A savage, drunk, bullying husband (a pillar of his society) who has abused his wife and pushed her out of doors in her nightgown and bare feet on an icy winter night is having a terminal attack of delirium tremens. He thinks she’s coming at him in the form of giant snakes:

“Let me go, let me go,” he said in a loud, hoarse whisper; “she’s coming….she’s cold….she’s dead….she’ll strangle me with her black hair. Ah!” he shrieked aloud, “her hair is all serpents….they’re black serpents….they hiss….they hiss….let me go….let me go….she wants to drag me with her cold arms….her arms are serpents….they are great white serpents….they’ll twine round me….she wants to drag me into the cold water….her bosom is cold….it is black….it is all serpents.”

A cold, self-gratifying gentleman who has married a young, beautiful wife (she needs money and status) in a cynical bargain so that he can show her off, humiliate her, and torture her forces her compliance so that she becomes as frightened of a quarrel with him “as if she had foreseen that it would end with throttling fingers on her neck.” A selfish, hedonistic charmer who at first enthralls his innocent, trusting wife with his beauty and promises turns out to be a cheat, a spy, a bigamist, and a swindler. Their mutual attraction turns to disappointment and repulsion, and he becomes the husband from whom “she felt her soul revolting.” An idealistic, ambitious young doctor in a provincial town marries the wrong person out of an impulse of pity, tenderness, and attraction, and finds himself shackled to an unimaginative, self-regarding, and childish woman who frustrates all his aspirations and wrecks his life. In later life he calls her his basil plant—and when “asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains.”

These gruesome examples—and there are others—of appalling marriages in George Eliot’s fiction (taken, respectively, from “Janet’s Repentance” in Scenes of Clerical Life, Daniel Deronda, Romola, and Middlemarch) were invented by a woman who took the greatest possible risk in her own lifelong relationship and was rewarded, it seems, by happiness, fulfillment, security, and creative encouragement. True, there are some good, noble, steady marriages in her novels (notably, and beautifully, the Garths in Middlemarch), but they are definitely in the minority. Eliot’s imaginative attraction to violently cruel and thwarting marriages, in contrast with her personal investment in a trustful, lasting intimacy, is a fascinating paradox that Clare Carlisle’s interesting book sets out to investigate.

Marian Evans fell in love with the remarkable journalist, scientist, philosopher, and self-made man George Henry Lewes in her early thirties, when she had already become a journalist and literary editor, “a woman of letters,” but before she became “George Eliot.” Lewes was disastrously married—after having four sons with him, his wife had several children by his best friend—and, for complicated reasons, couldn’t get divorced. Evans, as well as being an ambitious woman of exceptional intellectual and creative powers, was also an unconfident and emotional person, “bruised and insecure” and marked by a painful childhood. She had lifelong bouts of serious depression. She suffered from lack of confidence in her work even after her great successes. She longed for intimacy and was terrified of rejection. A phrenologist noted her high level of “adhesiveness”: she was “always requiring someone to lean upon.”

Before she fell in love with Lewes she had already thrown herself into some intense friendships with women and some unsatisfactory passions for men (the philosopher Herbert Spencer, for instance). Carlisle sees “devotion” as one of the keys to her life: the need to be devoted to a soulmate and to have that person be devoted to her, but, beyond that, devotion to her art, through which she makes felt the human need for devotion to others, to a task in life, and to the wider world.

In 1854, when she was thirty-four, she made the bold decision to commit herself to Lewes as wife all but legally (though she insisted on being addressed as “Mrs. Lewes”) and to spend her life working and living with him. They were an odd, caricaturable couple: he ebullient, sociable, tiny, and strikingly ugly, she quiet, grave-looking, and withdrawn; he all surface, she all depth. Their relationship went against every convention of the age, resulting in total alienation from her family, exclusion from large sections of British (though not European) society, and a distancing from some close friends. The news of their deciding to live together provoked huge amounts of gossip. For a while, Carlisle writes, “it seemed as if the finest Victorian minds were occupied with her sex life.”


