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 to possess them.

This is a masterly biography, in which industry is matched by urbanity. Thanks to Haight no one need write today as Virginia Woolf did in the Twenties: “We know very little of the days of her youth…” We now know a great deal; and Marian Evans no longer appears in London as an unknown provincial girl who somehow makes a name for herself reviewing for rationalist periodicals and unaccountably goes off with a literary celebrity before becoming a great novelist. He has shown how rich her acquaintanceship was even in her Coventry days, how she had already begun to travel abroad before she went to Weimar with George Henry Lewes; and his comments on her youth are just and perceptive.

But throughout the biography something seems to be missing. Is it an intensity, a focus, a sense that the biographer is wrestling with his subject; or what is it? Watteau and Lancret chose subjects almost indistinguishable, but Watteau had the gift of a great artist in conveying something more than the subject matter itself—a sense of the frailty of human happiness. What was the crux of George Eliot’s life? It was not her equivocal relationship with John Chapman, nor her marriage in the last year of her life to a man twenty years younger than herself. It was, of course, her famous decision to live with G. H. Lewes. In this book Lewes is missing. The little, hairy, bouncing, gay literary figure, author of a standard life of Goethe and also of several farces, editor of a biographical history of philosophy yet welcomed as a rattle and raconteur, a man who dressed in the morning as if he were going out for the evening, yet who was admired as one of the leading intellectual journalists of his day—Lewes stands in these pages like a wax effigy.

George Eliot herself ran into the same trouble when she created Ladislaw, who is meant to have some of Lewes’s mercurial charm, so it is hard to blame a biographer for losing the most evanescent of human qualities. But one of the reasons why Lewes remains moribund is that the literary circle which Marian Evans entered is not precisely defined. There were intellectuals in it such as Herbert Spencer and Harriet Martineau, but it was not the world of scholars and university men, of Arnold, R. H. Hutton, Fitzjames Stephen, or Bagehot, such as this serious girl would have been at home in. It was socially a little below this world. It was the world of Harold Skimpole, of debts and duns, of quicksticks journalism, a world in which Dickens was the great hero, a raffish, sometimes silly, free-thinking, and, what is more, free-acting world. One might imagine that the earnest Hennells and Brays who converted Marian Evans to rationalism were above the distractions of sexual permissiveness, but not a bit of it. Charles Bray encouraged his wife’s attachment to Edward Noel so that he could pursue Mary Hennell.


Haight reminds us that we should not be misled into thinking that the Victorian novel described Victorian morals. Dickens and Carlyle astonished Emerson by declaring that chastity was almost unknown among Englishmen. But when Emerson burst out that “Americans of good standing and education go virgins to their nuptial bed as truly as their brides,” he was not stating a difference between the morals of the cultivated classes in England and those in America. Emerson’s claim could have been made by Arnold or Clough or Francis Newman of the circles from which they sprang. In this biography these nuances in class and behavior are not made. We need the kind of background which is given by the autobiography of Edmund Yates (who caused Dickens and Thackeray to quarrel) or which John Gross’s forthcoming book on the concept of the man of letters supplies. Unless the literary world George Eliot entered comes alive, Lewes will not come alive, and the famous decision in her life will continue to remain not so mysterious as dull.

Every biographer of George Eliot has to come to grips with it. How did she reconcile her decision to live with Lewes with her belief that precisely because we know how much others affect our lives, we must for ever watch what influence our conduct has on others? Some years ago Anthony West made a courageous and hostile analysis of George Eliot’s early life. It was courageous because (although I do not myself follow it) it went dead against the grain of current criticism. Marian Evans, West maintained, had not been a Calvinist in adolescence for nothing. At that time, she was an addict of Scott’s novels: so she declared that, although novel-reading was to be condemned, it was her duty to read Scott in order to illustrate the lessons to be drawn from his deplorable life. When she grew up she was to express her detestation of this Calvinist double-think—that inveterate self-deception which enabled a woman convicted of lying to say: “I do not feel that I have grieved the spirit much.”

But, West asked, did she not become an even more practiced self-deceiver? The higher the tone of her arguments, the lower the correlation of her conduct to them. Consider her hunt for a man. She first flung herself at the feet of a Casaubon, a dry stick of a scholar, the sixty-two-year-old Dr. Brabant, who called her his Deutera when they were reading Greek together: that was not what Mrs. Brabant called her and she sent Marian Evans packing. Then she became a lodger in the bizarre household of the editor of the West-minster Review, John Chapman, for whom she wrote. Did she do more for him? Chapman was an irrepressible womanizer living at that time under the same roof with his wife and his mistress Elizabeth Tilley. Whenever Elizabeth had the curse, Chapman would put a sign in his diary, for example on 12 January 1851 “E+ 10A.M.” On January 8th 1851 Marian Evans joined his household and on 18 January there was an entry “M. P.M.,” which Gordon Haight—who published in 1940 a facsimile of this diary for that year with an authoritative introduction—identifies as referring to Marian Evans. It is on this evidence that West concluded that she had had an affair with Chapman. Eventually Elizabeth, frenzied with jealousy, forced Chapman to get rid of Marian by refusing to have sex with him.

