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The Transferred Life of George Eliot: The Biography of a Novelist

Has George Eliot been lucky in her biographers? Since Gordon Haight’s monumental classic biography, published in 1968, her story has been rewritten again and again, mostly by women. Eliot was a writer with many names and many identities; she attracts all comers. Brenda Maddox even wrote a brief and cheerful scandal-biography (2009), which suggests that Eliot led a racy sex life, demanded rapacious sums for her novels and flung herself at every man who took the slightest interest in her. Maddox is one of the few biographers who looked carefully at the Italian police reports of the sad fortunes of John Walter Cross, whom Eliot actually married in May 1880, seven months before her death. Cross was twenty years her junior and threw himself into the Grand Canal while the couple were on honeymoon in Venice, a failed suicide attempt that generated a lot of malicious speculation. Cross, unkindly described as ‘George Eliot’s widow’ after her death in December that year, tended the sacred flame…

Some modest proposals - Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift, whom T. S. Eliot called “colossal”, will be 350 this year. He is a giant among satirists, but also among political writers, and a poet of distinction admired and imitated by Byron, Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Eliot also called him “the greatest writer of English prose, and the greatest man who has ever written great English prose”. F. R. Leavis, who didn’t like him, called him “a great English writer”. He is often nowadays claimed for “Irish literature”, to which he would have objected. Swift considered himself English, and Irish only in the sense of having been “dropped” there.He was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, and Ireland will be marking the anniversary with multiple celebrations, in Dublin, Trim and elsewhere, while England will respond more modestly, if at all. He died, also in Dublin, on October 19, 1745, and every year a symposium commemorates this in the Deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift lived and worked for the last thirty years of his life. Th…

How Jane Carlyle survived a miserable marriage

One hour in No. 5 Cheyne Row, Virginia Woolf observed, will tell you more about the Carlyles than all the biographies. The house lived in by Thomas and Jane Carlyle from 1834 until their respective deaths, and now owned by the National Trust, was one of the great battlegrounds of domestic history. Here Jane warred against bedbugs and coal dust and her husband’s obsession with the vast and unstoppable Lady Harriet Ashburton (there were three people in her marriage), and Carlyle warred against the intrusions of the outside world. While next door’s rooster kept him awake at night, by day, as Jane wrote in one of her peerless letters, he was disturbed bymen, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, wagons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, doorbells, gentleman raps, twopenny-post-raps and footmen-showers-of raps.Not to mention the dutiful piano-practising of the girl in the adjacent house, the racket of hawkers, organ-grinders and washer-women, and the hourly c…

Jane Austen: Galloping girl

Jane Austen wrote fast and died young. Her life on paper may have spanned three decades, but all six of her celebrated novels made their public appearance between 1811 and 1817. The phrase “tell-tale compression,” self-consciously applied by the narrator towards the end of Northanger Abbey (1817), captures something of Austen’s authorial career, too. Indeed, in her case it is appropriate that the word “career” can mean a short gallop at full speed, as well as the potentially slower progress of an individual’s working life. Novelists are more usually seen as long-distance runners than as sprinters, and Austen’s mature fiction has been cherished for the gradual emergence into consciousness of its heroines’ thoughts and feelings. Yet speedy progress—described in Emma (1815) as the “felicities of rapid motion”—remained central to this writer’s craft from start to finish. 

Two hundred years ago, on St Swithun’s Day in 1817, Austen, near death, dictated an odd poem about horse racing to her …

Why Milton still matters

Just 350 years ago, in April 1667, John Milton sold all rights to Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons — for £5, with another £5 due once Simmons had the first run of 1,300 copies off his hands. That sounds like a bargain for the 12-book epic poem of Satan’s war with Heaven, Eve’s ‘fatal trespass’ and the expulsion from Eden that soon became a monumental pillar of the literary canon. Samuel Johnson — who as a Tory deplored Milton’s revolutionary politics — placed it first (for design) and second (for execution) ‘among the productions of the human mind’.

Some readers, though, have always found it dear at any price. Deeply torn between his awe at the ‘wonderful performance’ of Paradise Lost and his horror at the ideas of this ‘acrimonious and surly republican’, Johnson in his Life of Milton leads the prosecution as well as the defence. ‘Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure,’ he sniffs. ‘We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere fo…

Péter Nádas - Interview

Péter Nádas is Hungary’s leading contemporary writer. A scholar not only of literature, but of culture, horticulture, and above all the human body and its communications, Nádas presents a picture of temperament and elegance in the great tradition of the European intellectual. He has often been compared, perhaps syntactically, to the high realists Robert Musil and Marcel Proust. Susan Sontag, one of Nádas’s earliest and most vocal champions, compares his plays to the “encounter-dramas of Pina Bausch” and the “declamatory plays of Thomas Bernhard.” I myself see him, in many ways, as the Thomas Mann of our times.

Born into a fascinating literary culture, isolated from but enveloped by the vast history of Christian Europe, in a denuded country just rebuilding from World War II, the worst catastrophe in its tumultuous thousand-year history, Nádas chronicles the peaceful prison that was (and is) Hungary in a passionate, playful, and eloquent voice. His perspicacity is disconcertingly palpabl…

What Orwell discovered in the North

“Mr. Orwell must have wasted a lot of energy trying to be a novelist. I think I must have read three or four novels by him and the only impression these dreary books left on me was that nature didn’t intend him to be a novelist.” This was QD Leavis writing in 1940—by which time Orwell had written three novels, Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter: doubtful if these would have earned him more than a footnote in a review of the literature of the 1930s. So when and how did this average novelist become a writer of such global impact? It all began 80 years ago, on 8th March to be exact, when The Road to Wigan Pier was published.

To begin at the beginning, Victor Gollancz, publisher and noted supporter of left-wing causes, had decided to commission a writer to spend some time in the north of England. They would provide an account of the lives of the poor and unemployed for his new Left Book Club. Socialist sympathiser, relatively unknown young writer but with a…