Magazine (both 1881), followed by the poet Mathilde Blind's George Eliot (1883) in the Eminent Women series. The first authoritative biography was John Walter Cross's George Eliot's Life as related in her Letters and Journals (1885), a three volume 'Life and Letters' in the Victorian mold. Criticized from the start, Cross's Life was subsequently blamed for the sharp decline in Eliot's reputation after its publication . It is best known for what it left out or played down: her religious deconversion, her estrangement from her family, the crucial intellectual and emotional partnership with Lewes, and the wit and humor to be found in her letters and journals. ,

Henry offers a different view of Cross's Life and the reasons for Eliot's late marriage to its author-- a man some twenty years younger, whom she once called her 'nephew'. Cross was chosen, she argues, to edit her letters and papers, to supervise the building of her posthumous reputation, and to manage her financial affairs. Since he was charged with determining how George Eliot would be remembered after her death, he chose letters that emphasized her seriousness and devotion to her art at the expense of other aspects of her personality. Cross, Henry argues, deserves credit for creating a biography that conformed with Eliot's own thinking about the genre.

Henry's agenda for her new biography includes a number of contested issues in the accepted narrative of George Eliot's life. One is the restitution of Cross as both husband and biographer. Others are the shadowy portrait of her mother, the reasons why she and Lewes did not marry, and Agnes Lewes's role in her life. Stressing the early influence of her father, Robert Evans, Henry notes that Mary Ann was the daughter of his second wife, Christiana. Accordingly, as Henry notes, her novels feature not only second marriages and second families but also stepmothers and step children. This argument gathers momentum when she turns her attention to the triangle composed of Agnes Lewes, G H. Lewes, and Agnes' lover Thornton Hunt, who fathered four of her children. According to the argument put forward by Gordon Haight (in George Eliot: A Biography [1968]) and accepted by subsequent biographers, Lewes and Marian Evans could not marry because Lewes generously registered Agnes' son Edward as his own child, thereby 'condoning' her relationship with Hunt. He was also constrained by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which allowed divorce on grounds of a husband's adultery but not of a wife's. Nevertheless, Henry argues, Lewes was chiefly motivated by the fear that seeking a divorce might harm the reputation of George Eliot. Furthermore, registering a birth did not constitute 'condonation', which in any case had no force in law. Rather, Henry argues, Lewes sought to protect all of Agnes's children by Hunt by giving them his name. With the children believing Lewes, not Hunt, to be their father, Lewes and Agnes remained on cordial terms, Lewes visited the family home regularly, Agnes visited the Priory when her second son Thornie was dying, and Lewes and George Eliot financially supported Agnes and her children throughout their lives. According to Henry, this is why Cross minimized Lewes's importance in George Eliot's life and their twenty-five year long intimate relationship. Rather than expressing his jealousy of Lewes, Cross sought to spare the reputation of Agnes Lewes and her surviving children.

In Henry's reading of Eliot's life, the ripples that spread out from the dissolution of the Lewes' marriage and the extra-marital partnerships they formed became raw material for Eliot's narratives. Fuelled by secrets, lies, deception, and betrayal, her fiction and long poems tell stories of unhappy marriages, sexual triangles, secret and second marriages. Eliot, Henry argues, was fascinated by the tensions implicit in triangular relationships, where two men may be attracted by each other as well as by the heroine they both desire. . But Eliot, of course, was caught up in a triangle involving two women. Since Agnes Lewes remained part of the lives of both Lewes and George Eliot, . Eliot was alternately made to play 'the other woman' and the second wife. This is the light, Henry suggests, in which we should read the novels and stories of the early sixties after The Mill on the Floss, when Eliot consciously ceased to mine her midlands childhood as quarry for her fiction. Together with "The Lifted Veil," Silas Marner, Romola, and 'Brother Jacob' all rework material abundantly gathered from her new domestic life: step parents and step children, failed and secret unions, and second marriages.

Henry has much to say about Eliot's self- conscious role as a stepmother, and the efforts that she and George made to further the careers of his and Agnes's three sons. As middle-class professional parents with a range of useful contacts, their experience resembled that of Dickens and the widowed Margaret Oliphant. Though both did all they could to establish their adult children in appropriately middle-class careers, their children profoundly disappointed them.

Henry illuminatingly shows how the lives of Eliot and Lewes changed in in the late 1860s, when they relaxed the protective barriers they had erected around their private life and extended the range of their acquaintances. The society that opened its doors to them included Oxford and Cambridge dons, scientists, theologians, philosophers, and their interlocking networks. Many of the discussions that ensued, Henry argues, indirectly fed Eliot's preparation for the two great novels of her last period, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.

Henry herself seeks to open the door to what she believes Gordon Haight has suppressed: the sexual themes in Eliot's life and work. While Haight has influentially stressed the importance of her triangulated position as well of her inability to "stand alone" and her need for someone to lean on, Henry argues that Haight has been just as influentially reticent about Eliot's knowledge of 'complex sexualities' and her treatment of these tabooed subjects in her novels. In using the the word 'bastard' for an illegitimate child, she argues, Haight reflects not only the influence of his times but also his own inherent prudishness. Thus constrained, he could not read the coded language that Victorian novelists had to use for most aspects of sexuality and for every kind of homosexuality or sexual abuse. Consequently, Henry argues, Haight and other biographers and critics have ignored the signals that Gwendolen Harleth's hysterical outbursts in Daniel Deronda are rooted in the sexual abuse she suffered in early childhoodat the hands of her father, or possibly her stepfather.

Henry's argument here is more speculative, and to my mind less grounded and therefore less persuasive than her intriguing analysis of the two triangles and their legacy in Eliot's fiction. For the same reason I was not persuaded by her argument that Eliot supposedly wrote out her mother because child-bearing had made her dependent on alcohol and drugs. . Eliot's embarrassment, Henry argues, was signalled by her later recall of letters written to her teacher Maria Lewis at the time of her mother's death. Mrs Poyser in Adam Bede, popularly believed to have been modelled on her mother, can also be seen to suffer from alcoholism, Henry suggests, if the reader is prepared to look for the coded signs.

Henry does not say much about Eliot's relation to her publishers, the key players in the writing life that paralleled the personal one. From the letters she exchanged with John Blackwood, Henry rightly infers that their relationship veered uncertainly between a professional and personal one. The bonds between Eliot, Blackwood, and Lewes made a triumvirate rather than a triangle, and a very effective one. On the other hand, Henry does not explain why Eliot defected to George Smith (of Smith Elder) for the publication of Romola, a move that Blackwood thought a betrayal and that wounded him much more than Henry infers. Though he magnanimously welcomed her return to his firm with Felix Holt, as Henry says, he did not know that she had first offered the novel to Smith. It was the comparative commercial failure of Felix Holt that led Blackwood to propose the innovative eight book format for Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, a triumph for Eliot, but not a form that caught on.

Henry's biography is important not only for the light it sheds on contested aspects of George Eliot's life, but also for its wider exploration of how much the biographer should speculate about the relation of the life and the work. While Eliot anticipated such speculations and sought to discourage them, she also sought to influence her own legacy. It is a tribute to Henry's skill as a reader of both the life and the work that she has given us more to think about in relation to a life that we thought we knew. Our willingness to turn to another biography of George Eliot, one also suspects, indicates that like the Victorians, we remain addicted to the lives of writers.

Joanne Shattock is Emeritus Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester.

Leave a comment on Joanne Shattock's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed