New Bio Tells The Secrets of George Eliot

Book Cover

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.

George Eliot

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.

For more at A Traveler’s Library about British writers who capture England, see Jane Austin, an Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Movie, and Bill Bryson,

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.

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler’s Library, recreating her family’s past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

9 thoughts on “New Bio Tells The Secrets of George Eliot

  1. I have ordered this book, just to keep up on George Eliot biographies, but the best I’ve read is Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s The Secret Life of Mary Ann Evans, which is still (pub 1994)a fresh interpretation of her letters in conversation with the fiction she (GE) was writing at the time. Bodenheimer’s research is excellent and writing beautiful and in my opinion, nothing has come close to it. For second place I’d rank Rosemary Ashton’s biography(1983, which is a feminist re-interpretation of Gordon Haight’s somewhat condescending biography(1968). I like Kathryn Hughes’s interpretations of the novels but Ashton’s is better as a biography, because I don’t think any other biographers have found new information since. I’ll be scouring this one, though.
    Hope these comments may be useful to others researching George Eliot’s life. Don’t forget the Victorian web as a good place to visit and learn.

    1. Thank you so much for this information. Reading this small biography just whetted my appetite for readin another, but there are so many, I didn’t know where to start. Now I know.

  2. Is this a different book from Maddox’s George Eliot: Novelist, Lover, Wife which I think came out last year? I have to admit I am not convinced by Maddox’s take on Eliot. It appears to owe a bit too much to the “Becoming Jane” school of thought, which sees hidden love affairs in the smallest hint of friendly relations with the opposite sex. Although Eliot seems genuinely to have admired Sand, nothing I have read so far makes me inclined to think she also practiced Sand’s (early) attitude to “free love”. Still, any biography that stimulates interest in and appreciation for the author of Middlemarch can’t be too bad a thing!

    1. Looks like that was the British title, and my review is the newly issued American title. Sorry that I missed that in researching it, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention. Eliot’s attitudes toward “free love” and other societally unconventional thoughts obviously has kept a whole school of biographers busy. Lots of room for interpretation of the woman who wanted NO interpretation of her life, and apparently feared interpretation of her writing.

  3. Alexandra: I wouldn’t care a lot what she looked like either, but it is striking that everyone who wrote about meeting her, mentioned her appearance, and in an age when snagging a husband was woman’s first job in life, it had more importance that it does now. It is also interesting, because her manner and intelligence so clearly overcame her looks. Glad to hear you’re going to read Middlemarch. Come back and let us know what you think of it.

  4. I read Mill on the Floss in 9th grade and was very impressed. Really do not care what George Eliot looked like. Glad to hear she was in love at some point, but I think I will pass on this biography and read Middlemarch instead.

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