The relationship also kick-started her entire career as a novelist, which began, with his encouragement, only after she started living with Lewes and ended with his death. One of the endearing features of their “marriage” was its strength as a working partnership. There are many nice accounts here of their days working together in a steady routine, “like two secluded owls,” “writing or studying in the mornings, walking in the afternoons, reading together in the evenings.” They often collaborated, and in every aspect of her professional life—relations with her publishers and her public, financial matters, reviews, serializations—Lewes promoted, managed, and protected her.

The phrase “double life” used in a book on George Eliot would usually apply to the double identity of Marian Evans (or Lewes) and “George Eliot,” as when Carlisle talks of Eliot’s bringing together “the two parts of herself.” She shows us her subject as intensely conscious of her double life as writer and woman, at one time keeping a diary with the front part recording events in the life of Mrs. Lewes and the back pages recording her authorial achievements. In old age Eliot (as Carlisle refers to her as a writer) described her creative life as her “higher life” “that is young and grows, though in my other life I am getting old and decaying.”

But “double life” in this biography has a double meaning. It also refers to her coexistence with Lewes, which George Eliot called “a shared life, a double life,” describing their inseparable intimacy as “a sort of Siamese-twin condition” or, more ominously, a “dual egotism.” When she adopted her pseudonym in 1857 in order to write fiction without being judged as a woman, she chose her first name not only in tribute to George Sand but as a mark of her connection to George Lewes.

Carlisle focuses her version of George Eliot’s life on that remarkable connection. She starts with a disquisition on marriage in general and often—possibly too often—ponders long relationships: how little we know about them from the outside, what it means to live together over many years, why we are so curious about other people’s marriages. “At times marriages, like nations and churches, survive by policing their borders against threats to their stability.” “Voice and touch are the medium of a marriage…. Partners save for one another the softest and sharpest tones that belong only to shared life.”

Her book begins on the day Marian Evans and George Lewes leave England together and ends with the extraordinary coda of Evans’s brief legal marriage, after Lewes’s death, to their close friend, the much younger John Cross. Cross, an emotional, nervous, and dedicated late-life husband, is famous for two things: jumping out of the hotel window in Venice on their honeymoon, and turning himself into her faithful biographer after her death. Carlisle doesn’t caricature Cross—she never makes fun of her subjects—but reflects on how the long cohabitation with Lewes shaped George Eliot’s life and writing, and how the brief marriage to Cross shaped her afterlife.

Given this emphasis on her adult relationships, Marian Evans’s childhood, family history, and early life are introduced not at the start of the book, but only when they are needed in relation to the novels. And a great deal of commentary—on historical and social context, on previous biographical versions—is banished to the footnotes. These decisions give the book a clear shape and a fast pace but mean that some crucial early features are played down, such as Marian Evans’s youthful religious fervor and her relationships with her father and brother.

Carlisle is more fascinated by the disconnect between the painful marriages in the novels and the devoted relationship with Lewes. She does suggest, warily, that there might be facets of their relationship that account for the dark side of marriage in the fictions. But she is scrupulously inconclusive about this. We’re all familiar with restitutional biographies that right the wrongs and reveal the hidden story of the wife or partner of a famous male writer—Ellen Ternan, Mrs. Meredith, George Yeats, Vivienne Eliot, more recently the first Mrs. Orwell are notable examples—or with books about famous women writers whose husbands are found guilty of coercion, cruelty, or overmanagement (step forward T.S. Eliot, Leonard Woolf, John Middleton Murry, and Ted Hughes, among others). As a biographer Carlisle is careful and ruminative rather than trailblazing or defensive. She doesn’t go in for blaming and shaming but picks her way delicately through the story.

