George Eliot, Radical

George Eliot, Voice of a Century: A Biography

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


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 But it was not until 1968 that Gordon Haight’s biography drew on a mass of unpublished sources, including her letters, which Cross had protectively selected and mutilated with deletions.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…

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