Parallelograms of Passion
"Magnificently ugly," the young Henry James summed her up in 1869, "deliciously hideous." But in the ugliness of "this great, horse-faced bluestocking," James admitted with some awe, "resides a most powerful beauty . . . and sweetness—a broad hint of a great underlying world of reserve, knowledge, pride and power."
Such resounding but paradoxical praise for novelist George Eliot was characteristic in her time. Today, young students and many adults who are obliged to read her worst book, Silas Marner, look on the great woman author as a kind of nanny-goat novelist. But the Victorian public, teetering between reason and sentiment, and tormented by the discrepancy between public virtue and private vice, was shocked and then charmed both by the author's daring life and her works. It began by accepting her early writing as the creation of a country parson, and it ended by making her one of the richest and most honored women writers in history. For much of the period in between, however, no proper Victorian family would have her to dinner.
Loving and Flying. As with many another famous Victorian, her trouble—as well as her eventual triumph—lay in a longing for love and an excess of earnestness. Born plain Mary Anne Evans, the bright but ungainly daughter of a non-U Derbyshire estate agent, she lost her faith at 22 (in 1842) after a characteristically exhaustive study of new scientific attacks on the Scriptures. (She had attended several schools, but was largely self-educated.) When she declined to accompany her father to church, he refused to have her under the same roof and sent her away. It was the start of a long struggle between conscience and convention.
Working as the unpaid—and largely unknown—editor of a prestigious liberal quarterly, the Westminster Review, she fell in love with Herbert Spencer, who rejected her. The notorious apostle of ethical Darwinism was a man "as capable of loving as of flying." But when she developed a plain woman's devotion to "the ugliest man in London," a chatty, witty, sensible litterateur named George Lewes, she found herself deep in one of those parallelograms of passion that so often defined Victorian domestic life.
Lewes was already married to a pretty woman named Agnes, who practiced free love so successfully that four of the Lewes's eight children were hers but not his. A professed liberal and a kindly man, Lewes acknowledged all of Agnes' offspring officially as his own. By doing so, he permanently lost all grounds for divorcing his wife for adultery—the only grounds permitted under Victorian law. Thus blocked from propriety, he and Mary Anne in 1854 decided to live in sin and openly did so for 24 years, until Lewes's death in 1878. Except for fellow freethinkers, few friends came to call. Mary Anne's brother and sister refused even to write. The pair bore this uncomplainingly. But when a woman twitted Mary Anne by mail about taking the marriage sacrament lightly, she struck back. "Women who are content with light and easily broken ties do not act as I have done," she wrote, drawing a nice distinction between herself and those who practiced secret adultery. "They obtain what they desire and are invited to dinner."
Was She Maggie? To the self-pitying and self-indulgent age of the 1960s, the dedication to duty and sheer hard work of such Victorians, however stuffy, stirs profound admiration. "Mr. and Mrs. George Lewes," as the couple meticulously called themselves, certainly do. In their first years of living together they occasionally went hungry. But they worked on, side by side, scraping and scrimping in a succession of cheap lodgings, managing to stay alive and support Lewes's other family. Lewes churned out a two-volume life of Goethe (it is still in print).
Mary Anne, who was expert in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German and French, did translations. Then one day, when she was 37 years old, Lewes overcame his wife's diffidence about her literary abilities and got her to write fiction. One story, Scenes of Clerical Life, was an instant success. Next, in 1859, came Adam Bede. Like the first stories, this novel was written under the pen name devised by Mary Anne to protect her from the critics. She borrowed her husband's first name and added Eliot because, she explained, it is "a good, mouth-filling, easily pronounced word."
The rest, alas, is literary history. Perhaps inevitably, Biographer Gordon Haight, a Yale professor and the world's foremost George Eliot scholar, temporarily lapses into a kind of chronological literary Baedeker. Much of his detail is of interest mainly to people who really want to know what sort of financial deals Lewes made for "George," or who wonder if Maggie in The Mill on the Floss really was George Eliot. (Naturally, she was and she wasn't.) He explains how, as a moralistic realist. George Eliot drew on Mary Anne Evans's country girlhood for the low talk of her everyday characters—whose rudeness shocked Victorians. With her remarkable intellectual powers, she delved into the Renaissance, which she used as a background for Romola. In her last book, Daniel Deronda, she created not only a contemporary Jewish novel but a reasoned and impassioned plea, 20 years before the Zionist movement was founded, for reuniting the dispersed Jews in Palestine.
Wisely, Author Haight contents himself with chronicling his heroine's dazzling success in her own time. By the 1860s, the lady whom George Eliot unkindly referred to as "our little humbug of a Queen" was reading her books aloud to Prince Albert. Proper people were inviting her to dinners (she often declined). World rights to her books had brought in £41,000, in buying power the Victorian equivalent of a cool million dollars. After Dickens's death in 1870, she was revered, quite simply, as the greatest novelist alive.
Unhistoric Acts. George Eliot died in 1880. Critics still regard her as a monumental pioneer in literary technique—the unhappy ending, for example, and the creation of women characters who, if they are never shown in bed, are at least composed of flesh and blood. What stands between George Eliot and modern readers, however, is not merely her habit of intrusive and lengthy moralizing but the play of sentiment, which embarrasses perhaps for the very reason that it is so sincere. Richly mixed in, for those who wait to find it, are psychological insights that are penetrating and wittily precise, and an assortment of characters who rise above preposterous plots to lodge indelibly in the mind.
"The growing good of the world," George Eliot wrote in closing Middlemarch, her finest novel, "is partly dependent upon unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." It was not only the motto for her books but, as Haight convincingly shows, an accurate summary of her own hidden life.