Marian then set her cap at Herbert Spencer, got nowhere with him, and fell in with George Henry Lewes, who was living in a triangular situation with his wife and Thornton Hunt, the father of Agnes Lewes’s last two children. Marian justified her decision to live with him by arguing that his marriage had long broken down, that they were harming no one, and that far from encouraging promiscuity they were protesting it. But unfortunately it did encourage promiscuity. Marian’s young friend Barbara Leigh Smith, having in her turn fallen under Chapman’s spell, announced that she was going to live with him. That monster had persuaded her that if Marian was living with Lewes, there was reason enough for her to live with him. How did Marian reconcile this with her belief in Kant’s Categorical Imperative? The answer, West concludes, is simple. She had become in her maturity a fellow-traveling Comtist; and Comte’s Religion of Humanity, no less than Calvinism, persuaded its adherents that they were an elect elite beyond the kind of criticism which would apply to the humdrum mass of human beings. George Eliot distorted reality in order to make it conform to her own preconceived ideas and desires; and by so doing destroyed her claim to be a great creative artist.


It can be argued that Haight’s biography is an answer to this case: George Eliot speaks through her journals and letters, and her friends and even her enemies provide the evidence against the charge that she was a high-minded casuist. But the answer would have been more conclusive if the author had tried to relate George Eliot’s life to her thought and both to her art. It is not a critical biography. On the Chapman episode Haight is enigmatic. He clearly does not believe that Marian became Chapman’s mistress; and indeed as the references to M. on 18 and 19 January are not repeated in the diary whereas those to Elizabeth Tilley are, the M. entry may therefore have had a different significance. On the other hand, a number of pages of the diary covering crucial times were removed and numerous erasures made. A scrupulous scholar must return a verdict of non-proven.

He might also add that the verdict does not much matter. The record shows Marian Evans learning to know herself, yet at the same time retaining that tough core of self-determination which creative artists never surrender if they are to succeed. The self-determining protective instinct can lead them into equivocation, or confusion, or indeed total blindness to their true situation (as with Dickens in his relations with Ellen Ternan). But if the instinct for self-knowledge is preserved, something remarkable occurs as it did in George Eliot. When she pointed to her own heart on being asked the model for Casaubon, she acknowledged how her miraculous studies of egoism were drawn from the sufferings of her youth.

She was an egoist. She broke with her father over rationalism, and with society over Lewes. But she judged in each case that she was breaking a convention, not the moral law; and that in each case the person most hurt was herself. In this she was right. She overlaid men, overwhelmed them with her yearning earnestness, and having got Lewes, she was determined to possess him. “I should not think of allowing George to stay away a night from me.” But he did not want to escape. Lewes did not, as used to be thought, share his wife according to Fourierist principles. He simply belonged to a set who thought it civilized to let each partner follow the dictates of the heart. He tired of the loneliness and confusion implicit in this way of life, and this was why Marian protested again and again that in living together they were practicing monogamists. Again she was right. She remained on good terms with Agnes Lewes and supported her when Lewes died; she was a loving step-mother to Lewes’s children and helped Bertie’s widow when he died (though she drew the line at taking her and their children into her house). If she absorbed Lewes’s energies, he was enthralled to discover her talent and bring it out. She was exigent with her publisher but less so than most authors, and only left Blackwood once when George Smith collared Romola. In fact she acknowledged her need for Blackwood’s encouragement as much as her husband’s, and but for a burst or two of that terrible facetiousness to which publishers are prone, he won her affection.

She did, of course, evade responsibilities—for dealing with money or beggars or critics—but they were the trivial responsibilities which Lewes shouldered for her. Her intellectual responsibilities she did not avoid. She was probably the most learned woman in the whole of England. Who could match her breadth of learning? She read five languages, conversed with German scientists, had mastered idealist as well as positivist philosophy, studied history and historiography, was a patron and friend of musicians, and walked the art galleries of Europe. Victorian men enjoyed discomfiting blue-stockings by exposing their ignorance of the classical language; no one was able to do so with George Eliot—she had studied philology and knew her Greek tragedies. Some critics, notably Leslie Stephen, are sour toward her stature as an intellectual. Consequently they denigrate the later novels, and sneer at the pains Lewes took to keep all hostile reviews from her. It is true that the contemporary collections of the “wit and wisdom of George Eliot” were exaggerated tributes to her powers. She was not an original thinker: indeed very few of us are. But she made penetrating comments and astute criticisms, and better perhaps than any other English novelist she was able to write in the same book both as a creative artist and as a conceptualizing intellectual maintaining a balance between both sides of her mind.

