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George Eliot for Dummies

By (November 1, 2010) 5 Comments

George Eliot in Love
By Brenda Maddox
Palgrave Macmillan 2010

I have been longing to see George Eliot’s fascinating, courageous, and triumphant life given a smart popularizing treatment. A woman of rare intellectual ability, ambition, and achievement, Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans endured, confronted, and finally overcame the assumption (still tiresomely commonplace) that smart women cannot also be lovable, that intelligence is not sexy. From an inauspicious beginning as the painfully self-conscious, studious daughter of a rural land agent, she built a successful writing and editing career among London’s intellectual elite, found happiness with two devoted husbands, and wrote some of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. As in her life she refused to be constrained by conventional norms and expectations, so too she stretched the form of fiction to encompass her philosophical vision and experimental techniques. Free thinker, strong-minded woman, renowned scholar, spirited critic, adored novelist, cherished friend and lover—George Eliot had, as Brenda Maddox remarks in her introduction to George Eliot in Love, a “noble and moving life,” one that more people should know about.

But while other nineteenth-century authors have enjoyed vigorous posthumous careers in popular culture (and not just the obvious ones, either—who would have thought there would ever be more than one acclaimed novel about Henry James?), Eliot features in a scant handful of non-academic books (Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives comes to mind, as does Thomas Disch’s Neighboring Lives, or, less directly, Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers). So I was excited to see George Eliot in Love arrive in North America. First published last year in England as George Eliot: Novelist, Lover, Wife—part of a series of ‘Eminent Lives’ intended to serve up significant biographies in easily digestible form—this book by an award-winning biographer and journalist promised to deliver Eliot’s compelling story to the wide audience it deserves, perhaps even to bring this worthy subject a fraction of the attention and regard so incessantly bestowed on Jane Austen. Clearly, the North American publisher had the same idea, as the jacket design features a Constable painting of a stately and beautifully landscaped home that looks suspiciously like Pemberley.

Sadly, however, I wasn’t just disappointed in George Eliot in Love—by the time I finished it I was equal parts astonished and enraged. The book is not just George Eliot ‘lite’–it is superficial, prurient, and at times simply offensive. Maddox comes across as naively underqualified for her task: her good intentions are as painfully evident as the bad judgment and limited expertise she displays throughout. Focusing persistently on the pettiest details of Eliot’s biography, Maddox strips her of both dignity and intellectual substance and leaves us with an impoverished version that belies Elizabeth Hardwick’s confidence (expressed in her marvelous essay “George Eliot’s Husband”) that it was impossible to make this accomplished woman “look foolish and small.”

In its basic outlines, Maddox’s account of Eliot’s life is competent, as it should be considering the debt Maddox acknowledges to the “perceptive, scholarly, and readable biographies by Kathryn Hughes…and Rosemary Ashton.” These are indeed excellent biographies, and I recommend either of them to anyone genuinely interested in understanding the woman capable of writing Middlemarch. It’s difficult, however, to recognize the author of George Eliot’s novels in Maddox’s portrait of Marian Evans, not because there’s no truth in Maddox’s account of her as sickly, self-conscious, serious, plain, and unfashionable, but because she was also (as we know from her books) wise, witty, sarcastic, sympathetic, and passionate, and nowhere in George Eliot in Love do these qualities come through.

Illustration for George Eliot\’s Romola in the Cornhill Magazine, 1862-63

In fact, nowhere in George Eliot in Love do we get any serious engagement with Eliot’s novels, which Maddox treats in a wholly perfunctory way. She remarks that Eliot’s achievement was “great and enduring,” but provides stilted plot summaries of each book that certainly wouldn’t have convinced me to read them. These summaries are never inaccurate, but are always inadequate. “The parson guides Janet away from alcohol,” Maddox tells us of the conclusion of “Janet’s Repentance” from Scenes of Clerical Life, “and after her husband dies she devotes her life to the service of others.” Well, yes, but the philosophical resonance of Janet’s growth from self-absorption to selflessness, in the context of Eliot’s interest in developing a secular alternative to Christian morality, is completely lost in this curt description, and Maddox’s account of every one of the novels is marked by a similarly reductive literalness. Though she claims, oddly, that “plot was not [Eliot’s] strong point,” she rarely moves beyond the novels’ sequence of events to attempt any deeper analysis of just what made them distinctive.

When she does so, her offerings are simplistic enough to embarrass an undergraduate student. “She conveyed the inner feelings and thoughts of her characters in a way that brought them alive to the reader,” she reports; Romola follows Eliot’s “usual formula of realistic detail combined with her perceptions of human nature and the human predicament”; Daniel Deronda “neatly resolves [Eliot’s] conflict between English and foreign settings for her novels by intertwining both.” Alexander Main’s collection of Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings from the Works of George Eliot “reveals the author’s habit of delivering in her fiction godlike pronouncements in her own voice”—something, we might infer from this comment, Maddox hadn’t really noticed on her own. How much richer and more insightful are these offhand remarks by Virginia Woolf:

I think the great Victorians . . . Dickens, Trollope, to some extent Hardy all had this sense of an audience and created their characters mainly through dialogue. Then I think the novelist became aware of something that can’t be said by the character himself; and also lost the sense of an audience. . . . Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest—the first modern novel.

