George Eliot
George Eliot; drawing by David Levine

A sonnet sequence is traditionally addressed to a lover and recounts a turbulent, romantic love. Mary Anne Evans, writing under the pseudonym George Eliot, is perhaps unique in having dedicated such a sequence to her brother, Isaac Evans. Published in 1869, when the novelist turned fifty, the poems focus on her and Isaac’s early infancy and the exquisite complementarity of older brother and younger sister, he teaching her, she adoring him, he learning from the need to protect her, she afraid of disappointing him, the two laying down together the emotions and values that would structure their lives. The canals, bridges, fields, and wild flowers of their infant wanderings, the writer tells us, were nothing other than “my growing self” and even today are still “part of me,/My present Past, my root of piety”; while “His years with others must the sweeter be/For those brief days he spent in loving me.”

Why brief? “School parted us,” we hear in the last sonnet, then “the dire years whose awful name is Change…grasped our souls still yearning in divorce.” It’s a curious formulation, as if brother and sister were forcibly held together, “grasped,” in being separated, “divorced,” a word more usually associated with the end of marriage than sibling relationships. Outside the poetry, the story was that when in her mid-thirties Mary Anne had set up house with a married man, her beloved brother cut off all communication with her. Yet despite his insistence on Victorian proprieties and her refusal to bow to them, Evans remained committed to a relationship that lay at the core of her identity: “But were another childhood-world my share,” the sequence concludes, “I would be born a little sister there.”

Ten years earlier, in her first novel, Adam Bede, Eliot had written, “Nature…ties us by our heartstrings to the beings that jar us at every movement.” The character Adam Bede was based on the novelist’s father, the other great love of Mary Anne’s early life. A carpenter’s son, Robert Evans had worked his way up to become an estate manager for a wealthy landowner near Nuneaton in the English Midlands. He had two children by a first wife who then died in childbirth. Mary Anne, born in 1819, was the third child of a second marriage, arriving three years after her brother Isaac and five after an elder sister, Christiana. Their mother too was called Christiana, a woman who sank into gloom and ill health after losing twins just days after their birth in 1821. Judgmental, austere, and caustically practical, she seems to have passed her qualities on to her favorite, Isaac, while Mary Anne was closely attached to her father.

With the mother not well enough to look after her children, at age five the youngest daughter was sent to boarding school, where she suffered from nightmares, panic attacks, and loneliness. But she shone at the various schools she attended, always seeking the company of her teachers rather than her fellow pupils, excitedly showing off a superior aptitude for music, languages, and writing. Two months after she finished her formal education and returned home, now sixteen, her mother died, and when both brother and sister soon married, Mary Anne, whom everyone agreed was too plain and too assertively smart to please the local men, became her father’s housekeeper.

The question Philip Davis asks in The Transferred Life of George Eliot is, how did this dutiful but troubled daughter become the great novelist we know? Mixing biography with close critical analysis, Davis argues that the novels are best understood precisely in relation to that transformation; they speak, that is, of the kind of conflict that led Evans to shed her family name and assume the identity of George Eliot. Indeed they systematically invite readers, he suggests, to a similar expansion of consciousness and agency.

Davis, a professor of literature at the University of Liverpool, identifies patterns of behavior in Evans’s life and shows how they emerge in fictional situations throughout her oeuvre. Her seven novels are thus seen not just as intensely imagined reworkings of a provincial youth, but as part of the ongoing struggle of her life—her irrevocable attachment to a family that could never accept the person she aspired to become, and her desperate need for approval where approval would never be forthcoming. “Much of the pain I have felt concerning my own family,” she would write after the break with Isaac, “is really love of approbation in disguise.”

A recurring theme in Eliot’s work is the attempt to substitute one’s nearest and dearest with some other ideal, more appreciative community. The Mill on the Floss, avowedly the most autobiographical of her novels, offers a charming example. Bursting with unruly life, the nine-year-old Maggie is madly in love with her brother, Tom, and since her mother and aunts interminably disapprove of her unkempt hair and wild ways, Tom’s support and affection is all the more necessary. When the two fall out over Tom’s preference for their cute and well-behaved cousin Lucy, Maggie marches off to join the gypsies.


