Books: A dip in the Grand Canal

A new biography restores to us the catty, sexy and funny George Eliot, a woman in place of a sibyl or sage; George Eliot - The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes Fourth Estate pounds 20

We probably have the record success of BBC Television's adaptation of Middlemarch to thank for the glut of George Eliot biographies that has recently been visited on the land. Since 1995 three new ones have appeared: Frederick Karl's dull and colourless tome, Rosemary Ashton's sympathetic account of the life and writing, and now Kathryn Hughes's portrait which views the life of George Eliot, together with that of the monarch who gave their age its name, as representing all the diverse and contradictory elements of Victorian triumphalism, hypocrisy, certainty and doubt.

Further back, of course, there is Gordon Haight's massive biography of 1968. Haight, an American academic, provided the scholarly foundation of all future Eliot enterprises with his nine-volume edition of her letters. But he was a heavyhanded biographer and his book emphasises Eliot's moral earnestness at the expense of the emotional richness of her story.

For true mind-numbing earnestness, though, one has to turn to the father of all Eliot biographies, the memoir by "George Eliot's widow", as he was unkindly known, poor Johnny Cross. His three-volume life appeared in 1885, five years after Eliot's death, and was little more than a commentary-linked selection of his wife's letters with everything that was catty, sexy, or funny cut out. "A Reticence in three volumes" was the way in which Gladstone described it; and Cross's portrayal of Eliot as a sibyl or sage, an "earnest talking head" urging the world to try harder, effectively did for George Eliot's literary reputation. Within 10 years of her death no one was reading her, and this neglect was not significantly halted until the decade following the centenary of her death.

Kathryn Hughes has great fun at John Cross's expense. The story of how Cross, George Eliot's junior by 20 years, jumped out of the window of their hotel bedroom into Venice's Grand Canal on their honeymoon, is well known, but Hughes casts around for some intriguing explanations. Was he straightforwardly homosexual, or of a depressive nature, or did his nerve fail him when he was being chased around the marital bed by a 60-year-old woman whom he had come to regard as a mother or sister, an ideal, certainly, but not one whom he had expected to demand sex?

Hughes has restored to us the sexy, catty and funny George Eliot whom Cross disguised (and because of this it's a pity that the highly prettified portrait of Eliot by Durade decorates the cover rather than the more honest, horsier images that are closer to the original). Her book is a finely crafted biography, but it is also a wonderfully lively read. Earlier biographers worshipped at a shrine; Hughes, if not exactly disrespectful, is invitingly familiar, and permits us to see Eliot in the raw. She may not have made any shattering new discoveries, but she traces the development of Mary Ann (or Marian as she later became) Evans, the daughter of a Warwickshire land agent, into George Eliot, the pre-eminent English novelist of the 1860s and 70s, stalked by the great and the good, with skill and insight.

George Eliot's life is marked by both emotional and intellectual turbulence. The young woman who rejected the Evangelicalism of her youth and belief in the literal truth of scripture in favour of free-thinking Biblical criticism, estranging the closest members of her family in the process, then proceeded to scandalise her family all over again - and more to the point, polite society - with her unconventional union with George Henry Lewes. Until she met Lewes, in the autumn of 1851, Marian Evans had been involved in a number of frustrating relationships with men, frustrating because her lack of physical beauty meant that while they admired the perfection of her mind, they were generally unwilling to go so far as to fall in love with her.

This had reached a distressing climax when Marian had become infatuated with the writer and evolutionist, Herbert Spencer, who had rejected her on the grounds of ugliness. "If you become attached to someone else then I must die," she had written pathetically to him, unable to know that Spencer would spend the rest of his life as a sad, fussy celibate. "You will find that I can be satisfied with very little, if I am delivered from the dread of losing it."

Lewes, as Hughes rather ungallantly points out, was one of the few people in London demonstrably plainer than Marian. His sexual liaisons earned him the epithet "soiled" from Mrs Gaskell, while his multifarious interests - which included acting and journalism, science and philosophy - tended to make him an easy target for those with less showy versatility. And yet he provided the solid berth from which Marian Evans was able to launch forth as a novelist.

Kathryn Hughes provides us with a redefinition of the art as well as the life, and explains why George Eliot's novels ultimately offered her readers more than just the diversions of fiction. She captured Victorian society on a wide canvas during the volatile period when the old agricultural interest intersected with the new industrialism, and when the old religious certainties were being undermined by scientific scepticism. Yet the solutions she suggested were not radical or revolutionary, or even definitive. What she proposed was a process of slow betterment in which society would "know and honour its past, while anticipating a future which is radically different". Virginia Woolf, one of George Eliot's most fervent admirers earlier this century, once described Middlemarch as the first true novel for adults. Reading Kathryn Hughes's descriptions of George Eliot's mature vision, I began for the first time to understand why.

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