The darker side of George Eliot

The most intriguing aspect of George Eliot's life has to be her honeymoon in Venice, in the summer of 1880. Her decision, at the age of 60, to marry John Cross, a young friend some 20 years her junior, had excited disapproval among friends and acquaintances, not least because GH Lewes, with whom she had enjoyed a long and loving relationship, had been dead for less than two years.

Like Dorothea in Middlemarch, who begins to love Will Ladislaw while she is still married to Casaubon, Eliot had been delighted by Cross's youth and devotion long before Lewes's death. But their honeymoon punctured the fantasy for both when Cross leaped from the balcony of their hotel suite, sailing over three or four gondolas before landing in the middle of the Grand Canal. He was rescued and carried back to his room unharmed.

Tongues started wagging. Had Cross been in flight from the sexual demands of his older wife? "One could say he had a lucky escape!" wrote an Italian journalist with unconscious irony. Was it true Cross had begged the gondoliers not to drag him out of the canal? Brenda Maddox, in her jaunty sketch of Eliot's life, believes Cross was suffering from a recurrence of severe depressive illness. She also thinks that the marriage was unconsummated. It was, in any case, short-lived. Eliot was dead and buried in Highgate cemetery in just six months. Cross - "George Eliot's widow", as he was unkindly known - became the keeper of the flame, producing a biography of his late wife that enshrined her as a sibyl and earnest talking head, leaving one critic to bemoan the absence of the "salt and spice" of Eliot's life.

Brenda Maddox is very keen on the salt and spice, as the ominous description "lover" indicates in the book's subtitle. Sex and money, not provincial piety and natural history, or even novel writing, dominate here, making GH Lewes's nickname for Eliot - "Madonna" - appear curiously apposite. Maddox tells what is essentially a familiar tale: of the Midlands ugly duckling, Marian Evans, born in 1819, who became a literary swan and scandalised polite society (and especially her brother Isaac) through her common-law relationship with Lewes, said to be the only person more unattractive than she was. The "great horse-faced bluestocking", as Henry James called Eliot, spent her formative years impressing men with the perfection of her mind while suffering from the belief that her heavy, irregular features would never bring her husband.

Nevertheless, if we are to believe Maddox, Eliot lost her virginity early on to one of two older men, Charles Bray or Robert Brabant. She was then alerted to the "dangerous attractiveness" of the radical journalist John Chapman, complicating the domestic menage he already shared with his wife and mistress, before throwing herself desperately at Herbert Spencer, who later unchivalrously contributed an essay on "Personal Beauty" to a magazine edited by Lewes, attributing ugliness to mental and racial inferiority.

Only with Lewes did she find a safe berth and a launching pad for her novels of genius. "Lewes was an experienced lover and Marian was ripe for awakening," Maddox assures us, slipping in the scarcely surprising detail that the couple must have used condoms.

Having exhausted the sexual potential of her subject, Maddox turns in her book's second half to Eliot's earning power. She wasn't, it seems, quite on a par with Dickens, but certainly in his league, having her house in Regent's Park decorated by a fashionable interior designer. For Romola, her novel of 15th-century Florence, and her least popular work of fiction, Eliot received £7,000 - almost £500,000 in today's money - then the highest sum paid for an English novel.

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