George Eliot by Kathryn Hughes
As part of my reading of the Victorians, including George Eliot, I’ve been reading their biographies. I recently finished a magnificent Trollope biography by Victoria Glendinning discussed here. And I was excited to move on to this #153 George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes.
George Eliot was the pseudonym under which Mary Anne Evans (1819-1882) or Marian Evans or Marian Lewes or Marian Cross (she used different versions of her name at different stages of her life) wrote. Mary Anne was born the daughter of Robert Evans, an ambitious estate manager. Her mother, Christiania, became very sick when Mary Anne was 16 and Mary Anne returned home from school to run nurse her mother and run her father’s household. Christiania had never been a particularly loving or accepting mother and many see Mrs. Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss as based, in part, on Christiania. (and Maggie and Tom’s relationship strongly echoes that with her brother Issac) All her life Mary Anne had a desperate need of affection that Hughes’ ties to her mother’s lack of deep, obvious love for her.
Mary Anne quickly showed herself to be a brilliant young woman, channeling her intellect, ambition, and energy into evangelicalism into her early twenties. She read carefully and voraciously and could successfully debate some of the top thinkers of the day even when she was pretty young.
Much has been made about her appearance: she was not considered to be pretty and, in fact, was seen as not even plain, the most common adjective used to describe her was “ugly.” In this time period, a woman’s face, in combination with her position and dowry, were her route to success, defined as marrying well. With a father and family frequently struggling to make ends meet and unsupportive of Mary Anne’s intellectual passions and ambitions, her lack of beauty and distaste for conventional pursuit of suitors (through church and dance attendance) were seen as treacherous to her family’s interests since she remained their financial responsibility.
Painters and other artists may have compensated for her lack of looks since she generally looked somewhat pretty in paintings and sketches but not in photographs. I don’t want to overplay this – I find it offensive that so much time has been spent on her looks, but I do want to note that the photographs that exist of her are taken from the side or halfway to profile as this photograph was. Obviously, her nose was pretty large, but it is likely that a front-on photo would not have emphasized it as much, but none seem to exist – for obvious reasons, she was quite sensitive about her appearance and avoided cameras.
In her early twenties, Evans became friends with the Brays, ardent unitarians and the pathway to other intellectuals and activists of the era. Through her reading and this exposure, she eventually abandoned her religiosity and came to be more of a free thinker. Her deep drive and ambition were difficult for her – at this time, there were few opportunities for women of Mary Anne’s class (an educated woman who was sort of upper working class), even fewer than I realized before reading the book. They could be governesses – a fate worse than hell for many, or, sometimes, teachers in girls schools. With notable exceptions, few women wrote and fewer wrote the types of intellectually demanding work that Evans craved.
She began her writing career with translations of religious and philosophical works. She wrote essays now and again. In her thirties, she was hired onto the Westminster Review, a sort of Harper’s Magazine or The Nation founded by Jeremy Bentham. During its day, all the leading British intellectuals yearned to be published there. Mary Anne (now Marian) started out as a sort of secret co-editor with John Chapman, but eventually she came more to the fore and was well-recognized as the powerhouse behind the journal’s success. She lived very much in the thick of writers, thinkers, and artists in London, but she was not yet writing her novels. She eventually met George H. Lewes and their relationship evolved into a long-term common law marriage that made both of them very happy. Lewes and his legal wife were separated, amicably, but unable to divorce due to a legal snag. Evans’ and Lewes’ relationship was EXTREMELY scandalous for the time, but over the decades that they were together and as George Eliot’s fame grew, they became more and more accepted by broader society.
Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede were published in the 1850’s but were not great hits. Marian took the name George Eliot as much to avoid the notoriety of her real name (due to her famous illicit relationship with Lewes) as to better ensure that her work would be taken serious with a man’s name. The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860 (when she was 41), quickly followed by Silas Marner. These books were very popular and began her fame. The fact that they were hits, as was Middlemarch, started gaining her, over time, an income sufficient to comfortably support herself, Lewes, and members of their family who needed it (they never had their own children, but Lewes had children from his legal marriage). Throughout their lives, Lewes and Eliot traveled frequently and were at the center of intellectual society. Eliot came to be a highly respected member of British intelligentsia and even Queen Victoria greatly enjoyed her work.
Lewes and Eliot died within a couple years of each other, with Eliot marrying a much younger family friend (John Cross who put together books of her letters and other material after her death) a few months before her own life (she hated to be alone). The both had ongoing health problems that aged them beyond their years.
As Hughes mentions in the afterward, Eliot’s work was little known ten years after she died. In the 1940s British literary scholars drew attention to her once again and she became the renowned novelist that she is today. I have seen Middlemarch ranked high (and sometimes first) on many “greatest” novel lists. George Eliot would have very much enjoyed the fact that her work remains highly valued and frequently read nearly 200 years after her birth (1819).
I wrote a lot about how wonderful Glendinning’s Trollope biography was and I suppose her work is a hard act to follow. Hughes’ Eliot biography is very good – clear, weaving together many threads of her life with her writing, showing her intellectual evolution (I think this is one of the major themes of the book), and Eliot’s struggles as a brilliant, plain, non-conventional artist in the Victorian Era. She doesn’t bring Lewes and Eliot to life in the way that Glendinning did the Trollopes. I’m not as in awe of her command of Eliot’s writings (but this maybe somewhat unfair, I was blown away by Glendinning’s familiarity with Trollope’s 47 novels, Eliot only wrote seven – of highly varying quality). But it is a strong biography that gave me much insight into Eliot’s challenges and inspirations and will enhance my reading of Middlemarch.
Happy Reading! Ruby