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George Eliot, Radical

George Eliot, Voice of a Century: A Biography

by Frederick R Karl
Norton, 708 pp., $30.00

1.

How could she have written them? Henry James, reading John Cross’s biography of George Eliot in 1885, decided that it failed to explain how “this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures or sensations, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multiform life of man.” It was, he thought, an illustration of the final curse of all literary biography—that there is never more than the most misleading connection between a work of the imagination and the life of its maker: “It is certain that George Eliot had this characteristic of a mind possessed: that the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.”

James’s disillusion with biography was greater than it needed to be. Cross, who had been married to Eliot for eight months before she died, had left out a good deal in the story he cobbled together from her letters and journals—and the woman who wrote the novels was quite invisible. Gladstone called the Life “a Reticence in three volumes.” Oscar Browning, who wrote another early biography of her, said, “Some day, perhaps, George Eliot will undergo the fate of Goethe. We shall know how she spent every week of her existence, and how far the scenes of her novels, even the most sensational, are records of her own trials and experiences.” But it was not until 1968 that Gordon Haight’s biography drew on a mass of unpublished sources, including her letters, which Cross had protectively selected and mutilated with deletions. Haight, who also edited seven volumes of the letters, filled in most of the gaps so well that there have been few accounts since his that have added much.

Now we have Frederick Karl, whose very big book offers itself as a replacement for Haight with the advantage of some materials that have since emerged. Thanks to letters Haight did not know about when he wrote his biography—though some of them have since been published in supplementary volumes of his edition of the Letters—Karl is able to provide a more detailed picture of the period when she was the assistant editor of the Westminster Review, responsible for reinventing it as the leading radical organ of the day while she lived in what Karl calls “a viper’s nest of rumors, infidelities, philandering.” He also tells the story of Eliot’s love for Herbert Spencer—in which she desperately begged him to love her back. The series of letters making this apparent was not released by the British Museum until 1975, and Haight had been misled by Spencer’s guarded Autobiography, which portrayed his relation with Eliot in 1852 as a triumph of serene friendship between two Victorian giants of the mind.

Cross, it must be noted in all fairness, was not entirely responsible for James’s view of Eliot’s personality. She had already prepared her own posthumous monument. Meeting her in her last years James saw her as an immensely dignified, conservative woman. The impulsive passion and speculative daring, the country-girl humor early friends remembered, were gone, and Cross’s Life confirmed James’s impressions. Those who had known her longer and better must have agreed with William Hale White (the writer “Mark Rutherford”):

I do hope that in some future edition, or in some future work, the salt and spice will be restored to the records of George Eliot’s entirely unconventional life. As the matter now stands she has not had full justice done to her, and she has been removed from the class—the great and noble church, if I may so call it—of the Insurgents, to one more genteel, but certainly not so interesting.

But after Thackeray died in 1863 and Dickens in 1870, the popularity of her novels established her, in her fifties, as the queen of letters, whose books were read by Victoria herself. She was still fearful of snubs. Her brother, representing ordinary opinion at its most censorious, refused communication with her during her twenty-four years of unlegalized marriage to George Henry Lewes; he would not break his silence until she told him she was finally married at a church altar—to Cross. But to her and Lewes’s London house, a former priory (Lewes fell into the habit of calling her “Madonna”), came her most distinguished literary contemporaries—Browning, Tennyson, Ruskin, Trollope, Arnold, Clough, Rossetti, and others. To all she showed a melancholy, low-voiced calm. Frederic W. H. Myers wrote a famous description: “I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned toward me like a sibyl’s in the gloom.”

She seemed to her visitors remote from the turbulence of her times. She displayed little visible interest in the vast changes in British society that followed the war with Napoleon—as factories grew and small farmers suffered. The industrial unrest had begun the year she was born, 1819, with the famous Peterloo massacre of Corn Laws protesters in Manchester. Her youth coincided with the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s, and the ever-mounting political pressure for extending the suffrage. But when the second Reform Bill was passed in 1867, she declared that she was “no believer in Salvation by Ballot.” She hardly mentioned in her letters and her work the “vital questions” raised in her Westminster prospectus of 1850—universal suffrage, a Bill of Civil Rights, school and university education for all, a balance of power between England and its colonies. She stressed the ethical tradition that must survive all revolutions.

