Destination: Mostly England
Book: George Eliot in Love by Brenda Maddox (NEW September 28, 2010)
Ugly. George Eliot (Mary Ann or Marian Evans) was beyond plain. Everyone noted her over-sized nose, prominent jaw and long chin. But her charm and brilliance saved the day. Furthermore, she is one of the best English novelists ever.
When I was in high school, our assigned reading included Silas Marner and like so many ill-planned high school assignments, forcing me to plow through this book because it was “Good Literature” turned me against the author for a very long time. (I had a similar experience with arguably the best book to come from America, Moby Dick.)
Thank goodness a few years ago I belonged to a book group that read Middlemarch (Oxford World’s Classics). Expecting to be bored by a musty old book, I found instead a lively, compassionate story about timeless problems faced by an interesting array of characters. And such a crystal clear depiction of time and place!
Evans/Eliot constantly fretted that she could not write well enough–that no one would like her work–that no one would like her. And as Brenda Maddox shows in George Eliot in Love, Eliot was not as impervious to the mores of the day as one might think. Despite her daring use of a man’s name (a la George Sand), and despite her more than thirty years of unwedded bliss, she was not what we would consider a liberated woman. This book introduces some surprises, such as the fact that George Eliot did not support women’s suffrage.
George Eliot in Love reminds us that despite the fact that she ran in an intellectual and liberal-minded crowd, this was still the time that Jane Austin wrote about. A woman’s main task was to marry–or at least to find a man to look after her. The young Mary Anne/Marian Evans had numerous affairs, some sexual, falling in love at the drop of a hat.
The long nose and masculine features took second place to her intellect and her soft-spoken, attentive manner. Henry James, the great skeptic, described her as “deliciously hideous” but went on to say,
Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind so that you end as I ended in falling in love with her. Yes, behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.
After many disappointments, she fell in love for keeps with a man who doted on her and managed her career. George Lewes was even responsible for masking the female writer behind a masculine name when she wrote her first novel, Adam Bede, in 1857. She was 38 years old. Although the couple kept her identity hidden through several more books, people eventually knew George Eliot.
However, even when George Lewes died after they had lived together for 24 years, some people were shocked to find he had never divorced his first wife, and the happy couple, George and George, had never wed.
This is a brief book, focused on personal life, although synopses of the important novels sneak in, somewhat unnecessarily. The author also crammed the first few chapters of George Eliot in Love with details of her early life that struck me as not essential to the later story. Mary Ann Evan’s life before she became George Eliot lacks strong direction. However when she partners with Lewes, writes a string of successful novels and becomes a celebrity, the book moves swiftly with fascinating glimpses into her life.
The array of characters in the social circle of the two Georges, included the intelligentsia of London and beyond. Luminaries mentioned include Thackeray, Dickens, Jane Austin, Lizt, Darwin, Spencer (the first to posit evolutionary theory), Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, T. H. Huxley and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
If you are an avid reader of biographies, you may have run into Brenda Maddox before, since she has won numerous awards for her biographies. In this Google excerpt, she talks about some of her philosophy. The stimulating world of ideas in this book, combined with George Eliot’s magnificent capture of the Midlands where she grew up–in Warwickshire– in her novels, makes her an essential for the traveler’s library. (Although she traveled widely, England was her subject.) George Eliot in Love provides an interesting view of the life of the great writer.
I invite you to follow the links to Amazon and take a look at Middlemarch or George Eliot in Love, and share your thoughts on Eliot below.