A TALE OF TWO WOMEN
One was a Queen, the other a novelist and social outcast. But Victoria and George Eliot became twin icons, defining the age in which they lived
Sunday 04 October 1998
But that is not what happened. Neither girl lived the life that the circumstances of her birth had seemed to decree. Instead they emerged from obscurity to become the twinned icons of their age. Excluded by their gender from the social and political networks of power, they found alternative, more enduring ways of stamping their mark on the second half of the 19th century. Princess Alexandrina Victoria, pushed on to the throne by a series of dynastic mishaps, even gave her name to it. "Victorian" became the brand name of a confident, expansive mood which stretched absent-mindedly beyond her death right up until the Great War.
"Victorian" meant money in the bank, and ships steaming the earth, factories which clattered all night, and buildings that stretched for the sky. Its shape was the odd little figure of Victoria herself, sweet and girlish in the early years, fat and biddyish towards the end. Wherever "Victorian" energy and bustle made themselves felt, you could be sure to find that distinctive image, stamped into coins and erected in stone, woven into tablecloths and framed in cheap wood. In its ordinary femininity the figure of Victoria offered the moral counterpoise to all that striving and getting. The solid husband, puffy bosom and string of children represented the kind of good woman for whom Britain was busy getting rich.
By contrast, the other woman born that year was rarely seen by anyone. As "George Eliot" her best-selling novels carried her name around the world, but, unlike Dickens and Thackeray, Mary Anne Evans was adamant that not a single photograph of her should be set before a curious public. The reason, it was whispered, was not modesty but shame. Eliot was so ugly that you only had to glance at her, Medusa-like, to be turned to stone. The pokey chin, long nose and lank hair made her male pseudonym seem entirely apt. And the fact that its first half had been borrowed from the scandalous French novelist George Sand only added a whiff of danger. Could it be that, like her partial namesake, George Eliot dressed as a man and smoked cigars?
In fact, she did not. But her behaviour was troubling in other ways. In 1854, with the whole of literary London looking on in fascinated dismay, Miss Evans had fled to Germany with fellow writer George Henry Lewes. Not only was Lewes a well-known libertine, he was indissolubly married. By setting up home with him, Mary Anne Evans had deprived another woman of her husband and three young boys of their father. By this single private, domestic act she had become a by-word for all that was wicked.
By the time they turned 40 in 1859, Queen Victoria and George Eliot had come to stand for the twin poles of female behaviour, respectability and disgrace. One gave her name to virtuous repression, a rigid channelling of desire into the safe haven of marriage and family. The other became a symbol of the "Fallen Woman", banished to the edges of Society or, in Eliot's actual case, to a series of dreary exiles in Richmond and Wandsworth. She was a social leper. Invitations to dinner dried up, respectable women refused to call, and her new career, novel writing, had to be carried out pseudonymously, lest anyone guess the "polluted source" from which best-selling books like Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss actually sprang.
What made it all so odd was that in real life - that quotidian stuff which refuses to run along official lines - Queen Victoria and George Eliot were actually very alike. They shared an emotional inheritance which pressed their psychic lives into matching moulds. Both were the last children of middle-aged fathers who needed a son. Indeed, the studied indifference with which Robert Evans recorded the arrival of his fifth child in his diary on 22 November 1819 suggests bitter disappointment. As a "rising man", that everyday hero of the 19th century, Evans was busy building up an agricultural land agency business with his brothers and eldest son. This third daughter was a liability. True, she could help her mother run the family dairy, but at some point she would have to be sent to school and provided with a dowry. A baby girl was not the kind of news for which such a man as Robert Evans had time to stop and give thanks.
Alexandrina Victoria's arrival was no more auspicious. Six months earlier she had been born in a corner of Kensington Palace. Her father was the 52-year-old Prince Edward of Kent, himself the fourth son of Mad King George III. None of George's surviving 12 children had so far managed to produce a viable heir to succeed the Prince Regent who was about to take over as king in his own right. It had been made brutally clear to the four elderly remaining bachelors, Edward among them, that the moment had come to give up mistresses, acquire legal wives, and produce a crop of lusty boys. But despite three sketchy, resentful marriages, the desired heir had yet to appear. Still, at this point it was too soon to give up hope completely. Alexandrina Victoria was promisingly robust and her mother, while past 30, was young enough to try again for a son. If anyone bothered to think ahead for the little girl, the most they might imagine was that she would one day become the elder sister of a great king.