But what did her learning teach her? What conflicts did it produce in her mind? There is nothing here about the quality of her agnosticism, or of her judgment on the rival claims of Idealist and positivist methodology. The word “meliorism” which she used to describe her philosophy of life does not, I think, occur in the book. There is a most useful reference to her essay on Riehl, which throws some light on how George Eliot thought morality was affected by social relationships and both were falsified in the novel of her times. Haight maintains that she grew more conservative in later years, being unwilling to sponsor certain liberal causes or commit herself on issues. The evidence for this seems to me to be weak. She appears hardly to have perceived or feared that her capacity for abstract thought could diminish her creative ability, nor to have seen any difference between what ratiocination led her to believe and experience to perceive. Yet it was her astonishing ability to combine these two methods of illuminating reality which led her contemporaries to talk of her “masculine” frame of mind and contrast it with her “feminine” grasp of character. It was this also which explains her power to attract women.

George Eliot inspired among her own sex ecstatic devotion. Throughout her life she was surrounded by a cloud of angelic lovers who lavished endearments upon her; the young ones called her mother. Marian Lewis. Cara and Sara Hennell, Barbara Bodichon, Mrs. Congreve, Mrs. Lehmann, Mrs. Burne-Jones, Mrs. Mark Pattison, Elma Stuart (who was buried next to her), and a dozen others. Women whom she had never met, such as the wife of the American pragmatist Charles Peirce, wrote her passionate letters or knelt at a concert to press the hem of her skirt to their lips, as if she were a twentieth-century celebrity. The most ardent, Edith Simcox, who had George Eliot’s letters cremated with her, was in the end reproved for kissing her too ardently. Haight warns us that “the Victorian’s conception of love between those of the same sex cannot be understood fairly by an age steeped in Freud. Where they said only pure friendship, the modern reader assumes perversion.” The modern reader would, of course, be mad to assume that any of these admirers thought of themselves as lesbians and of going to bed with her. But here again it simply will not do for the biographer to address a short lecture to his readers on the danger of having a prurient mind. Here again a world of emotional experience, which could be opened up, is unexplored.

George Eliot made her own position clear on the eve of her marriage to Cross when Edith Simcox made a demonstration of her passion: she told her that the friendship and intimacy of men meant more to her than that of women and that love between men and women was “better than any other.” Nevertheless, so deeply did she need encouragement and affection from any quarter that she perhaps unconsciously led on her female correspondents, sometimes reproaching herself for letting them go too far, then out of kindness responding once again to their caressing attentions. It was this inability to restrain herself, while at the same time she repeated her article of faith that everyone should be aware how much he affects the lives of others, which exposes her—unjustly—to the charge of hypocrisy. In certain ways the Victorians were less prudish than ourselves—less prudish because they lived in a prelapsarian state of innocence. The dignitaries of the Cathedral Close unbent with choir boys, little girls aroused the most curious thoughts in poets, and women passersby were expected to avert their eyes when men bathed naked in rivers or in the sea. Today, unless the bathers were to seek refuge in that last Victorian haven at Oxford, called Parsons’ Pleasure, they would be arrested for indecent exposure.

The Victorians were not ashamed of emotion. They wept for joy or because a song, or the tale of a noble deed, or a poem, touched their heart. Nor did they stifle their grief at death. When Lewes died, Marian’s shrieks rent the house; for a week she never left her room, for two months she never left her home. Yet their novelists had sharper eyes than they themselves admitted. Consider Dickens’s depiction of Jaspers’s feelings for his “dear boy,” Edwin Drood, or, as Gordon Haight points out, George Eliot’s understanding of Gwendolen Harleth’s lesbian tendencies. There are so many odd discrepancies between what Victorian novelists knew and what they described; so many finely observed dissociations of sensibility between, for instance, love and the sexual act. If George Eliot is held to be guilty on this count, then she stands condemned with Victorian England.

She was as ambivalent as most artists. Warm, sympathetic, lighting up with laughter, radiating humor however grave and earnest and dutiful she seemed. People might be jealous of her, or laugh at her, and few of those whom she and Lewes received knew her intimately. But the impression she left on Annie Ritchie of being “not exactly a personal friend but a good and benevolent impulse” was widespread. To this impression Gordon Haight has added a wise corrective. With insight and taste he has chosen for frontispiece a reproduction of a drawing by Samuel Laurence which used to hang in Blackwood’s and is now lost. It is a portrait not of Marian Evans the woman but of George Eliot the artist, and one is not surprised to learn that Lewes rejected it. The face is sad, the eyes are cold and weary, the expression superior, the mouth is sensual and cruel: not the cruelty of a torturer, but the cruelty of a judge. Why should it not be? No charge of hypocrisy laid at her door could compare with the double-dealing of the society which condemned her liaison with Lewes. No charge of watering down the truth in her writings could compare with the falsity of the War-wickshire society which she knew so well or of the limited egos of the people who lived there. Among the debts which we owe to scholars such as Gordon Haight is our newfound power after reading a biography such as his to revalue the living human being against the abstractions of the literary critics. Human beings, particularly when they are artists, are too valuable, too disparate, too contradictory to be left in the hands of the critics or the psychoanalysts. Their poignancy rests in the peculiar force with which each spurns the ideal.

This Issue

January 2, 1969