Quaint as this may seem, the novel’s portrayal of the Dodsons, Maggie’s mother’s family, makes the little girl’s decision all too understandable:

The Miss Dodsons had always been thought to hold up their heads very high…. There were particular ways of doing everything in that family: particular ways of bleaching the linen, of making the cowslip wine, curing the hams, and keeping the bottled gooseberries; so that no daughter of that house could be indifferent to the privilege of having been born a Dodson…. When one of the family was in trouble or sickness, all the rest went to visit the unfortunate member, usually at the same time, and did not shrink from uttering the most disagreeable truths that correct family feeling dictated…. In short, there was in this family a peculiar tradition as to what was the right thing in household management and social demeanor, and the only bitter circumstance attending this superiority was a painful inability to approve the condiments or the conduct of families ungoverned by the Dodson tradition. A female Dodson, when in “strange houses,” always ate dry bread with her tea, and declined any sort of preserves, having no confidence in the butter, and thinking that the preserves had probably begun to ferment from want of due sugar and boiling. There were some Dodsons less like the family than others, that was admitted; but in so far as they were “kin,” they were of necessity better than those who were “no kin.” And it is remarkable that while no individual Dodson was satisfied with any other individual Dodson, each was satisfied, not only with him or her self, but with the Dodsons collectively.

Such gorgeously observed satire can only be the fruit of bitter experience, and indeed Davis confirms that the Dodsons were based on Mary Anne’s mother’s family. Fiercely competitive in their shallow rectitude, they aspire to no existential state more profound than having their best linen “so in order as if I was to die tomorrow I shouldn’t be ashamed.” Despairing of meeting their high standards, and disparaged as “half-wild” and “like a gypsy” herself, Maggie heads off to join her “unknown kindred.”

Yet she takes with her a superiority complex that is recognizably Dodson. She will teach the gypsies how to “use a washing-basin”; she will become their queen, perhaps, and encourage them “to feel an interest in books.” However, exactly as she arrives at their encampment, her stomach starts to rumble; it is teatime at home. The gypsies are sympathetic, but they don’t have tea, or white bread and butter. Or treacle. They have stew and greasy bacon. Like a Dodson in a “strange house,” Maggie declines.

Moments later, realizing her pockets have been picked, the girl senses danger. Two or three sidelong glances later, she is convinced she is about to be murdered. All at once, she is more afraid of offending these strangers than she ever was of crossing her aunts. Albeit in a comic vein, this dramatization of a tough learning experience is something Davis identifies as central to Eliot’s work: a character suddenly appreciates that the version of events he or she has been living by is fantasy, and the person or community presumed friendly is actually hostile. So Adam Bede must reconcile himself to the fact that the girl he planned his future around has betrayed him for a rich womanizer; Silas Marner must realize that a close friend and fellow evangelical has falsely accused him and that his beloved “brethren” have wrongly expelled him; most memorably, the beautiful, intelligent, and wonderfully ingenuous Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch gradually awakens to the fact that the elderly clergyman she has married, Edward Casaubon, a man to whose supposedly groundbreaking scholarship she imagined dedicating her life, is nothing other than a peevish old pedant.

The subtle and extended observation of how a character responds and learns, or fails to learn, in such circumstances is central to Eliot’s achievement. The young Maggie passes from terror to wild calculation and finally the appreciation that the gypsies are merely hoping to earn a shilling or two by returning her to her parents. When her father appears on horseback, the family that had seemed impossibly alien is now infinitely desirable. She will never again be able to abandon them. Years later, repudiated by her brother over a scandalous love affair with cousin Lucy’s fiancé, she nevertheless decides that “I desire no future that will break the ties of the past.” However narrow-minded, kin are kin.


A safer strategy for tackling the clash between public propriety and individual inclination was to repress the latter. Both Mary Anne Evans and her alter ego Maggie go through periods of intense religious asceticism. This is the community of saints rather than gypsies, Silas Marner’s nonconformist congregation, or, in the historical novel Romola, Savonarola’s self-flagellating fanatics. More virtuous even than one’s upright relatives, but without being petty or superficial, the puritan can stay home and glory in doing his or her sacrificial duty, sure of approval.

But was such a choice sustainable? Evans had been drawn into this austere self-righteousness by a teacher at school. Davis charts her growing uneasiness with the position and its later relation to her writing. Her father, himself a religious man, had rather extraordinarily continued to pay for Mary Anne to go on studying languages after school, with private tuition in Latin, Greek, Italian, and German, buying her all the books she wanted and generously moving their home nearer to the town of Coventry to give his daughter access to a more intellectual community. This could only increase the tension she experienced between worldly ambition and renunciation.

Having fallen in with the Brays and the Hennells, two families of free thinkers, at twenty-two Evans abandoned her faith and refused to go to church with her father. The result was a major breakup with the central figure in her life and affections. Isaac and Christiana moved in to mediate and after some weeks a compromise was reached. Mary Anne would continue to keep house for her father and go to church with him, but it would be accepted that she no longer believed in God. Family feeling was more important, Evans decided, than absolute intellectual integrity. “I fear nothing,” she wrote to her father, “but voluntarily leaving you.”

