Books: Miserable but happy

Melancholia, brain dissections and Dickens for dinner - on George Eliot

`Horribly ill. Finished the scene in the prison between Felix and Esther," George Eliot writes in her journal in 1861. Elsewhere, she notes that her "head is too weak for work", but remarks even so that she has just read her way through Romeo and Juliet. The combination of illness and industry is unmistakably Victorian. From 1854, when she eloped with the philosopher George Henry Lewes and started these journals, to 1880, when her death brought them to a close, Eliot seems to have had a permanent headache. When she wasn't prostrate with migraine, she was bilious, palsied, depressed and despairing. She also complains about her teeth and of chronic melancholia. Lewes is scarcely in much better shape: he too spends much of his time feeling bilious, though one unintentionally comic entry in the journal records that after much malaise "he has now returned to his usual condition of delicacy". The couple seem to infect each other with low spirits ("Both miserably bilious and headachy") as easily as another pair might infect each other with typhoid. But despite their sickness they keep up a punishing round of cultural activities, with the preternatural stamina of Victorian England. On a single day in 1855, Eliot reads some German philosophy, writes a letter, translates Spinoza, visits a museum, reads German literature, receives some guests and listens to her partner reading Julius Caesar aloud. And this is supposed to be a holiday.

If Victorian scholars might find in Eliot's constant gloom a familiar mal de siecle, pop-Freudians might see it as a symptom of repressed guilt. A woman whose novels turn on renunciation and self-denial was now the common-law wife of a married man, drifting around European art galleries with a writer who will be presented later in Middlemarch as the emancipated, bohemian Will Ladislaw. Lewes, laid low with nervous exhaustion in some Belgian boarding house, hardly seems a shining example of feckless liberation. Tottering like a couple of old crocks through Munich and Dresden, they sop up the local culture with all the grim-lipped sense of duty with which others might visit their solicitors. Their life in Weimar and Berlin is a relentless round of churches, galleries and museums, interspersed with sessions of reading Shakespeare to each other out loud. It was a very Victorian elopement. Back in England, Eliot records a visit to the Oxford Museum, where she "had an interesting morning with Dr Rolleston who dissected a brain for me". Even day-trips must be intellectually fruitful, if guilt is not to take the form of flashes before the eyes and an upset stomach.

What stokes Eliot's guilt most of all is the fact that she is happy. She is wildly in love with Lewes, enjoying with him "the blessedness of a perfect love and union", and financially speaking the pair are sitting pretty. The journal records the conversion of the Warwickshire estate manager's daughter Mary Ann Evans into the best-selling author George Eliot, who can command an advance of pounds 5,000 for her novel Felix Holt, a good deal more than most novelists today. She has some sound investments in East India stock, and Queen Victoria herself has lavished praise on The Mill on the Floss. But Eliot was the kind of Victorian whom happiness made thoroughly miserable. Seeking "one more resurrection from the pit of melancholy", she reminds herself sternly of the love and abundance of good she enjoys, but the thought only seems to deepen her anguish. She has a Victorian woman's distrust of herself and her work, which "robs my otherwise happy life of all joy". And because she suffers from a particularly bad case of Victorian moral scruples, she finds it hard to accept that something as useless as writing fiction can be the road to sanctity. Horrified by reports of the Franco-Prussian war, she asks herself whether she is doing anything "that will add the weight of a sandgrain against the persistence of such evils". Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch will be forced to abandon her grandiose schemes of redeeming the world, settling instead for the small acts of kindness of a politically impotent woman. For the Evangelical Eliot, the urge to be of service to others is well-nigh pathological, but in patriarchal England writing pastoral prose was the best she could manage.

The publishers of this book express the wistful hope that it may serve as George Eliot's autobiography; but few autobiographies are so resoundingly reticent. With impeccable decorum, the journals betray almost nothing of Eliot's emotional turmoil in flouting the social conventions by running off with Lewes. If she won't even confide these intimacies to a private journal, then the decorum clearly goes all the way down. She records the arrival of copies of her first published work of fiction as laconically as she might note the appearance of a cat on the doorstep. She comments that Dickens has come to dinner, though not what he said. Penning the last word of Adam Bede, she allows herself a small emotional flourish: Jubilate!

Her life with Lewes seems remarkably unglamorous as they thrill over Ilfracombe, note the arrival of a letter from a madman in Kansas, and find a new work entitled On The Origin of Species distinctly unimpressive. In fact the couple seem to have no separate opinions at all, responding rather like a committee report to everything from Spinoza to Renaissance art. Their trips to Europe reveal the odd streak of English chauvinism, as the journal records "some disgustingly coarse Belgians with baboonish children". These were the long- lost days when it was the English tourists who were the gents and the foreigners who were the yobs. But the soundly liberal Eliot admits that in their ramblings around Antwerp "we have scarcely seen a person whose skin and garments were not at least as clean as those of the middle class in England". It is only the tone of surprise which takes the edge off the compliment.

The journal entry for a date in 1854 reads "Nothing particular." Only if you are famous will such a banal comment be preserved for posterity. "Nothing particular" is the literary equivalent of Mick Jagger's discarded beer can, eagerly pounced on by those for whom every trivial gesture of the great is worth cherishing. The editors of this volume have done their work with admirable tact and persistence, keeping footnotes to the minimum; but a lot of what Eliot has to say is indeed nothing particular, and if one wants a record of her inner life one would be well advised to consult her fiction instead.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?