George Eliot

by Gordon Haight
Oxford, 640 pp., $12.50

George Eliot
George Eliot; drawing by David Levine

George Eliot is the greatest of English novelists. Or, if not, Middlemarch is the greatest Victorian novel. Or, if rot, it is second only to Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Wuthering Heights, or The Ambassadors. Or, if such conjecture is tiresome, she is at least a novelist of great achievement whom no literate person who reads novels in any language can neglect. Tolstoy, James, and Proust admired her; her contemporaries revered her. Never at any time since her death has she been neglected, and in the past thirty years she has inspired not only numerous biographies and critical studies but also a copious emission of theses, by which some still believe the fertility of our culture can be measured.

What brought her fame? She had courage, independence, intellect, industry, sensibility, but the clue to her success was the agony of her youth. She was ugly. A great horse of a woman, clumsy, ponderous, racked by headaches and perhaps more than her fair share of colds; her only physical advantages, a sweet low voice and luminous, intense, sympathetic eyes. But then many blue-stockings are ugly: ugliness dictates their role to them. Marian Evans refused to behave as if she was ugly. She was a woman; and a woman, so her nature demanded, needed a man to cosset her, fondle her, protect her, worship her. She was not going to give in without a struggle. Unlike other blue-stockings she was not going to settle for an apparently predestined fate to become soured or resigned as a spinster or a woman taken in marriage on suffrance. But how could she get what her nature implored and yet not betray what her intellect told her was right? It was out of this tension that her genius was born. She had to learn how far she should go in her search for a man. She saw life in terms of moral choices, lived it as such both in actuality and in her novels. As a result she has always been particularly beloved by intellectuals: her troubles were those which every ungainly, unattractive moralist recognizes as his.

Every Victorian scholar has been waiting for Gordon Haight’s biography, the climax to his seven-volume edition of her letters. But how does one write the life of a woman with whom one has been living for forty years and who died nearly ninety years ago? Haight decided to give us a record of George Eliot’s days: where she was, how she felt, where she was going, whom she saw. A dense account of her toothaches and cold hotel rooms in Europe, of lodging houses, pinching and saving, growing affluence, to the final years when she sat as a sybil, intellectual England at her feet, benevolent to the young, kindly to old friends, but unmistakably guarding her own mind and heart against the endless attempts of the well-meaning and her adorers…

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