Dorothea, Rosamund and somewhere in between

GEORGE ELIOT: A biography by Frederick Karl HarperCollins pounds 25

DO WE really need another biography of George Eliot? Her husband John Cross wrote the first one, which is now recognised as idolatrous and inaccurate, omitting anything ambiguous or scandalous. Gordon Haight provided the classic text in the Sixties, detailed, scholarly, and authoritative. Jenny Uglow added her sympathetic feminist reading in the Eighties. Frederick Karl claims to supplant Haight's version, which he finds "narrow, squeezed, protective, and carefully conventional". He has his own feminist agenda, beginning with his claim that Eliot's was the representative voice of the 19th century. Is it a good idea to insist on one person exemplifying an age? It is hard on Eliot to put her on another pedestal, since at the end of her life she complained she longed to step down from her sibylline eminence and live like other human beings.

In Karl's hands, however, the great novelist's "high Victorian image" is shown to be just a creation of other, less modern hagiographers, a fiction composed to persuade us that eminent writers are heroically simple and whole. Karl gives us, instead, a portrait of a woman driven by irreconcilable conflicts, riven by inner psychological splits, prey to gloom and despair, her anxieties and insecurities surfacing as psychosomatic illnesses.

Even at the height of her success, cocooned in her supportive relationship with her life's companion Lewes, she concealed the existence of "the 'other' Eliot, whom, perhaps, only Lewes perceived, and it is doubtful he saw all of her. That 'otherness' was an Eliot who saw doom rather than achievement, and if not doom, then the temporality of all success. This 'other' Eliot never really recovered from her loss of faith; and she was too intelligent to believe that she could actually find it elsewhere."

All this, Karl suggests, made her a typical Victorian. The turbulent changes of the times, in science as in religion, in economics as in politics, demanded new ways of describing and responding to the world. The age was characterised, in England, not only by the satisfaction of successful capitalists and imperialists, but by an undertow of fear, experienced not only by the exploited poor but by all those who saw and mourned the passing of an old, custom-bound and tradition-led culture. Much of Eliot's work, Karl argues, can be read as an elegy for this lost world, even as it battles against sentimental visions of times past and strives to offer an encouraging moral perspective for the present, based on reason and intellect.

The new freedoms and mobility that went along with technological and social changes permitted Mary Anne Evans to develop into George Eliot, to move from a country upbringing which limited the capacities of girls in the interests of femininity, to the potential offered to young, single freelancers testing their skills in the city. The convulsions and upheavals entailed are measured by Eliot's many changes of name. While her masculine pseudonym cloaked the working female writer, the devoted woman in love called herself Mrs Lewes, the friend could be Polly, the lover be known as Madonna. She ended her days as Mrs John Cross. This fractured identity will be understood by many modern female readers whose various responsibilities in and outside the home pull them in different directions, for whom the notion of a whole self seems a luxury. George Eliot, in this respect, seems astonishingly contemporary.

For her peers, though, her life was not an ordinary one. The sexual double- standard ensured that men could be philanderers while their lovers were castigated as whores. George Eliot, perhaps because of her apparent rejection by her cold, strict, mother, grew up especially close to her father, and seems to have needed to act out her oedipal choice with a succession of older, married men. At first it was passionate friendships, in which she discovered how highly clever men could value her brain and unconventional looks, and then a love affair. George Lewes manoeuvred a complex domestic life, accepting his wife's successive children by another man, and helping to support them as his own. Marian Evans tarnished her reputation in the eyes of the world not only by going off with a married man, who had no hope of ever obtaining a divorce, but by choosing one so shamelessly and publicly already embroiled in a sexual scandal. Mrs Lewes, as she insisted on being called, became a devoted stepmother, her name in this context being "Mutter". Yet another role she played with warmth and confidence.

George Eliot's novels have an undisputed place in our literary canon, which lets us forget, perhaps, what she suffered as a woman writer in an age which sharply divided the sexes and saw feminine brains as inferior. Women might be named as angels but were simultaneously regarded with contempt, their domestic concerns likewise.

George Eliot's complaint echoes the dilemma of many a modern middle-class woman trying to keep afloat in a male-dominated world: "I shudder at the sight of a woman in society, for I know I shall have to sit on the sofa with her all evening listening to her stupidities, while the men on the other side of the table are discussing all the subjects I care to hear about." She was the close friend of eminent feminists like Barbara Bodichon, and encouraged the adulation of others like the gushing Edith Simcox, but she had mixed feelings about her own sex. Simcox described, in her autobiography, how her advances to Eliot were discouraged, and who can blame George for this, since the lovestruck disciple "told her of my ambition to be allowed to lie silently at her feet as she pursued her occupations". Simcox then records Eliot as confessing: "She had never all her life cared very much for women ... the friendship and intimacy of men was more to her." At least men did not offer themselves as hearthrugs.

Karl is not entirely free of conventional thinking, referring to Eliot's housewifely duties as "mundane" and "trivial", but he is conscientiously sympathetic towards her difficulties in a patriarchal world. He reads her depiction of vain and foolish women, like Hetty in Adam Bede, or Rosamund in Middlemarch, as revenge-filled, Eliot acting out her rage against all the super-feminine women more highly valued than she was with her "equine" face and ferocious brain. This seems simplistic. Hetty, Rosamund and Gwendolen attest to what Eliot had to suppress in herself, just as Dinah, the Methodist preacher, or ardent Dorothea indicate her ideals. The endings of Adam Bede and Middlemarch move us so profoundly because not only does Hetty embrace Dinah, Dorothea embrace Rosamund, but separated parts of the feminine psyche, so often antagonistic, are allowed, just for a moment, to be reconciled. This biography, as a good one should, sends you back to the novels.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss