I am kicking off our Season in Middlemarch with a slim biography, packed with illustrations, in case you fancy a brief outline of Eliot’s life.
In George Eliot and her World (1973), Marghanita Laski attempts to sketch the woman behind the public persona, so as to better place her in her world. Laski draws heavily on Gordon S. Haight’s George Eliot: A Biography (1968), Mathilde Blind’s George Eliot (1883), J. W. Cross’s George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (1885), and Joan Bennett’s George Eliot: Her Mind and Her Art (1948), as well as on letters and memoirs, such as Eliza Lynn Linton’s My Literary Life (1899), Henry James’ The Middle Years (1917), Mrs. Humphry Ward’s A Writer’s Recollections (1918), and Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ I, too, have lived in Arcadia (1941).
Laski places heavy emphasis on tracing similarities between Eliot’s life and some of the characters and events depicted in her novels – an approach that can be read like a double-edged sword: while trying to illuminate Eliot’s creative process, it also inadvertently reduces its scope. Laski’s biography briefly sketches each of Eliot’s books, but lacks a deeper exercise in literary criticism, and barely explores Eliot’s ideas.
I find it interesting that George Eliot is not portrayed in a positive light in this biography: Laski seems to be intent on rescuing the flawed woman behind the sanitized public persona partly performed in later life by Eliot herself, and partly put forward by J. W. Cross’s biography after her death – which, according to Laski, only contributed to precipitate the decline of Eliot’s literary reputation in the early 20th century. However, I could do without Laski’s obsession with (and negative emphasis on) Eliot’s physical appearance, as well as with her overall tendency to uncritically reproduce the misogynistic remarks made by her subject’s contemporaries (such as Henry James, who described Eliot as a “great horse-faced blue-stocking”).
Laski draws brief attention to Eliot’s relationships with women – particularly, Sara Hennell, to whom Eliot penned letters signed as “your loving wife Mary Ann.” Upon first meeting Eliza Lynn Linton, Eliot reported that Linton told her that “she was never so attracted to a woman before as to me.” Edith Simcox wrote in her autobiography that she took Eliot’s kindness as “a sign that I was half a man.” Women simply adored George Eliot.
Interestingly, Laski tends to be more sympathetic of Eliot’s passions for older men (particularly, for other women’s husbands), than of her love for George Henry Lewes – who, according to Laski, rubbed off his “moral coarseness” and “emotional vulgarity” on Eliot. Throughout the biography, Laski tends to support the opinions of those who didn’t like the couple. Based on slender evidence, she seems to treat more or less as a proved fact the conjecture that Eliot’s marriage to J. W. Cross soon after Lewes’s death may have been prompted by her discovery that her deceased husband had been unfaithful.
Laski seems to imply that, in her life with Lewes, Eliot’s public persona grew increasingly dull: she went from “a person whose delinquency was an aggravated kind” (according to one of Eliot’s cousins) to “a self-manipulation as one makes a statue or a vase (…) purely artificial (…) a benign Sybil” (according to Linton). In Laski’s words, “no one was to be more conventional than Mrs. George Henry Lewes.”
Laski’s Eliot could well be a character in one of Eliot’s novels – deeply flawed, but warmly so. Harsh and passionate, plagued by depression and self-doubt. Never sufficiently noble, nor particularly wise. Fittingly, Laski closes her biography by invoking to her subject Eliot’s own plea for Maggie Tulliver (from The Mill on the Floss, 1860), expressed by the author in a letter to Blackwood, on July 9th, 1860: “I ought not to have written this book at all, but quite a different book, if any. If the ethics of art do not admit the truthful presentation of a character essentially noble, but liable to great error—error that is anguish to its own nobleness—then, it seems to me, the ethics of art are too narrow, and must be widened to correspond with a widening psychology.”
“I feel it acutely in the reproof my own soul is constantly getting from the image it has made. My own books scourge me.” – George Eliot in a letter to Sara Hennell, in The George Eliot Letters, v. IV, ed. Gordon S. Haight
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