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 of his wife’s genius and became one of her first biographers. Philip Davis praises Ruby Redinger’s George Eliot: The Emergent Self (1975) and the term ‘emergent’, coined by Eliot’s not-quite-husband G H Lewes, figures as a key concept in Davis’s discussion of the ways in which her two loves of 1852, the philosopher Herbert Spencer and Lewes himself, influenced her intellectual trajectory.

Davis’s approach to his subject is as moral and high-minded as the lady herself. He traces the process through which Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans became George Eliot. Davis has written an intellectual biography, a life of the mind. Instead of asking how her writing might be illuminated by understanding her life, Davis interrogates the fiction, which is central throughout this densely written and original study, and asks what we can learn from her writing about how she saw the world and what she thought. What is it like to see through Eliot’s eyes and to be seen by her? People who knew her dwelt on the arresting beauty of her eyes and her voice. The former, painted at different times of her life, appear on the cover, reminding us of the capacity for judgement and selection that shaped her work, exemplified in her famous use of the omniscient narrator.

Davis knows Eliot’s writing – her fiction, essays, letters, even her manuscripts – down to the last dash and comma. The great strength of this book is his practice of close reading. Until you see this microscopic consideration of a text done well, you do not realise how small a part slow, reflective, thoughtful close reading plays in contemporary criticism, or how difficult it is to do. Davis has a ferocious talent for seizing upon details and teasing out their significance; he pounces on a verb, or a conjunction, or a hesitation in Eliot’s grammar, showing how it elucidates and deepens both the thinking of her characters and the novelist’s own perceptions. Davis is the slow and careful reader George Eliot desired. The results are a revelation.

In an early analysis of her childhood passions and traumas, Davis concentrates on the relationship between brothers and sisters: Isaac and Mary Ann Evans; Tom and Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (1860); the moment of compassion Mr Tulliver shows towards his hapless sister Gritty; and the ‘Brother and Sister’ sonnet sequence, written in 1869 and published in 1874. Each version of this relationship is closely examined in terms of the shifting movements of loyalty, love, betrayal and condemnation within it and also its connection to the others. Eliot’s habit of layering each moment with meaning is traced with committed sympathy. Davis demonstrates the truth of D H Lawrence’s observation on Eliot’s work, ‘It was she who started putting all the action inside.’ If a crucial passage from an early text proves vital to a later argument, Davis will discuss it again, and that passage then seems entirely new and different. Davis’s organisation of his study manages to be both chronological and thematic. This book is filled with echoes.

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