The rebel George Eliot

In this psychological study of George Eliot, Frederick Karl draws a much more complex figure than the official portrait which Gordon Haight presented in his authoritative biography published in 1968. Haight, the editor of Eliot’s letters, confined himself to a meticulously documented but largely deferential chronicle; here Frederick Karl freely explores the often hidden patterns and tensions of George Eliot’s private life. He proceeds, however, with an attitude of freshening inquiry, not with the malice that has become all too evident in such enterprises. As one might expect of the author of biographies of Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka, he constructs a detailed account of Eliot as a nineteenth-century outsider, profoundly ambivalent about her emancipation from the conventional roles and ideas of the Victorian period. Unfortunately, his acute psychological analysis is all too often circuitous, tedious, and awkwardly expressed.
The subtitle of the biography, “Voice of a Century,” is not quite fair. Although Karl demonstrates a modest interest in a wider historical inquiry, his clearest intention is to correct and deepen the received view of Eliot as a serene intellectual and moralist. As Karl writes, “Eliot is always characterized as our novelist of moderation and balance. But her novels bespeak morbidity, death, and forms of extreme behavior.” He notes further that “in her novels, she revelled in failures, in wandering female characters, in depicting poor choices, in cataloguing disastrous marriages.” Karl concludes from the evidence of her novels as well as from her extensive correspondence that Eliot in fact suffered throughout her life from a chronic state of depression. He writes: “Frequently, Eliot’s career is viewed as one consistent spiral into success after success. Quite the opposite was true… . She was not only full of self-doubt and had to be protected against adverse criticism; she was often barely able to get through the days without falling into depression and anguish.” Karl admits that it is not possible to attribute this depression to anything specific, “except possibly that in her intense effort to transform herself, she had forsaken what could give simple joy.” He describes the repeated occasions when Eliot felt entirely defeated and then gathered her wits and emotions to continue her work, and he gives special attention to the serious depression she suffered in the midst of writing her masterpiece, Middlemarch. In his fullest summary of her character, however, Karl returns to the familiar attribute of balance, placing it within this new framework:
We tend to stress her morbid qualities because she emphasized them in her letters, and her books are somber, but they are somber because she felt life was not to be trifled with. She recognized, with classical sense of balance, that pleasure and pain in equal doses are implicit in every act; that all life is choice; and that choice is not in itself a guarantee of rightness.
Karl considers Eliot’s life as a series of rebellions from authority and expectation conducted by a deeply conservative temperament. He analyzes her two most significant acts of rebellion—her initial refusal to attend church with her conservative father, and her scandalous yet actually quite conventional de facto marriage to George Henry Lewes—as evidence of unresolved conflicts and hostilities which issued in her depression. Throughout the biography Karl emphasizes the fundamental importance of Eliot’s father, Robert Evans, who was the bailiff of a large country estate north of Coventry, and who firmly held the conservative religious and political views of the aristocracy he served. He provided his daughter with an unusually serious education, through which she made her initial, highly influential contact with a local nonconformist intellectual circle. In what Karl describes as “the first of her huge decisions to emerge as her own person,” Eliot, under the further influence of her extensive reading in philosophy and theology, on January 2, 1842, at the age of twenty-two, refused to accompany her father to church. Karl finds in this act “not only a religious dimension but a considerable amount of hostility toward her father and his position.”
Twelve years later, during the summer of 1854, after a period of inconclusive intellectual activity during which Eliot translated Strauss’s Life of Jesus and Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and contributed reviews and essays to the intellectual journal The Westminster Review, for which she also served as an editor, she established a de facto marriage with George Lewes, an intellectual of diverse literary, philosophical, and scientific interests, best known for his biography of Goethe. Lewes, already married and the father of three children, was unable to get a divorce because he had accepted legal responsibility for a child who resulted from his wife’s continuing affair with Lewes’s own friend Thornton Hunt. According to Karl, this was the critical point in her life, a “great decision, an act of daring on her part which, outside the upper classes, has few equals in Victorian annals.”
Karl notes that despite the audacious quality of her act, Eliot wanted to be known as Mrs. Lewes, with only a legal barrier standing between her and respectability. Nevertheless, because her marriage did not have the sanction of law Eliot in fact occupied the social position of a “scarlet woman,” and in this defiance of authority Karl finds not a feminist declaration but rather “her ultimate act of hostility to her dead father.” Karl offers an illuminating fictional parallel to Eliot’s own transformation: in a passage inMiddlemarch, Dorothea Brooke, facing the forbidden prospect of marrying Will Ladislaw, undergoes what Eliot calls an “alarmed consciousness that her life was taking on a new form. Her whole world was in a state of convulsive change.”
While Karl does not claim that any of Eliot’s novels are explicitly autobiographical, his own procedure as a biographer often connects the novels to Eliot’s divided state. He writes: “Those people in her novels who destroy others or who are themselves destroyed … fall outside of an ordered life. Behind this desire for order is, not unusually, a woman whose daring, audacious, adventurous choices in life have tested out those very limits of order.” Karl traces this destruction throughout her fiction, noting that
in every novel of Eliot’s, except Middlemarch, there is brutality and death… . In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie and Tom die in the destructive, vehement flood. In Felix Holt, the Radical, Felix is accused of murder. In Romola, Tito Melema is savagely murdered and tossed into the Arno. In Daniel Deronda, Grandcourt drowns, while Gwendolen feels she might have saved him and is, accordingly, a murderer by intention.
Middlemarch remains the inevitable centerpiece of the biography. Eliot began the novel under the shadow of the recent inexplicable and painful death of Lewes’s son Thornie, and even in the middle of the successful composition of her greatest work, she wrote in despair: “I dare not count on fulfilling any project, my life for the last year having been a sort of nightmare in which I have been scrambling on the slippery bank of a pool, just keeping my head above water.” Karl finds in Eliot two sets of character development: one that proceeded smoothly toward intellectual and artistic achievement, and another that courted failure and never truly replaced her loss of faith with an adequate substitute. It is in this context that Karl asserts that the failed scholar Causabon “represents that fearful underside to Eliot that we have seen in her depressions and despair. [He] represents some deeper level of experience which kept her divided, doubtful and uncertain of achievement.”
Still, Karl quotes from a letter in which Eliot writes: “I need not tell you that my book [Middlemarch] will not present my own feelings about human life if it produces on readers whose minds are really receptive the impression of blank melancholy and despair.” Karl considers this antagonism to depression a reflection of Eliot’s moral emphasis on the importance of duty and accomplishment. He notes that “there is something of Eliot in Dorothea: the desire to be and do good, the emphasis on duty and discipline, the attempt to define herself in moral and ethical terms.”
Why then does Dorothea marry Will Ladislaw, whom Karl aptly describes as a Jamesian adventurer? Karl suggests that in Dorothea’s attraction to Ladislaw, Eliot indirectly confronted her own sexual desire and rebellious nature by attempting to depict in the figure of Ladislaw a representation of George Lewes. Gertrude Himmelfarb has recently proposed a more particularly Victorian but not a necessarily more persuasive rationale: she notes that it was in fact the special moral role of the Victorian wife to redeem and transform a corrupted man.
Karl does not generally credit the characteristic moral seriousness of the Victorian intellectual. A famous posthumous commentary on Eliot reports that in a private conversation she had pronounced the “three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men—the words, God, Immortality, Duty”—and had stated “how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.” Karl claims that what Eliot suggested was “that everyone be like her: achieve, fulfill, work through one’s own needs; then halt, become part of the larger comity, maintain order, rein in one’s desire for power and accomplishment.” He concludes: “It was a futile quest.”

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