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Book Review: The Life of George Eliot

By (September 20, 2012) No Comment

The Life of George Eliot: A Critical Biography

by Nancy Henry

WileyBlackwell, 2012


Early in her Life of George Eliot, Nancy Henry reports George Eliot’s own view “that life and writings should be kept separate from each other.” As Henry’s book is a contribution to Blackwell’s “Critical Biographies” series and thus obligated to integrate discussion of Eliot’s life with discussion of her writings, Henry proceeds with understandable self-consciousness as she offers us ways “to think about how the narrative of Eliot’s life … may profitably be read along with the literary works that continue to entertain, engage, and enlighten us.”

That Henry is largely successful in this effort is much to her credit. Biographical criticism can easily lead to tediously oversimplified identifications of real people and events with fictional characters and plots. Henry’s method is rather to tease out connections and patterns, taking her cue, as she says, “from Eliot’s insights into the stories of lives” to seek insight into how we might understand Eliot’s own. The result is a somewhat hesitant rhetoric: when she draws connections between the life and the fiction, Henry’s prose is littered with qualifications, with “may have” and “seems to” and “perhaps.” Reviewing the experiences of Eliot’s father with lawsuits, for instance, Henry suggests:

Memories of these legal disputes may have inspired the complex Transome inheritance plot of Felix Holt, for which Eliot sought detailed legal advice. This background may also have influenced her interests in lawsuits and wills generally.

Thus, even as she moves through her material, Henry humbles herself, and us, in the face of the ultimately insoluble problem: “what is the relationship between an author’s lived experience and the imaginative literature that she produced?”

Theoretical complexities notwithstanding, Henry offers a thorough and informative account of both Eliot’s life and her writing, taking into account the most up-to-date research by others and adding her own findings and insights. Of particular note is her detailed re-examination of the status of Eliot’s relationship with the man she referred to as her husband, George Henry Lewes. The standard explanation for Lewes’s not divorcing his first wife, Agnes, and legalizing his relationship with Eliot has long been that Lewes’s adoption of Agnes’s children by a different father meant he had condoned Agnes’s adultery and thus, ironically, himself removed the grounds required for a divorce. This story appears, Henry notes, as “sheer undocumented assertion” in Gordon Haight’s classic 1968 biography of Eliot. Henry shows that it has been perpetuated without further substantiation by subsequent biographers (and, I would add, by many other scholars and teachers who, like me, had always taken Haight’s account as authoritative), and she suggests some of the reasons for its persistence, despite the absence of “case histories, precedents, or evidence of any kind” to support it:

It sets a defensive tone by offering a definitive legal reason that Eliot and Lewes continued in a union unsanctioned by law. It makes the couple a victim of Lewes’s generosity, a rigid divorce law, and Agnes’s adultery, thereby shifting the emphasis away from Eliot and Lewes’s relationship, which however highly theorized and justified, remained adulterous.

It has, that is, both narrative and moral advantages, giving an air of principled social resistance to what might otherwise be described simply as an equally scandalous but less high-minded extramarital liaison. Henry’s own conclusion is that for a range of reasons, no one involved wanted the expense and public exposure of a trial: this is, as she anticipates, a less interesting, though apparently much more accurate, story.

The Life of George Eliot is a meticulous and nuanced study. Yet I sometimes found myself wondering who exactly Henry was writing for: perhaps by virtue of being a hybrid genre– part criticism, part biography–it falls awkwardly between the two stools of popularization and specialization. An audience familiar with George Eliot’s novels surely does not need as much plot summary as Henry often provides, yet for readers who so far know little about, say, Romola, the detailed analysis of its “encoded” treatment of homosexuality might seem abstruse. For expert readers already well versed in other critical readings, however, the real value of Henry’s book lies precisely in such illuminating contributions from Henry’s own scholarship–yet these readers hardly need to be told that “Middlemarch became an example of a novel that was recognized for its brilliance in its own time and continues to receive such recognition.”

Eliot’s first biographer was her second husband, John Cross. In her comments on Cross’s work, Henry quotes a famous contemporary response to it:

I do hope that in some future edition, or in some future work, the salt and spice will be restored to the records of George Eliot’s entirely unconventional life.

Henry’s Life is not the future work here dreamed of. Scrupulous, thorough, up-to-date, it is nonetheless also quite dry and academic, and though in itself the undertaking of such a challenging project tells us that Henry is passionate about her subject, it’s hard to imagine this particular biography inspiring new readers to rush out and buy the novels. That said, biographers who go too eagerly after “the salt and spice” may err in the other direction, as Brenda Maddox did, and reduce Eliot’s brave life to sexist caricatures, her brilliant novels to bland superficies. It looks like we’re still waiting for a great popular biography, but Henry’s book is written with all the rigor and intelligence Eliot deserves.