GEORGE ELIOT: The Last Victorian

GEORGE ELIOT: The Last Victorian

Amy Schwartz

By Kathryn Hughes. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 384 pp. $30

Read Time:
3m 13sec

It must be almost impossible to write a boring biography of George Eliot (1819–80). Everything about her tantalizes, seduces, lends itself to narrative: the wise and sweeping authorial voice of the novels, the woman behind it who lived scandalously and fought in the thick of the headiest intellectual battles of her day, the dramatic landscape of the battles themselves and the underpinnings they furnish for today’s wars over science and religion. There is no trouble about sources, since the subject left a wealth of self-revelatory letters, along with copious testimony from her great love, George Henry Lewes, and a wide circle of other indefatigably expressive Victorians. The novels, despite having been mined by critics for everything from class struggle to Orientalist bias, hold up pluckily under further discussion; the life remains satisfyingly complex even after having provided the jumping-off point for imaginative excursions on other topics, such as Cynthia Ozick’s novel The Puttermesser Papers (1997), whose protagonist pursues a comically poignant quest to replicate Eliot’s love life.

In this sprightly page-turner, Hughes, a lecturer at several British universities, has come up with what she sees as a fresh way to write of Eliot—or, more accurately, of Mary Anne Evans, the flesh-blood-and-brain woman behind the lifework. Little in the book is altogether new, but there is no sense that the author is rummaging among arcana, or pursuing tangential lines of inquiry somehow missed by other biographers. This is true even though George Eliot: The Last Victorian lists a dozen other full-length lives of Eliot in its bibliography and is the third one to appear in three years.

Hughes aims to trace Evans the woman, her emotional makeup, and the kinds of support she sought in friendship and in love. Hughes’s theme—of early family rejection and lifelong vulnerability—is, she concedes at the outset, one that long dominated views of Eliot, based on the testimony of the much younger man she married at the end of her life, John Cross. But despite the use to which it has been put over the years by condescending critics, Hughes argues, the pattern accords with Eliot’s behavior and with her own views of herself.

That story starts with the coldness of Mary Anne’s mother and the breaking of the young woman’s treasured companionship with her older brother Isaac, a kinship she idealized in sonnets and limned more accurately in the relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (1860). A succession of passionate epistolary friendships with older women followed, and, later, crushes on intellectual men who did not love her back, notably liberal philosopher Charles Bray, biblical scholar Charles Hennell, and Westminster Review editor John Chapman (with whom Hughes contends Evans had an affair).

Treading gingerly but gamely on the awkward ground of Evans’s marked physical unattractiveness, Hughes draws a persuasive portrait of an insecure and intense woman (the word bluestocking is used a bit too often) whose search for love finally ends with the odd little man, George Henry Lewes, who gave her the devotion and companionship she needed to become George Eliot. Hughes suggests nicely how Evans’s growing intellectual maturity gave her the groundedness to break with society in deciding to live with Lewes, who was legally barred from divorcing his wife because he had accepted her child by another man as his own.

Why Eliot was "the last Victorian" is never made clear, and her caution in regard to women’s rights and other progressive causes, though mentioned, does not receive full attention. But any path struck through a forest this big is bound to miss some areas. Hughes’s book comes across as modest in its ambitions, and it is the better for it.

—Amy Schwartz


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