There are moments when Lewes comes across—to us and to others—as bossy, exhibitionist, greedy, and possessive. He was candid himself about having encouraged Eliot to write fiction because they needed the money: “We were very badly off,” he recalled, so he told her to “try a story. We may get 20 guineas for it from Blackwood and that would be something.” When Eliot gave him total control over her authorial income, Carlisle ventures: “Perhaps this was Lewes’s idea, and she acquiesced with mixed feelings.” When she left the faithful Blackwood, temporarily, for rival publisher George Smith with a big offer for the serialization of Romola, Blackwood attributed it to “the voracity of Lewes.”


Carlisle goes as far as suggesting that the seedy, grasping, controlling character of the Jewish gambler Lapidoth in Daniel Deronda might be enacting the “shadow side” of the relationship with Lewes. And money management is not the only area of overcontrolling behavior. Lewes prevented her from going to visit her dying sister. He stopped all letters about, and reviews of, her latest work from reaching her: “No one speaks about her books to her, but me; she sees no criticisms.” After she became famous, he stage-managed their salons as if the guests were approaching a “shrine.” Several acquaintances found him unbearable; one new friend, whose wife was developing an intense friendship with Eliot, remarked, “It is rather unfortunate that they are so inseparable.”

Carlisle is good at noticing the class attitudes toward them both, which were often snobbish and condescending. Lewes was regarded by some patrician friends (such as Charles Eliot Norton) as a vulgar upstart; George Eliot on her pedestal of fame attracted jealous comments about her “peasant” roots. But the feeling of being outsiders was part of their bond. The book shows unsparingly how that bond could result in ruthless joint behavior. Their treatment of Lewes’s younger sons, sent off to South Africa to trade and farm with catastrophic results; their “erasing” of Lewes’s wife, Agnes, from “the family narrative”; and their closing of ranks against at least one of Eliot’s close women friends are all treated as somewhat sinister displays of their “dual egotism.”

But, in the main, this is a heartening story of profound understanding, of support and mutual trust. Carlisle is moved by the moral seriousness of their commitment to each other. As Eliot repeatedly said, whenever she was challenged about it: “If there is any one action or relation of my life which is and always has been profoundly serious, it is my relation to Mr Lewes.”

A professor of philosophy, Carlisle aims to turn George Eliot’s real and fictional marriages into an examination of her philosophy of life. She maintains that “marriage is rarely treated as a philosophical question” and wants to fill this gap by asking, “How could marriage be a site for philosophy, even a path towards knowledge?” She is looking for places in the fiction where “the marriage question grows metaphysical” and approaches through that same question Eliot’s understanding, in her books, of morality, human experience, love, responsibility, and social relations.

South Farm, George Eliot’s birthplace

Alan Cook Collection

South Farm, George Eliot’s birthplace, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England

This means that, biographically and critically, Carlisle is putting all her eggs in one basket, which can make for some straining. To argue that George Eliot wrote grand, epic novels like Middlemarch because the marriage question is such a big and complex one is to overlook all that novel’s other components. And marriage is not the central theme of all the books. What about work, reputation, beliefs, professional decisions, communities, democracy, power, progress, to name only a few of their other concerns?

Naturally Carlisle makes much of George Eliot’s knowledge and reading of philosophy, which was such an important part of her intellectual life and so powerfully informed the novels. Plenty has been written about her reading of, and in some cases translating, the great European thinkers: Goethe, Feuerbach, Spinoza, Comte, Spencer, Hegel. But Carlisle gives a useful introduction to these influences, noting especially how often they came to George Eliot through Lewes and were part of their shared thinking. Feuerbach’s belief in human love as natural and sacred, above “narrow Christian moralism” (as Carlisle puts it), influenced her own behavior and choices. Spinoza’s demonstration in his Ethics that “our lives are thoroughly interconnected, always parts of larger wholes,” his belief in “joy” as the result of understanding our fluctuating emotions, and his contention that human beings are united “by a great need of friendship” profoundly affected her.

