Books: Miserable but happy

Melancholia, brain dissections and Dickens for dinner - on George Eliot
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
`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.