Woolf understood, as Maddox doesn’t (or doesn’t bother to mention), that the interiority of Eliot’s characters not only brings them alive (or makes them ‘relatable,’ in the lamentable undergrad jargon) but heralds a transformation in fictional technique that continues with Henry James’s and then Woolf’s own experiments with point of view and stream of consciousness. George Eliot in Love blithely ignores Eliot’s relationship to other novelists, Victorian or modern, never mind the development of the novel as an artistic or philosophical form. The majority of Maddox’s interpretive observations are biographical parallels. She draws the obvious connection between Tom and Maggie’s relationship in The Mill on the Floss and Eliot’s own childhood dramas with her stern brother Isaac, for instance, but she also proposes that Silas Marner “drew on [Eliot’s] own experience as a lonely outsider who suddenly tasted parental love, as well as conveying the shock of unexpected wealth” and that Romola “revolves around a man with two wives: one legal, and another who believes herself married to him.” Well, yes, again, but readers interested in the interplay between George Eliot’s life and her fiction would be much better off with Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans, which offers far subtler and more satisfying analyses.

To be sure, George Eliot in Love is not intended for an audience of professional critics, much less as a contribution to academic analyses of Eliot’s fiction. But academics are hardly the only readers capable of appreciating complex subjects, and a great popular treatment should bring those complexities to vivid life, not replace them with oversimplifications. George Eliot’s novels did not earn high praise in the nineteenth century or endure to the twenty-first because her prose is “richly descriptive” (though, to be sure, it is). Any biographer who asserts Eliot’s significance as a novelist without working harder than Maddox does to understand and explain it is selling both her subject and her audience short. It’s ironic to read Maddox’s remark that “like many writers, Marian loved research”: hundreds of essays and books on George Eliot’s fiction (many of them, like the biographies Maddox cites, both scholarly and readable) are easily available to a researcher with any initiative or sense of responsibility.

But Maddox’s main interest is not really George Eliot, the novelist, but rather Marian Evans, the woman (ironically perpetuating a very Victorian severance of those identities). Here, Maddox regrettably assumes that the ‘human’ side of the story must be primarily composed of sex, gossip, and fashion. In particular, Maddox is absurdly fixated on Eliot’s appearance. “Her face was her fortune,” is the astonishing opening sentence of Chapter One, and Maddox goes on to argue that literally from birth Marian was marked as unlikely to find a husband: “The heavy, irregular features resembling her father’s were there from the start: large, drooping nose, long chin, prominent jaw.” For the rest of the book Maddox will not let her ugly duckling turn into a swan.

Unable to resist including what sometimes seems like every last comment ever made about Eliot’s looks, Maddox gives credence only to the most insulting ones, such as Henry James’s famous description (“immortal,” Maddox calls it) of Eliot as “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous.” James also discovered that “within this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty”—he claimed, indeed, to have fallen in love with Eliot—but these further remarks apparently carry less weight with Maddox than his first impression, or this quite different description by Eliot’s close friend Bessie Parkes:

Abundant brown hair framed a countenance which was certainly not in any sense unpleasing, noble in its general outline, and very sweet and kind in expression. Her height was good, her figure remarkably supple; at moments, it had an almost serpentine grace.

Maddox assumes that only Francoise D’Albert-Durade’s sentimental feelings for his subject explain his 1849 painting: “the only flattering likeness ever done of her, . . . it minimizes her nose and chin and shows her full face with beautiful blue-gray eyes and a sweet smile.”

(Personally, I prefer Frederick Burton’s 1865 portrait, which shows a more mature and contemplative Marian.)

Eliot certainly lacked English rose prettiness, and it’s not surprising that she harbored anxieties about her appearance. As feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun observes,

women are encouraged to be concerned with their physical attractiveness; for that reason it requires great courage to ignore one’s appearance and reach out, as it were, from behind it to attract and spellbind: it also requires great talent.

Instead of belaboring the point that Eliot was not a conventionally beautiful woman, Maddox might have celebrated precisely her courage and talent. And in defiance of her youthful fears, Eliot found that many—though of course not all—men did find her attractive. Still more importantly, she found that a happy, fulfilled, and productive life did not depend at all on conforming to a narrow standard of beauty. That is a liberating discovery, one that should be inspirational to women today tired of the implicit pressure to achieve airbrushed perfection. Maddox, however, seems surprised to the end that such a result was possible.