Eliot’s fear of following her inclination at the expense of someone she loves, Davis shows, is evident throughout her work. When, in Middlemarch, Doctor Lydgate discovers that his wife is very far from the ideal partner he imagined, we hear that “tender-heartedness was present as a dread lest he should offend against it,” while another character, Caleb Garth, “knew little of any fear except the fear of hurting others.” The only other kind of fear we find with any frequency in Eliot’s work is the dread that some shameful secret be discovered. This is the case of Godfrey Cass, the squire’s son in Silas Marner; Nicholas Bulstrode, the self-righteous banker in Middlemarch; and Tito Melema in Romola. In each case the secret involves a wrong done to family, and its discovery threatens the characters’ present positions in both family and community. Belonging is everything. “You don’t belong to me,” Tom dismisses Maggie in the great dramatic scene at the heart of The Mill on the Floss.

If breakups were unbearable, the easiest kind of happiness came with being truly needed by a loved one at a time of crisis. Evans nursed her father through long illness until his death in 1849. She was almost thirty. “Strange to say,” she wrote, “I feel that these will ever be the happiest days of my life to me.” She was doing her duty. There was no conflict. But what next? “What shall I be without my Father?… I had a horrid vision of myself last night becoming earthly sensual and devilish for want of that purifying restraining influence.”

Was there ever any real danger of this? Before Robert Evans died, Mary Anne had experimented with another pattern of behavior that would remain prevalent into her mid-thirties: staying in a family in which there was an intellectual married man—notably the family of Dr. Brabant, Mrs. Hennell’s father—she would eagerly seek his approval, only to find herself embroiled in a potentially adulterous relationship before being thrown out by the women in the house. It was humiliating. It was excellent material for future novels. Following her father’s death, she went to Switzerland with the Brays, decided to stay on alone for some months, and repeated the same ambiguous involvement that had occurred at the Brabants’ with the older couple in whose house she lodged. All the same, Davis points out, “there were moments in Geneva when she could begin to see how best to position herself.” Mary Anne had written to the Brays about the pleasure she took in living “in two worlds at once,” possessing home in her mind while actually inhabiting an environment that made fewer demands on her than family did. This, Davis tells us, is the strategy of “the nascent realist novelist.” She will pay her dues to the old world she had grown up in by writing about it from a new life to be established elsewhere.

In her twenties, thanks to the Brays, Mary Anne had begun to use the language skills her father helped her acquire to translate a book intent on undermining his Christian faith: The Life of Jesus, by the German Protestant theologian David Strauss, published in 1846 by John Chapman. After she returned from Switzerland, Chapman invited Evans to London to edit a radical philosophical quarterly, the Westminster Review, and to share his house with his older wife and younger mistress. All too soon the incumbent women would be chasing off Chapman’s new flame. “Magnificently ugly,” as Henry James described her, “this great horsefaced bluestocking,” Mary Anne nevertheless, like Maggie in Mill on the Floss, seemed destined to create a sentimental turbulence wherever she went.

Through her early thirties, she found a niche in the London literary world, writing and editing for Chapman while translating Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity (1854) from the German and Spinoza’s Ethics (1856) from the Latin. She fell in love with Herbert Spencer, whom she had met through Chapman, and abjectly begged for his company even if he couldn’t return her love physically. Her need for intellectual communion, it seemed, would forever be confused with the desire for erotic love.

Then, at last, in the writer and thinker George Henry Lewes, Evans found the man who to a large degree would solve her problems. Sharing his house and bed, she began writing fiction with his encouragement in 1856, and the following year she published her first book with him acting as her agent and go-between. The pseudonym she assumed, George Eliot, involved an obvious tribute to him. Excluded by the scandal of unmarried cohabitation from both family and polite society, she had nevertheless found a refuge that would serve as “a mental greenhouse,” as the novelist Margaret Oliphant would put it. Ostracized everywhere, she fell back on the one duty left her, to develop her talent beside her man.

It was important that Lewes needed Evans as much as Evans needed him. Drawn to those damaged by society’s insistence on propriety, Evans had no problem with his being both of illegitimate birth and unable to divorce his wife because, having generously recognized her children by an adulterous relationship, he was deemed by the laws of the time to have “condoned” a crime. Better still, Lewes, just two years Evans’s senior, was exhausted and ill from unhappiness. He needed looking after; he needed assistance with his writing and editing. He was also, as she immediately wrote to her friends, very plain and “deeply pitted with small-pox.” To be beside him could thus be construed as a kind of charity. “If I live five years longer,” she calculated in a manner worthy of an estate manager’s daughter, “the positive result of my existence on the side of truth and goodness will outweigh the small negative good that would have consisted in my not doing anything to shock others, and I can conceive no circumstances that will make me repent the past.” She was right. Living with the ever cheerful and thoughtful Lewes was a way to reconcile inclination and ambition with a “purifying restraining influence.”

