At last, the truth about George

GEORGE ELIOT: THE LAST VICTORIAN BY KATHRYN HUGHES, FOURTH ESTATE, pounds 20

I HAVE lost count of the number of times I must have settled down to read about George Eliot's life and then got bored. Although Eliot's life was far from boring, biographers often tend to get bogged down in the religious disputes that dominated her youth. Then they tie themselves in knots trying to be tactful about her physical ugliness and the intricacies of her social and sexual meanderings.

Here at last, though, is an immensely readable, clear-sighted account of this remarkable novelist's freewheeling life. Kathryn Hughes, indeed, is so unafraid of trespassing into tricky territory that her interest becomes, at times, unashamedly voyeuristic. This is a healthy and thrilling corrective to all that earlier delicacy and obfuscation. The scale of the hypocrisy Hughes exposes is breathtaking, and the intelligent gusto with which she performs her task is refreshing and delightful.

Queen Victoria and Mary Ann Evans were born within six months of each other in 1819. At neither birth could their future importance have been predicted. Yet Victoria was destined to give her name to the century and embody the respectable values of the times. The other girl, using the disturbing male pseudonym of George Eliot, would come to represent the very opposite: "One gave her name to virtuous repression, a rigid channelling of desire into the safe haven of marriage and family. The other, made wickeder by male disguise, became a symbol of the fallen woman, banished to the edges of society."

Hughes sets up this conventional view and then, with typical panache, dismisses it as "bluster". She goes on to detail the surprising number of parallels between the two lives: "When it came to men, both clung with the hunger of children rather than the secure attachment of grown women... And when both men died before them, their widows fell into an extended stupor which recalled the despair of an abandoned baby." Queen Victoria and George Eliot would later form unlikely attachments, and in both cases "menopausal randiness was sniggeringly invoked as the reason for these ludicrous liaisons".

Young Mary Ann Evans cut such an embarrassing dash that it is hardly surprising earlier biographers attempted to gloss over her absurd behaviour. In her devout youth, she was ridiculously over-zealous: "During these years she started a clothing club, organised bazaars, ran a Sunday school and visited the local workhouse... `We shall never have another Mary Ann Evans' was the ambiguous lament of those on the receiving end of her charity when she left Coventry in 1841."

She embarked on a vast, Casaubon-like project to create a chart laying out the history of the Church from the birth of Christ to the Reformation. She would go to parties and make a ridiculous spectacle of her puritanism: "She looked on from the sidelines while the other guests danced, chatted and flirted. Battling with an urge to surrender to the rhythm of the music and also, perhaps, to be the centre of attention, she took refuge first in a headache, then in an attack of screaming hysterics." Far from being embarrassed by her own antics, she described it all in vivid detail in a letter, since "her shouting and weeping attested to her holiness".

This preposterous religiosity was later matched by the embarrassing zeal and blindness with which George Eliot threw herself at a series of married men. She had an unerring ability to gravitate towards unconventional menages, and Hughes never teases our curiosity unless it can't be helped. There is no shortage of detail about many relationships in her life. The publisher, John Chapman, for instance, obligingly kept a detailed diary in which he lovingly noted which of the women he kept in his household he had slept with, and recorded the rows he delighted in provoking between them.

The most shocking part of the book is the description of the treatment meted out to Marian Evans, as she was then known, when she started living with the married George Henry Lewes - who made the mistake of condoning his wife's affair with another man. He had allowed himself to be named on the birth certificate as the father of a child of this liaison. This legality made divorce impossible for him. Although this had little impact on Lewes's own life, it put Mary Ann Lewes (as she styled herself) beyond the bounds of acceptability. Ironically, this coincided with the beginning of her career as a novelist and probably forced her to concentrate on writing fiction rather than gadding about.

The biography is beautifully written. A chapter beginning "Having waited fifteen years to start writing fiction, it was excruciating to have to put it off for three weeks longer..." is typical of the wit and perspicacity of the whole. But I never did find out what makes George Eliot "the last Victorian" - a phrase that appears to have been lifted out of its context in the final paragraph. I would have ventured a few paragraphs back and extracted the phrase "an extraordinary paradox". For there is much that is extraordinary, and paradoxical, in this book.

Charlotte Cory

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