The real surprise, of course, is that a biographer in 2010 should prove less able than Henry James, or George Eliot herself, to move beyond the sexist assumption that no matter what a woman’s other qualities or accomplishments, her and our first interest must be in the proportions of her nose and chin. Maddox presents herself as an advocate for Eliot. She is herself a scholar and a writer. It’s difficult to understand, then, why she would speculate that James Anthony Froude backed out of a planned trip abroad with Eliot and her friends the Brays because he “panicked at the thought of being paired for several weeks with the plain, intellectual Mary Ann Evans.” As Maddox says, with disingenuous candor, “we cannot know for certain.” Indeed we cannot, and absent any evidence for a guess so insulting to both parties, such a suggestion reflects only on its author’s own self-defeating difficulty believing that intellectual achievement is compatible with feminine warmth and charm—despite the evidence she herself provides that many men and women fell, as Henry James did, under Eliot’s spell.

The book reaches its nadir in Maddox’s account of the mysterious incident during Eliot’s honeymoon with her second husband, John Cross, in which Cross jumped from their Venice hotel room into the canal. In George Eliot: A Life (1996), Rosemary Ashton emphasizes that “hard facts are few,” but “there is evidence that [he] suffered from bouts of depression both before and after his marriage.” Describing the episode, minimally, as “some kind of fit or derangement,” she notes that while the episode is “likely to appear funny, sad, fantastic, [or] alarming” depending on one’s point of view, it was anything but entertaining for Eliot and Cross. Though acknowledging that the incident inevitably spawned gossip and rumors, Ashton spends little time rehearsing them.

The pragmatic understatement of Ashton’s treatment shows up the sensationalism with which Maddox first describes the episode and then reports the ‘irresistible” speculation that arose. As if the contemporary reports are insufficiently prurient, Maddox turns to a late 20th-century novel that describes, she suggests, “the scene that many must have imagined … the haggard, aged wife aggressively demanding her marital rights from an inexperienced bachelor.” Then, in a book that includes exactly four extended quotations from Eliot’s own fiction, she includes a long quotation from this “lively fictionalized” source describing the appalling spectacle of a sixty-year old woman’s naked body. It’s the most overtly and gratuitously misogynistic moment I have come across in any book I have read in years, and Maddox fails to distance herself from its implications, concluding on her own behalf that while Cross “seems” to have been in love with his wife (the wording implies that Maddox is either skeptical or, again, surprised), “it was love without desire.”

Quoting a letter in which Eliot refers to biographies as “a disease of literature,” Maddox wonders if Eliot was already fearing that “more than a century later biographers would be retracing the growth of her love for Cross and her hesitating steps to the altar.” But it’s Maddox who finds Eliot’s love letters to Cross “excruciating to read,” as if there is something shameful about a woman past a certain age feeling—or at least expressing—“unguarded” emotion. It’s depressing to find Eliot’s “noble and moving life” still, in 2010, being held hostage to the same anxieties about how a proper woman should behave that caused Eliot to suffer ostracization and opprobrium in her lifetime.

““When biographers come to write the life of a woman,” Heilbrun writes,

they have had to struggle with the inevitable conflict between the destiny of being unambiguously a woman and the woman subject’s palpable desire, or fate, to be something else. Except when writing about queens, biographers of women have not, therefore, been at ease with their subjects—and even with queens, like Elizabeth I of England, there has been a tendency to see them as somewhat abnormal, monstrous.

Maddox’s George Eliot is not monstrous, but she’s a profoundly limited and uncomfortable character, one with whom her biographer seems unable to achieve the kind of sympathetic intimacy that might help her weave together the disparate strands of a hard but ultimately happy experience. Maddox concludes with a contrarian tribute to Cross’s problematic, if painstaking, biography of his wife (called by William Gladstone “a reticence in three volumes” and by Woolf “the sad soliloquy in which Mr. Cross condemned her to tell the story of her life”). “He left an invaluable portrait of his late wife,” Maddox declares, “the brilliant autodidact transformed by George Henry Lewes’s love into one of the greatest novelists of English literature.”

Her solution, then, to Eliot’s abnormality is to contain it within a story of dependency, as if Eliot’s own hard, ambitious intellectual work and her distinct creative genius were somehow created by Lewes, rather than nurtured and encouraged. “Strange,” says Elizabeth Hardwick, “that it should always be said of this woman of bold strength that she ‘was not fitted to stand alone.’” Strange indeed: just as the version of Virginia Woolf presented in The Hours overlooks the feisty, opinionated woman of letters in favor of the tormented depressive, so too Maddox’s Eliot displays all of her weaknesses and little of her power. Perhaps we have yet to overcome the fundamental difficulty Heilbrun identifies of reconciling our preconceived notions of femininity with the real reach and variety of women’s desires and experiences. Certainly Maddox stumbles and falls in the attempt, and it’s a shame. George Eliot deserves better.

Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs about literature and criticism at Novel Readings.