Kathy O’Shaughnessy, In Love with George Eliot (Scribe 2019)
George Eliot’s Middlemarch keeps turning up at the top of people’s lists of great English novels. I read it as part of the great cultural tsunami that engulfed me as a boy who’d landed at Sydney University in 1967, having come from North Queensland by way of a monastery, and I loved it, though I haven’t retained much more than a vague impression of the shining integrity of its main character Dorothea and her dried up stick of a husband Dr Casaubon. My first recent vicarious re-encounter was a couple of years back on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog (now apparently no longer available), when he took his readers through one of Eliot’s long sentences, describing its movements in language he had developed in talking about rap music. I found a nice piece by him in the Atlantic from about the same time: here. Middlemarch is on my To Be Read list, though the tiny type in the copies I’ve seen is pretty discouraging for someone with my eyesight.
When I was given In Love with George Eliot in my Book Group’s Kris Kringle, it seemed a good halfway measure: decent type size, manageable length, written this decade, and promising some kind of George Eliot experience.
The kind of George Eliot experience it offers is not easy to describe. The novel’s main narrative covers the years from Eliot’s arrival in London in 1851 to her death in 1880: the trajectory of her writing career including the agonised gestation of Middlemarch, her years living unmarried with George Henry Lewes, the ensuing scandal and shunning being overcome by her huge fame as a novelist, her late brief marriage to Johnny Cross, which caused almost as much scandal (after her flouting of convention had been accepted, she went and did the conventional thing, though to a man 20 years her junior and too soon after George’s death). In a secondary narrative, a number of EngLit scholars in contemporary London fall in and out of love, take part in mild academic intrigues, organise conferences and write papers about Eliot and her contemporaries. One of these scholars, Kate, is writing a novel about Eliot, ‘but a novel based on fact – biography, letters, diaries.’ In other words, this novel. An author’s note assures us that all the letters quoted, both George Eliot’s and others’ – are from the archives, and so is much of the dialogue.
So it’s a partial biography in which the writer has given herself permission to make stuff up to fill in the gaps. From a reader’s perspective, it’s a partial biography without a lot of paraphernalia or uninteresting detail, but also one that can’t be completely trusted; one that sticks to the known facts with no spectacular flights of fancy, no plunging headlong into the character’s imagined inner life. That is to say, this is just the thing for unscholarly readers who want to know more about George Eliot (real names Mary Ann Evans, Mrs Lewes, Mrs Cross), of whom I am one. But I’m not sure it will do much for readers who are not already interested.
In a way, the book is less about George Eliot herself than, as the title suggests, the people who were and are in love with her.
I knew about George Lewes, but only that he was her partner for many years. The book gives us much more of him: a scholar and writer himself, he was Eliot’s encourager who protected her from negative criticism, building his life around her and her work.
I knew that Eliot was successful in her lifetime. I didn’t know that she was a huge celebrity – on her trip to Venice late in life she is reluctant to leave the hotel for fear of being recognised.
I knew nothing of Edith Simcox, whose passionate love, ‘lover-wise’, for Mrs Lewes, as she wanted to be known, had her kissing her feet and laying her head in her lap. Presumably these details are taken from Simcox’s private diaries published as Autobiography of a Shirtmaker in 1998.
I didn’t know about Johnny Cross, whom Eliot married late in life and who jumped from a hotel window into a canal when visiting Venice with his wife: in the lead-up to this incident the novel shakes off the shackles of the archive a little, and those few pages are alive with Johnny’s weird, unsettled inner life.
Herbert Spencer, Henry James and other literary luminaries of the time have walk-on parts, not as lovers, but filling out the picture.
And then there are the 21st century academics, who in their own ways love her too. Perhaps, too, there’s a reflexive element to the book’s title: it was written in love.