Victoria and Eliot shared more than disappointed, greying fathers. Both endured mothers who were intrusive yet remote, a tension which left them ravenous for affection until the end of their days. Victoria shared the Duchess of Kent's bedroom right up to her coronation in 1837, but from then on engaged in a strange and distancing dance with her Mama. Eliot, meanwhile, reacted to being sent to boarding school at five by spending her first 30 years looking for comfortable middle-aged women she could call "Mother".
Unsurprisingly, when it came to men, both clung with the hunger of children rather than the secure attachment of mature adults. Prince Albert and George Henry Lewes not only negotiated the public world for their partners, but lavished on them the intense and symbiotic affection usually associated with mothering wives. When both men died before them, the widows fell into a stupor which recalled the despair of an abandoned baby.
What roused them in the end were intense connections with new and unsuitable men. The Queen found John Brown and then Abdul Karim, both servants, one coloured. Within 18 months of her bereavement Eliot married John Cross, a banker 20 years younger and with nothing more than a gentleman's education to recommend him. Menopausal randiness was sniggeringly invoked as the reason for these ludicrous liaisons. Victoria was called "Mrs Brown" behind her back and later implored to tone down her embarrassing crush on her Indian secretary. And when John Cross had to be fished out of Venice's Grand Canal during his honeymoon, the whisper went round the London clubs that he had preferred to drown rather than make love to the hideous old George Eliot.
Because of Eliot's cohabitation with Lewes, which the Queen did not actually think so very bad, there was no possibility of the two women meeting. Yet recognising their twinship, they stalked each other softly down the years. Eliot first mentions Victoria in 1848 when, having briefly caught the revolutionary mood, she speaks slangily in a letter of "our little humbug of a Queen". Ironically, only 11 years later, Victoria had fallen in love with Eliot's first full-length novel, Adam Bede, because of what she saw as its social conservatism, its warm endorsement of the status quo. She dashed off letters recommending the book to her relatives in the shaky courts of Europe. The villagers of Hayslope, headed by Adam Bede himself, reminded her of her beloved Highland ghillies, and she commissioned paintings of two of the book's central scenes to hang at Buckingham Palace.
George Eliot noticed how hard the Queen took the loss of Prince Albert in 1861 and, aware of the similarities in their age and temperament, wondered how she would manage the dreadful moment when she too would be parted from the man who had become her mother, agent and nurse. The Queen, in turn, was hungry to acquire the autograph of the novelist whose work she revered. Unable to ask directly, her chance came in 1875 when the recently bereaved daughter of a courtier showed her a letter of condolence from Lewes and Eliot. The Queen begged to be allowed to tear off the double signature to keep among her most precious things.
The next generation of royal women pursued Eliot more honestly and openly. By the 1870s her increasing celebrity and the evident stability of her relationship with Lewes meant that she was no longer a total social exile. Among the great and the good who pressed for an introduction were two of the royal princesses. Brisk and bright, Vicky and Louise lobbied behind the scenes for a meeting then, in Louise's case at least, dispensed with protocol by coming up to speak to Eliot first. Like every other fan, the princess was frustrated by the lack of photographs of her heroine. So one afternoon when she found herself in the same concert hall as Eliot, she sketched the novelist's massive head on the back of her programme for posterity.
What kept the Queen, her daughters and millions of ordinary men and woman pursuing the "immoral" George Eliot was the way her novels seemed to understand the pain and problems of being a Victorian. The eight books suggest ways in which one might deal with the fragmentation of community at a time of great technological change. In Middlemarch the arrival of the railway threatens anger and loss but, Eliot suggests, also connection and prosperity. Likewise she understands how the fall- out from Darwin - we are all monkeys, there is no Divine Creator - left a gaping spiritual hole in the hearts and minds of those accustomed to daily prayer. By way of answer Adam Bede explores the possibility of goodness without God. So, too, the political upheavals of the 1860s, which seemed to be leading to revolution rather than reform, are addressed in Eliot's sixth book, Felix Holt. Here she argues that continuity with the past and the choice of good for its own sake will triumph over any desperate lunge towards political chaos.
While anxiety and disenchantment with Victorianism led readers to Eliot, her advice to them was that they should remain Victorians. Despite the ruptures of the speedy present, she believed that it was possible, essential, that her readers stay within the parameters of "the everyday world" - a phrase which was to be the pivot of her philosophy. She would not champion an oppositional culture, in which people put themselves outside the social and human networks which had once nurtured them and now seemed to pinch. Hence those low-key endings to her books which have embarrassed feminists and radicals for over a century. Dorothea Brooke's ardent nature is ultimately put to small, localised service as an MP's wife, Romola's phenomenal erudition is set aside for her duties as a sick-nurse, while Dinah gives up her lay preaching to become Adam Bede's wife and mother to his children.
