In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy
A writer with many needs, mainly for love, is forced to hide her real name, her authorship and her own real love for a married man. A contemporary academic struggles with her own relationships. A series of characters walk through the rooms of a couple known for their stimulating conversation. This is George Eliot’s story, the story of a real woman called Marian Evans, in love with a married man, disgraced in the eyes of society, deeply wounded by the effective loss of her family, but discovering the strength to become the author of the sublime Middlemarch. Once ignored by polite society, her fame means that she is sought out by writers, artists and those desperate to attach themselves to one of the greatest authors. This is not the story of writing best sellers, even though she achieved that, but of the love of a woman who researched relentlessly, who sought approval, who loved and lived with a man despite all the criticism, who loved her friends, her house and so much, but remains something of an enigma. This is a complex book, as befits a complex person, and traces the sad withdrawal from society of a frequently hesitant women, her joy when friends supported her, her overwhelming love for George Lewes which extended to his sons. It is the story of a life in which passions are deeply felt, there is strength to shock, and it introduces a variety of characters such as Johnny Cross and the writer Edith Simcox. A memorable book of impressive depth, it provides a real insight into a much examined but still shadowy life.
The book opens with a Prologue set in 1851, when a young, impressionable Marian lives in the house of a Mr Chapman, publisher, who represents so much to her. Their relationship becomes physical as his voracious behaviour includes her for a brief time before she is dismissed, blamed and yet still ambitious for a literary career. In the twenty first century Kate and Ann examine a diary which can open up their own academic careers, as Kate especially wants, needs to find the truth. The novel begins in 1857, when Marian and Lewes come together in a relationship which cannot legally be marriage, but in every other way is a life long love. It comes at a cost, especially to Marian, as it is seen as a scandal, she loses acquaintances, but more seriously for her, Isaac, a beloved brother, refuses any communication with her. Seeking out temporary and permanent homes, Marian and Lewes seek to establish themselves as a couple, walking, writing, researching. Lewes fears for her obsessions, as she seems determined to immense herself in the obscure learning and languages which she wants to capture in her writing. With his loving care and encouragement she produces the best sellers, The Mill on the Floss, Adam Bede and other novels, against his shielding of her from certain reviews. Despite their unconventional relationship in the eyes of society, her adoption of the name George Eliot keeps eager readers in the dark about her identity. As they come to terms with a son’s illness, they also attract a group of admirers who include the artists and writers of the day, such Henry James, as well as those drawn by Marian’s personality such as Edith, who tries to capture her attraction in a passionately written diary.
This is in some respects a somber story, of a woman who loved deeply but whose loves were deemed shocking. It is the story a woman whose writings excited admiration and brought her fame that she struggled to deal with throughout her life. It is full of the little details that bring Marian and those around her. A big read, it succeeds in giving the impression of a writer coming to terms with life and love in a unique way.
One of the reasons I read this book is because next Monday I begin an online course about the “Literary Landscapes” of some of Eliot’s books – but I don’t think even I have time to Middlemarch (again) in that time!