Portrait of the artist as an ugly neurotic

George Eliot, A Biography by Frederick Karl HarperCollins, pounds 25; George Eliot deserves better than this, says Sue Gaisford
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Biographies,'' George Eliot wrote in December 1879, "are a disease of English literature". After a hot and angry fortnight struggling through Frederick Karl's latest, the exhausted reviewer feels inclined to agree. There are many ways of writing a bad biography, and Professor Karl has found most of them. This tombstone of a book is at least twice as long as it needs to be. It lacks narrative impetus and it is repetitive, portentous and dull. Worst of all, it leaves at least one reader reluctant ever again to return to the work of its subject.

George Eliot is a remarkable figure. Her novels, we have to keep reminding ourselves, are masterly; they display a breadth of learning and a depth of insight rare in any age, unique in her own. Her life was extraordinary. Born Mary Anne Evans, she flouted convention, choosing to live for 24 years with George Henry Lewes, a married man, and, after his death, to spend her last few months legally married to a man 20 years her junior. In order to find a publisher for her books, she disguised her identity, afraid that the notoriety of her position would influence the literary world against her. The lie succeeded. Even to her oldest friends, she denied she was George Eliot, until the quality of her writing won its own support and her fiction was respected.

Professor Karl sees her as a deeply divided person, made ill by the splits and schisms of her personality. His aim is to present a psychological analysis of her life from the patterns, repetitions and obsessions in her work. The trouble with this attitude is that it demands we trust the biographer, and Karl simply cannot support such confidence. His skill as a literary analyst is such that he can quote Milton under the impression that he is quoting Eliot. He displays little sympathy with the subtleties of 19th century religious thought - he appears to think, for example, that the Council of Nicaea took place in Nice. His approach is often clumsy and his style awkward (e.g. "Nightingale had not yet achieved fame but the Crimean War was soon to provide her with the bodies on which to work her procedures'').

His notions of geography seem designed for American tourists. Nuneaton, he declares, is a town "south of the Midlands and not far from Shakespeare and Robin Hood country''. Similarly Devizes is near Stonehenge, and the Scilly Isles "southwest of Cornwall, of King Arthur fame.'' What he knows of Victorian England, he appears to dislike: Fulham is a "posh section of London'', which is itself "a sinkhole... in the main, one vast graveyard''.

His dislike doesn't stop there. George Eliot was not a pretty woman, as her portraits demonstrate, and I lost count of the number of times Karl referred to her "large, fleshy nose'', just one aspect of what he calls "an ugliness through which the soul poked through''. Lewes was considered ugly, too, though he looks quite cuddly in pictures. Although, as we learned from Rosemary Ashton's recent, excellent biography of Lewes, he was a brilliant scholar and a warm and lovable man, Karl dislikes him. He suggests that he dominated Eliot, that he needed to "realize personal goals through her reputation'', that he wanted to take over her career "in some psychologically significant way''. Without evidence, he hints that Lewes might have had VD, that he could have been unfaithful to her, that some (unnamed) people called him a 'slimy viper'...

Karl has had access to more of Eliot's personal papers than her previous biographers, and he makes full use of them. They reveal a hypochondriac, obsessed with her own condition and her income, horribly critical of other people and neurotically unable to accept criticism. She had a succession of gentleman-friends before meeting Lewes and, says Karl, she "assimilated their power before moving on to the next''.

Every now and again there is a moment of insight, showing what a good, short book could be made of this material. But Karl is not the man to make it. His language is not equal to the task, despite some extraordinary words dragged into service: puritanicalism, reembrace, multifold, pastness, reconfigure and depressee. Sometimes, you can guess what he means. There were moments, reading this, when I knew just what it meant to be a depressee.