These are not triumphant conclusions, but their everydayness spoke to the thousands of men and women who wrote to George Eliot in anguish asking "How must I live now?" They spoke, too, to Queen Victoria in whose name and image this vast social, political and scientific revolution was being carried out. No wonder, then, that in 1880 when Benjamin Disraeli, architect of the "one nation" philosophy, was obliged to present his sovereign with a gift he did not hesitate in his choice. From the best-loved prime minister of her reign, Queen Victoria received a copy of George Eliot's Romola, a novel about the difficulties of being a daughter, a wife and an icon of female virtue.
! Kathryn Hughes's 'George Eliot: The Last Victorian' is published on 29 October by Fourth Estate (pounds 20)
THE TWIN LIVES OF VICTORIA AND ELIOT
FATHER AND FAMILIES
Born May 1819 at Kensington Palace, Princess Alexandrina Victoria was the product of a marriage of convenience of Leiningen. The 52-year- old Prince died before he had time to produce a longed-for male heir to the Hanoverian throne.
Born November 22 1819 at South Farm, Nuneaton, Mary Anne Evans was the unwanted third daughter and fifth surviving child of 46-year-old Robert Evans, a land agent busy building a family dynasty.
Following the death of her father when she was nine months old, Victoria's relationship with her mother was stiflingly symbiotic. Until her coronation in 1837 she slept in the Duchess of York's bedroom. On becoming Queen, Victoria rejected her mother and spent the next 25 years engaged in a strange, distancing dance with her Mama.
Christiana Evans plunged into post-natal depression after giving birth to Mary Anne. Unable to look after her youngest daughter, Mrs Evans sent her to boarding school from the age of five. Mary Anne never recovered from this rejection, and spent the first thirty years of her life looking for middle-aged women whom she could call "Mother".
APPEARANCE AND MANNERS
Until his death in 1861 Prince Albert reportedly chose the fussy, frilly and unfashionable clothes which Victoria wore in her 20s and 30s. During her mourning her dowdy appearance generated criticism from subjects who felt that she was slighting the dignity of the monarchy. By her death, she was as round as she was tall, making any elegance impossible.
Famously plain, George Eliot's big chin and nose attracted constant sniggers. She was also accused of being "unbrushed and unwashed" and provincial- looking. Her middle-aged excursions into high fashion, in particular her flirtation with fancy headgear, were generally agreed to be a disaster.
Victoria fell violently in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and married him at the age of 20. She depended on the Prince Consort's judgement and advice for running everything from the nation to the nursery. When Albert died in 1861 she plunged into clinical depression.
Through her 20s and early 30s Eliot charged recklessly after love with a series of unavailable men. At 34 she went to live with George Henry Lewes, a married man and reputed womaniser. She depended on him, living in social exile and cutting herself off from friends. She described their situation as that of "Siamese twins" who needed no-one else.
Victoria was roused from her extended mourning by her love for John Brown, a Highland servant who took over Prince Albert's mothering role. The relationship attracted such disapproving gossip that it threat- ened the security of the throne. Later, the Queen developed an infat-uation for her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, which caused chaos at court.
Eighteen months after Lewes's death in 1878, Eliot married John Walter Cross, a banker 20 years younger than her whom she had long called "nephew". During their honeymoon in Venice, Cross attempted suicide by jumping into the Grand Canal. Rumour had it that he was so horrified by the thought of making love to his "aunt" that he preferred death.
Victoria was constantly troubled by her reprobate eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales. His constant gambling and womanising were in anguishing contrast to his father's upright, hard-working ways. Their relationship was marked by hostility, disappointment and disapproving silence.
Although she stressed her role as stepmother to Lewes's three surviving sons, Eliot actually found them inconvenient and unsatisfactory. Mediocre scholars, the youngest two were sent to Africa to make their fortunes. Instead they spent their father's - and Eliot's - money. When she died in 1880 Eliot was still supporting the youngest boy's widow and children.
Victoria held entirely conventional views about women's place, and spoke of the "mad, wicked folly of 'women's rights'." She was disgusted at the proposal that they should be allowed to enter medical school and thought that Lady Amberley, a pioneering feminist, "ought to get a good whipping".
Eliot was not a feminist. She did not think women should have the vote and believed that they belonged at home, looking after husbands and children. Although she cautiously welcomed improvements in girls' education, she did not look forward to the time when women would enter the professions.
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