This impression has persisted, and White’s “future work” about Eliot is still unwritten. Haight’s study does not offer any large conclusions about her relation to her times, and avoids drawing conclusions about the different phases of her life he finely describes. The idea that she was “the spirit and mind of the nineteenth century” causes Karl, on the other hand, to search for too many vague analogies between his subject and a vast and disordered period about which one can generalize only by saying that no generalization is possible. He arrives at the judgment, finally, that she was essentially “conservative and, to some limited extent, regressive.”

Yet perhaps she remade only her outer persona when she became the sibyl of the Priory. It served to keep her inside the pale while technically outside it, and was useful for the acceptance of her books. In the beginning they seemed dangerous messages from a dangerous source. Swinburne, shocked by the sexual element in The Mill on the Floss, felt that “the last abyss of cynicism [had] surely been sounded and laid bare.” Later, it was read as a sermon on conformity because it looked back to more peaceful times and acquiesced in the persistence of old habits.

In fact, Eliot’s pessimistic but profoundly searching art is never complacent. As Walter Allen says, “only a radical freethinker, cut off from her roots, could have had so intense a nostalgia for the traditional past.” As recent critics have shown, too, her novels do not settle for a resignation to things as they are—as their bare stories may suggest; they are full of subversion beneath the surface. George Eliot became a very quiet person, but she remained to the end a member of the church of the insurgents. Her covert personality probably requires the insight of someone with her own wisdom and curiosity—and few have so qualified. Even Haight, whose scholarship and grace as a chronicler made him the ideal traditional biographer, refrained from asking difficult questions.

Karl, on the other hand, is injudiciously interpretative. One wants to remind him sometimes that simple explanations would be better than attempts at profundity, as when he makes much of the different names she used—Mary Anne (or Mary Ann or Pollian or Marian) Evans, Mary Ann Lewes, George Eliot, Mrs. John Walter Cross. He seems either to regard her use of different names as evidence of a compulsively “self-deconstructing” nature or of one given temperamentally to secrecy and duplicity. Yet her changes of name are less or more important, as the case may be. It was just youthful assertiveness when she dropped the “e” from her baptismal “Anne,” but it was a solemn declaration in the face of censure when she insisted, although she was not married, on being addressed as Mrs. Lewes. Her male pen name was chiefly a practical disguise, a device that had been useful to other women writers. That she never discarded the pseudonym is not so much a proof that she wanted to assume a male selfhood as connected with the problems created by her desire to claim Lewes’s name. To revert to Miss Evans would deny the sanctity of their union, but to call herself Lewes on her title pages when the name belonged to a living wife would have been impossible. Nor could she, on the other hand, become everywhere George Eliot; she was no more ready to be called “George,” like George Sand, than she was ready to wear a man’s clothes and take masculine liberties of behavior.

Karl sometimes manages to make his great subject boring. He provides a narrative of her sixty-one years that is full of details but indiscriminate. The most trivial are given disproportionate weight, thus undermining whatever drama his account could have. Its pace is slowed by wads of political, economic, and social history which are rarely directly related to Eliot. It is no help when his prose—barely functional most of the time—breaks into a reductive and unpleasant jocularity—e.g.: Eliot’s hesitations are a “holding action”; she was “squirreling away” her disappointments until she “traded in” Herbert Spencer for Lewes; Lewes “torpedoed” his chance to divorce his wife, whose lover, a “baby-making machine,” is “planting a good deal of seed”; otherwise, Lewes is effective at “damage control.” Haight’s well-written book should have been succeeded by something superior to this.

Nevertheless, picking one’s way through the heap, one can see someone different from James’s “invalidical” lady. Eliot did get headaches from eyestrain owing to lack of adequate glasses—who ever read more, and more constantly?—and toothaches and gum infections, only relieved by extractions, but these are hardly remarkable, and she was never seriously ill until, at fifty-five, she had her first attack of kidney stones, the disease that killed her. Haight cautions against taking the litany of minor discomforts in her letters too seriously; her symptoms generally vanished as soon as a book was finished. Karl, attempting, again, one of his dubious connections between the person and the cosmos, says that by means of illness she “recognized the major divisions of the age because she recognized them in herself.” In fact, as a writer she was unflagging and she was physically energetic, more frequently the nurse of others—her father, Lewes, Lewes’s ailing son—than someone to be nursed. Some visitors to the Priory (though not Henry James) had glimpsed the sibyl playing badminton, a favorite sport. The view of her as weak and repining is suspect, possibly the consequence of a desire to reduce her to the Victorian stereotype of the “delicate” lady, to make her body suggest the character attributed to her by her friend Charles Bray when he said, “She was not fitted to stand alone.”

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