Hampering Threadlike Pressure: A New Biography of George Eliot

“GREAT LITERATURE has always been the […] Forgiveness of Sin,” W.B. Yeats wrote in 1901, “and when we find it becoming the Accusation of Sin, as in George Eliot […] literature has begun to change into something else.” Eliot’s problem, as Yeats recognized, lay in finding a balance between her conflicting instincts: to sympathize with people and to judge them. Eliot felt it her duty to cultivate “direct fellow-feeling” and be generous toward the little people, even though, as she well knew, they had often failed to be generous to her.

The Eliot problem helps to explain why some 15 biographies of her have appeared over the past 30 years or so. (There doesn’t seem to be any Dickens problem or Trollope problem that requires such obsessive attention.) Philip Davis’s The Transferred Life of George Eliot is the latest entry in this series, and it is a brief for the greatness of George Eliot as a thinker, a novelist, and a person, and thus a justification of literature as she chose to write it. Davis’s particular approach is “to understand [Eliot’s] life through her work because it was to her work that she transferred and dedicated her life.” What defines Eliot, in Davis’s view, is “her commitment to the role of imaginative sympathy in understanding,” which makes her not just a great writer, but also an admirable person.

This humanist view of Eliot has held its ground, despite the theory wars of the 1980s and ’90s. One of the few to question it was J. Hillis Miller, who has argued that Eliot’s novels are typically structured around failures of sympathy (or, Miller would say, of interpretation): Adam Bede misinterprets Hetty Sorrel, Philip Wakem misinterprets Maggie Tulliver, Dorothea misinterprets Casaubon, Gwendolen misinterprets Grandcourt. Eliot’s art reaches its highest pitch with these miserable confrontations, such as Lydgate and Rosamond’s quarrel over money in chapter 58 of Middlemarch. “What can I do?” Rosamond says. Lydgate wants to hear “how can I help?”; but what Rosamond means to say is “this is not my problem.” When we try to sympathize with other people, Eliot suggests, we often get it radically wrong. The dominant perspective of Eliot’s narrators, Miller suggests, is not sympathy but irony. Davis, though, is not much bothered by the limitation that Eliot, like any novelist, must speak mainly through her characters. Eliot provides her own copious commentary on the action, seeming to speak directly to her reader. He assumes that “life” can be freely transferred between the author and her fiction. So the sorrows of little Maggie Tulliver, in The Mill on the Floss, are inseparable from “the long slow unrecognized struggle” of Mary Ann Evans “to become the author ‘George Eliot’ at the age of 37.” It is through her fiction that Eliot becomes her true self — paradoxically, under a different name. The Transferred Life of George Eliot makes its case with impressive force and eloquence. In doing so, it leaves aside many of the standard elements of a biography: an orderly sequence of life-events, financial affairs, contacts with other cultural figures, and so forth. Davis’s narrative sticks to Eliot’s emotional and intellectual development, as revealed in her fiction and letters. It presents Eliot’s life as the heroic overcoming of the multiple oppressions inflicted on a brilliant but awkward and misunderstood provincial girl.

Except for her father’s loyal encouragement, Eliot was unlucky in her childhood, enduring an upbringing that seemed to have the narrowest of horizons. In Middlemarch, Lydgate memorably describes this as “the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions.” Yet, Davis argues, Eliot followed Wordsworth in accepting “the hidden and neglected value of common life.” She did not go quite as far as the Lyrical Ballads in finding special virtue in obscure lives, but still kept her respect for Midlands village life, warts and all.

By the time Eliot began writing fiction, she had received an overflowing measure of criticism and humiliation from her family, and from the respectable folk among whom she had grown up. Her readers might be appalled by the narrow-minded Dodsons and their ilk in The Mill on the Floss, but Eliot told her friend Emily Davies that in real life they were much worse. Nonetheless they survive and prosper, while Maggie perishes, condemned for a love affair that wasn’t even consummated. For Davis, this shows Eliot’s overcoming of youthful resentment, on her way to becoming the great soul revealed in her mature works. Yet resentment is an emotion that tends to linger, if beneath the surface, and Eliot often rebuked herself for her habit of “evil speaking.”