George Eliot’s reading of Goethe (especially Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) and of Ruskin helped to develop her central belief that artists should take on the “sacred task” of “truthfully portraying the lives of ordinary people.” The idea that “milieu” and “environment” shape our inner lives—derived from Comte, Spencer, Darwin, and Cuvier and leading, in the 1850s, to the new science of sociology—can be seen enacted in The Mill on the Floss. Daniel Deronda is described here as using its personal plots of marriage and self-discovery to demonstrate the Kabbalistic “mystical vision” of the interdependency of souls. While Middlemarch is coming into being, Lewes is writing on Hegel’s philosophy as an investigation of “the general relation between the Cosmos and the thinking mind,” and Middlemarch is read through the lens of Hegel’s description of “a world of relations.”

Quite apart from showing what a staggering amount of reading George Eliot did for her fiction—even the encouraging Lewes thought she was doing “too much research” for her fifteenth-century Florentine novel about Savonarola, Romola, and he was right—this philosophical approach provides a clear guide to the workings of the novelist’s mind.

Carlisle is especially sensitive to George Eliot’s treatment of the dark places of the human mind: women’s self-doubt and self-questioning, the attractions of asceticism and self-sacrifice, the entanglement of love and fear, the hard link between love and pain, as Felix (in Felix Holt, the Radical) teaches Esther Lyon (“It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult”), and the agonizing need of joy in those who have never experienced it, like poor Romola crying out, “I am very thirsty for a deep draught of joy.”

When “George Eliot” was exposed as Mrs. Lewes in 1859, her fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote to congratulate her on Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, though voicing reservations about her personal life—Gaskell was, after all, the wife of a Unitarian minister. Carlisle quotes her letter as expressing “tolerance, if not wholehearted acceptance: ‘I wish you were Mrs Lewes…still, it can’t be helped.’” This (with apologies for the Casaubon-like pedantry) is an unusual small slip on Carlisle’s part. In fact the letter reads: “I wish you were Mrs Lewes. However that can’t be helped, as far as I can see, and one must not judge others.” It matters, because Gaskell is saying here exactly what Carlisle describes as George Eliot’s central tenet in life, which Carlisle adopts as her own admirable biographical principle: “It is not at all obvious that we are entitled to make moral judgments about these people, whose inner lives we only glimpse from afar”; “I will not try to weigh up these shared lives according to some scale of good and bad, right and wrong.”

That is what we gain from the novels—and it is a wider philosophy than a consideration of the nature and meaning of marriage. George Eliot described herself not as a teacher but as “a companion in the struggle for thought.” Carlisle quotes that phrase when commenting on the lovely moment near the end of Middlemarch when Celia says to her sister, Dorothea, that she is completely baffled by how the relationship with Will Ladislaw has come about, and Dorothea tells her she can’t explain it: “You would have to feel with me, else you would never know.”

That, says Carlisle, is George Eliot’s “message to her readers.” We hear that message when her characters break through from their own personal, often marital problems to a sense of the wider sufferings of humanity, which we need to enter into and be aware of, rather than judging. Dorothea, after a night of personal anguish, looks out of the window and sees people going to work: “And she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life.” Romola realizes she has to transfer her emotional needs from the personal realm toward the sufferings of the many:

All that ardour of her nature which could no longer spend itself in the woman’s tenderness for father and husband, had transformed itself into an enthusiasm of sympathy with the general life. She had ceased to think that her own lot could be happy—had ceased to think of happiness at all: the one end of her life seemed to her to be the diminishing of sorrow.

George Eliot thinks that suffering is what we have to accept, but that it can be “transformed” into something creative, useful, and consoling. The essential thing—in marriage and beyond it—is to understand the kinship among people, without passing judgment. Lydgate takes this, memorably, as the meaning of Dorothea’s appeal to him for help and advice when her husband Casaubon falls ill:

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal—this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life.