Even if one can’t quite agree with its final conclusions, The Transferred Life of George Eliot is an unusual and welcome book. Editor of The Reader, a quarterly magazine committed to the promotion of reading as a therapeutic activity with ameliorative powers, Davis is entirely in sympathy with what he persuasively describes as Evans’s deliberate creation, in the figure of George Eliot, of a strategically obtrusive narrator who can reach out to people like her younger conflicted self, showing them a way forward and creating a sense of solidarity around them.

His long discussions of the authors Eliot translated, the intellectuals she knew and read—including Spencer and Lewes, but Emerson and, crucially, Comte as well—show convincingly how the novelist thought long and hard about the project of transferring the humble world of Mary Anne Evans onto the polished pages of George Eliot. What interested her in particular were scientific and philosophical theories that offered support to the prospect of positive social change. Comte’s notions of “social dynamics” would thus be tested against the experience of ordinary people in an attempt to give an intellectual dignity to the idea, derided by Nietzsche, that even in the absence of a Christian faith, Christian morality made sense.

What Davis best documents and celebrates in his book¸ however, is Eliot’s determination to deliver the complexity and psychological intensity of intimate relationships as they face crisis and change in recognizably real circumstances. As a result, and “whatever the great fictional experiments” that might have followed her, she remains “unsurpassed,” he asserts, “in the use of art.” The implication is that the work itself will bring about change in readers’ lives. Extended analyses of readers’ reactions are offered to back up this idea. Opening Eliot’s work, the Victorian critic John Morley reflected, a man “puts himself in the confessional.”

Yet however far-reaching is the web of “human lots” that Eliot examines for our edification, seeing, as she herself puts it, “how they were woven and interwoven,” Davis acknowledges that, right to the end, all her fiction “was still drawing upon her,” coming back to her own life. There is an evident “genealogy” between the characters; they form an extended family, facing the same tensions, temptations, and dilemmas. And if the novelist is able to inhabit characters on different sides of the divides she describes—Maggie and the Dodsons, Silas Marner and Godfrey Cass—it is because in her youth she had oscillated between the different positions of those around her. Asked whom Casaubon was based on, Evans/Eliot pointed at herself.

What these wonderful novels never do, however, is present us with any drama that is not immediately understood as an intensely moral issue demanding our judgment. I do not mean this as a criticism of George Eliot, but as a possible objection to Davis’s conclusion, to which this whole book tends, that her writing is necessarily therapeutic. Attribution of blame in these novels may be made agonizingly complex, and syntax and nuance pushed to the limit to tease out subtleties of motivation, but the notion of drama without a guilty party is not contemplated in Eliot’s world.

Is this entirely healthy? A cause of scandal herself, Evans nevertheless presented her friends with standards that they found “ruthlessly out of reach.” It was painful, one observed, to see how she felt obliged to lower her expectations “to suit their infirmities.” Is this attractive? Aren’t we reminded of the Dodsons? Obsessed to the end with the approval of others, she felt that nothing she wrote was of any value until another had praised it. Once successful, she agonized not just over the opinions of her contemporaries but over her reputation in aeternum. It was the same mix of neediness and egoism that made her dependent on her brother’s approval when she was a child. A poem in 1867 shows her still intent on being accepted into new communities:

O MAY I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence…

Bereft of her “greenhouse” after Lewes’s death in 1878, the novelist intensified a companionship with John Cross, a banker twenty years her junior. The two read Dante together, another author who imagined the great writers of the past inviting him to join their eternal company. After they married in 1880, Cross threw himself into the Grand Canal from the balcony of the couple’s Venice hotel in an apparent suicide attempt. Whether it was one of those awful moments when someone realizes he has been living in a fantasy and suddenly finds reality quite different, we do not know. On the positive side, Isaac Evans broke his long silence and sent a note of congratulation; now legally married, his sister had returned to the world of propriety. Just seven months later, he would be attending her funeral.

There is an “amalgam of demand and compassion that lies behind almost every character in [Eliot’s] novels,” Davis writes at the end of his book. Rereading Middlemarch with the fresh interpretation he has provided, one is intensely aware of how much of this comes directly from Evans herself; always generous to her characters, she is nevertheless, with insight after splendid insight (“for the most glutinously indefinite minds enclose some hard grains of habit”), image after sumptuous image (“notions and scruples were like spilt needles”), plainly and painfully anxious for us to concede that she, the obtrusive narrator, is brilliant, wise, and good, and that her novels constitute an admirably benevolent project. Perhaps if literature does have a therapeutic value, it is that each writer allows us to immerse ourselves in his or her own peculiar, inevitably circumscribed world of feeling.