A moment's thought undermines this conception of Eliot as the "modern" Victorian for, as her new biographer shows, the origins of nearly all her fiction, their moral dilemmas and social panoramas, can be traced back to her Warwickshire childhood of the late 1820s. The prevailing tone of the average Eliot novel is made up of rural solidity, sedate Anglicanism sharpened by a whiff of Dissent, with the 1832 Reform Bill just around the corner. Like Dickens - and again very much like Thackeray - there is a feeling that the greater part of her imaginative life is simply marooned in the pre-Victorian age. At the same time these backward-looking fictions - Middlemarch is really an historical novel, if you consider its distance from the events described - touch on most of the topics over which mid- Victorian society was prone to agonise: political reform, God (or rather the difficulties posed by the impossibility of proving his existence), even, in a subdued, roundabout way, the position of women.
Appropriately enough, for a woman who was to turn herself into one of the grandest of grand Victorian panjandrums, George Eliot's position was anomalous from the start. Her whole career seems marked by periodic reinventions of herself, and Ashton's competent marshalling of the different names by which she was known (a dozen, ranging from the initial Mary Anne Evans through epistolary pet-names like "Clematis'' to the final Mary Ann Cross) reveals something of this chameleon quality. Quite as marked was her resolute transition from one kind of early-Victorian world to another. Beginning life as an archetypal "spare woman" and set to care for a declining father, she suddenly branches out into the role of spiritual doubter and bluestockinged autodidact, translating works of German theology and penetrating, via her friends the Hennells and the Brays, some very unorthodox local company. Then, with father dead and the family circle no longer congenial, she makes a yet more decisive break: heading off to London to work on the liberal-highbrow Westminster Review, and live amidst the curious menage a trois conducted by its publisher John Chapman and his wife and governess at 142, The Strand.
The extent to which this arrangement may have metamorphosed into a menage a quatre, Ashton investigates with her usual sober sedulousness (there are a couple of ambiguous references in Chapman's diary, nothing more). Certainly, Eliot's flightiness in affairs of the heart is at odds with her later reputation as the "strong-minded woman of the Westminster Review''. There were several embarrassing early flirtations, and Chapman's diary supplies a revealing gloss on this odd, burrowing, inner life: "She pressed me for some intimation of the state of my feelings (I told her that I felt a great deal of affection for her, but that I love E. and S. also, though each in a different way). At this avowal, she burst into tears." Without doubt the scandalous relationship with the already-married G H Lewes, who moved in the same free-thinking literary circles of the early 1850s, released something pent-up in her, for the torrent of fiction began within a couple of years and its first outpourings - Scenes From Clerical Life, Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss - came tumbled together. Lewes's role as her impresario, his encouragement, his ability to fix lucrative contracts (George Smith gave her a record- breaking pounds 10,000 for Romola in 1862, which he later came to regret) and shield her from hostile criticism has rarely been so well brought out. Under Lewes's supervision, too, she settled into the kind of routine demanded by a low-spirited woman whom the polite world was chary of being seen with - long periods of work interspersed with continental travel of the "improving" sort and a little society that was predominantly male and unimpeachably high-flown.
Ashton is good on the powerful tensions that give Eliot's life its lasting sheen. For all her early personal rebelliousness, her later radicalism was rather muted, and an 1867 foray into print to remind newly-franchised voters of the responsibilities of their position is very innocuous. Her legendary fastidiousness can look merely perverse, as when she remarks of one particularly glowing notice that "it is so unmixed in its praise that if I had any friends, I should be very uneasy lest a friend should have written it". Taken together, this is a model introduction to Eliot - well-researched, unexcitable (in which respect it differs from last year's effort by Frederick Karl), grating only in its occasional laying on of the middlebrow trowel ("In the manner of writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Scott and Wordsworth and Jane Austen, she catches the paradoxes of human life, the ugliness as well as the beauty..." etc etc) and the constraint of its length (400 pages) which forbids much in the way of radical departures from the central track.
Towards the end it all got a little unreal and sacramental. There were absurd, gushing admirers ("Darling," wrote one woman, "the Spanish Gypsy made me sad, it was so noble: the poetry was beautiful, but must noble women always fail?"). Lewes died, and she made an impetuous late marriage to a much younger man of business, John Cross (there is a mystery about him throwing himself into the Grand Canal at Venice while on honeymoon, about which Ashton is rather vague). The novelist Eliza Lynn Linton invokes that "assumption of special sacredness" which got Eliot into such trouble after her death, when Meredith dismissed her as an "errant woman" and Lewes as a "mercurial little showman". This distance from most of Victorian life - forced upon her in any case - had its symbolic properties: Edmund Gosse remembered her being driven around London in a carriage, "massive features'' topped by a bonnet in the latest Parisian fashion. Thackeray's daughter, Anne Ritchie, characterised her as "not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse": very much the personality that emerges from the novels. She believed, Ashton tells us somewhere, that Art is the nearest thing to life. Applied to the succeeding generations of writers who imagined that life was the nearest thing to Art, this seems an uncannily prophetic rebuke.