The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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December 1, 2011

George Eliot in Love

Her face was her fortune. When their second daughter was born on November 22, 1819, Robert and Christiana Evans could see at a glance that she would find it hard to fulfill a girl's primary task:  to find a husband; she would have to make her own way in life. The heavy, irregular features resembling her father's were there from the start:  large, drooping nose, long chin, prominent jaw. Decades later, when she had become a famous novelist, many would attempt to describe her odd appearance. George Eliot, the young Henry James wrote to his father in 1870, was 'magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.' But James quickly noticed (as her parents seem not to have done) that 'in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind.'
I'm not sure where I heard about it, but I had put George Eliot in Love on my reading list even before I learned about Team Middlemarch. Coincidentally, the biography arrived from library reserve just in time for me to read it before starting the novel. Perfect timing, in lots of ways ... I needed a book to sink into, literary biographies are one of my favorite genres, and I love to know about the lives of the authors I'm reading, especially if they're new to me.

For me, this book, by Brenda Maddox, was a perfect introduction to George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans).  She led a 'scandously odd' life, as an intellectual and the editor of a review (at a time when women hid their identities when they wrote, and did not hold editorships), then as the common-law wife of philosopher, scientist and writer George Henry Lewes (who supported her writing career and protected her from public attention), then as a novelist, and finally, in her 60s, as the legal wife of a man in his 40s (a young banker who had served as the family's financial advisor before falling in love with her after Lewes' death);  what happens on their honeymoon just extends this very suprising story. 

Marian Evans was ostracized socially for living with Lewes (he was married and still supporting his wife and her children, some his and some with another man, but the 'marriage' was more scandalous for her than for him), until her almost unheard-of success and fame as a novelist made her more socially sought-after and widely loved. And there's a painful thread in the book about her physical ugliness, which was noted and commented on, cruelly, by lovers, friends and acquaintances (including Henry, who gets his when Maddox notes that he is 'ever ready to pass on a cruel remark').

Blackwood predicted that the publication of Middlemarch would be one of the landmarks of 1872. So it proved and its reputation has grown with time. In 1919, on the centennial of Eliot's birth, Virginia Woolf declared it 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.' In 1948 the Cambridge University critic F.R. Leavis called it the only book to represent George Eliot's mature genius and ranked it as one of the greatest works of English fiction. In 2007, the novelist A.S. Byatt hailed it as 'anti-romantic, yet intensely passionate' and held it to be possibly the greatest English novel.
George Eliot in Love isn't long (222 pages) and not overly detailed, but it offers a sympathetic picture of her life and her writing career and a good introduction to her novels. Now I'm even more ready to read her and read more about her.  {I was excited to see that Jenny Uglow (who wrote the biography of Elizabeth Gaskell that I loved so much this summer} has also written a biography of George Eliot.


Anonymous said...

This sounds like an excellent introduction to Eliot! Though I still haven't read any of her books, I am fascinated by what I know of her life but I'm not necessarily ready for the depth of the Uglow biography.

Jillian said...

I REALLY want to read this! I'm reading Middlemarch with DoveGreyReader as well starting today. :-)

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

What a lovely review, although it shouldn't matter, knowing it's only about 200 pages makes it a lot more likely that I may read it.

A Bookish Space said...

I love reading literary biographies too, and pick them up at charity shops even if I haven't read any books about the author in question, just because you never know what you are going to read next and then you will have a biography already, ready for you to find out more. All of which is a roundabout way to say that although I haven't read any Eliot yet, your review defintely means that I will look out for this book!

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