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1m 17sec

GEORGE ELIOT: A Life. By Rosemary Ashton. Allen Lane/Penguin. 480 pp. $32.95

No hidden cache of documents has been discovered and no drastic revision of literary reputation has occurred since the publication of Gordon Haight’s commanding George Eliot in 1968. Why, then, attempt another biography? To explore "George Eliot the writer as well as George Eliot the woman," is the reason given by Ashton, a professor of English at University College in London. Yet ironically this book has more to say about the woman than it does about the writer.

"Inquiring, skeptical, even rebellious by nature," writes Ashton, Eliot "was also conservative, timid, self-doubting." Ashton’s retelling of the Victorian novelist’s life (1819–80) is especially moving when she describes Eliot’s insecurity about her art. Though fiercely opinionated toward others’ work, Eliot withered at the slightest criticism of her own. To protect the eggshell fragility of her ego, both her companion and lover, George Lewes, and her publisher, John Blackwood, screened her mail, allowing only the most encouraging praise to reach her desk. Ashton tries to link this "diffidence" to Eliot’s work, but the effort falls short. The best explanation offered is Eliot’s own, which could have been written about many of her fictional characters: "I want encouraging rather than warning and checking. I believe I am so constituted that I shall never be cured of any faults except by God’s discipline."

—Sudip K. Bose