George Eliot: the Emergent Self
Young Thomas Hardy
George Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans in 1819, died in 1880. Within five years a Life had appeared, written by her widowed husband, J. W. Cross, who disarmingly confessed that he had left out “everything that I thought my wife would have wished to be omitted.” He probably left out even more than she would have wished, prompting Gladstone to remark that the work was “not a Life at all,” but “a Reticence in three volumes”; and allowing Henry James, with a characteristic mixture of condescension and admiration, to see in George Eliot a “quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures or sensations,” who nevertheless somehow managed to produce “rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multiform life of man.”
Thomas Hardy was not a man to miss the possibilities suggested by Cross’s conjugal piety, and his death in 1928 was fast followed by the first part of a Life, apparently written by his widow, and published in the same year. The second part came out in 1930. The subtitle of the book might have given the game away, if anyone had thought then that there was a game afoot: “compiled largely from contemporary notes, letters, diaries, and biographical memoranda, as well as from oral information in conversations extending over many years.” Cross had made a similar sort of claim for his book—“The life has been allowed to write itself in extracts from her letters and journals”—but Mrs. Hardy sounded positively overwhelmed by her sources. It was not until 1943, though, when an American visitor published his memories of an interview with Hardy, that the cat really came out of the bag.
I intend [Hardy said] to write my autobiography through my good wife. Each day I slant my memoirs as though my wife were writing them herself. After she has copied the day’s stint on the typewriter, we hold a discussion, and she makes invaluable suggestions which are almost always immediately incorporated in the text. Then my original manuscript is given to the flames. Thus is insured absolute accuracy. My idea, of course, is to have the work appear after my death as a biography of myself written by my wife.
Hardy’s “absolute accuracy” is more or less synonymous with Cross’s idea of everything George Eliot would have wished to be omitted, although what Hardy left out mainly was all talk of his lowly social origins, and what Cross left out mainly was any suggestion that Eliot might have had her miserable, unprogressive moments. Like the great good Victorians they were, Eliot and Hardy, in later life and in death, were converting themselves (and were being converted) into imposing monuments, effigies of the writer as sage. There is something very provoking about such creations, they invite the very gossip they are meant to keep at bay; and gossip, of course, has endowed both Eliot and Hardy with the illegitimate children which are supposed to hide in so many Victorian …