Dorothea, Rosamund and somewhere in between

GEORGE ELIOT: A biography by Frederick Karl HarperCollins pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
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.