In concentrating primarily on Eliot’s intellectual progress, Davis sets a different course from the swarm of recent biographers who have pored over the primary materials of her life. He assumes that events in Eliot’s childhood, or in her intimate relations, need only be viewed through the traces left by them in her fiction. For the injuries specific to Victorian girls, for example, Davis looks to “those unforgettably primal, wounding moments” suffered by Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. But putting his reader on the side of Eliot’s heroine is only a partial move for her biographer. Eliot’s own experience — and the way that others saw her — cannot be identical with Maggie’s. Further, the conventions of Victorian publishing made it impossible to explore certain areas. Other biographers speculate about Eliot’s sexual history, which the novels naturally leave blank: How, one wonders, did Hetty Sorrel ever manage to get pregnant? What happened, if anything, on Dorothea’s wedding night? Davis does not occupy himself with such questions.

In her ascent to fame, Eliot was far from being, like Maggie, “always subdued.” The fates of Maggie (drowned), Hetty (condemned to death), and Dorothea (disinherited) are various kinds of gendered misfortunes that Eliot herself managed to escape. That she sympathized with her characters does not guarantee that they are simply surrogates for her own feelings. There must be gaps and contradictions between life and work. This does not require writing what Joyce Carol Oates called “pathography,” but Davis may be too enthusiastic about presenting Eliot as her own finest creation.

Some of Davis’s partiality to Eliot appears in not troubling much about some of her more dubious episodes. Eliot committed herself to G. H. Lewes in July 1854 by going to live with him in Weimar. Before that, she had spent 12 years ensnared in a web of sexually compromising situations. At the age of 22 she had met the freethinking couples Charles and Cara Bray, and Charles and Rufa Hennell. Eliot stopped going to church two months later. The Brays had a casual view of marital obligations, and under their roof, Eliot was exposed to a freedom of thought and behavior that radically challenged the mores of Midlands society: what Eliot would call, in Middlemarch, “a walled-in maze of small paths.”

Before Lewes, Eliot experienced a series of passionate but unsatisfying attachments, often to older men. One was to the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a grandiose but ultimately futile systematizer; later, he would contribute to Eliot’s characterization of Casaubon in Middlemarch. Eliot wrote an abject letter, pleading for Spencer’s love, only to be told that he felt no desire for her (nor, as it turned out, for any other woman). She then joined her publisher John Chapman’s ménage-à-trois in London, where she probably slept with him but still had to endure being the third-ranked woman in the house. When at last Eliot found true love with Lewes, she had to cope with the presence of his friend Thornton Hunt, the biological father of several of Lewes’s five legitimate children, in addition to 10 children with his own wife.

Lewes could not divorce, so Eliot had to face social ostracism, including a lawyer’s letter on behalf of her brother Isaac informing her that he would never see her again. Yet she survived it all and launched her fictional career in 1856 with Scenes of Clerical Life. That began 15 years of amazing productivity, culminating in the capstone of Middlemarch. Davis provides a deep and subtle appreciation of Eliot’s art, emphasizing the authority of her moral history of Midlands society. But how was she able to construct such a mighty edifice on the foundation of her chaotic personal history? Other biographers have explored Eliot’s anarchic years, before she began writing fiction. She was busy with journalism, and with translating revisionist theological works by David Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Benedict Spinoza. Direct knowledge of her emotional life remains scanty, apart from her chagrin over her lack of conventional prettiness, which doomed her to failure in the Victorian system of courtship and marriage. As with Jane Austen, Emily and Anne Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, it seems an unavoidable cliché that so many masterworks by 19th-century women grew out of similar failure. Eliot was equally sensitive, though, to the cost of courtship success, for characters like Rosamond Vincy, Gwendolen Harleth, or Hetty Sorrel.

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