The men who made Marian

GEORGE ELIOT: A LIFE by Rosemary Ashton, Hamish Hamilton pounds 25
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THE cover of this excellent new biography shows a young woman on the verge of 30, her fair-brown hair tied back from her broad brow, her gaze strong yet diffident. It was painted in Geneva in 1849, when Mary Ann Evans was recovering strength after caring for her dying father, and it is an apt image; for it was here, in her high attic, that she wrote in one letter:

"I possess my dearest friends and my old environment in my thoughts - and another world of novelty and beauty in which I am actually moving - and my contrariety of disposition always makes the world that lives in my thoughts the dearer of the two - the one in which I more truly dwell."

The creative tension between link and separation became central to her imaginative genius. As Rosemary Ashton shows, continuity and rifts also structured her life: "no more interesting subject could present itself than that of a young woman from the provinces, living in Victorian times, who broke with convention ..." Yet all George Eliot's "shocking" actions were driven by deep conviction: the breaks were initially internal ones, mental and emotional departures.

She was the daughter of a Warwickshire land-agent, born in 1819, the same year as Queen Victoria. In her youth she swung painfully from an evangelical fervour that made her damn novels as pernicious to a loss of faith that led her to defy her father and (temporarily) refuse to go to church. After Geneva she turned her back on "the dismal weather and the dismal country and the dismal people" of Warwickshire and headed for London. There, as "Marian" Evans, she became that near unheard-of creature, a woman of letters, the unacknowledged editor of John Chapman's progressive Westminster Review.

George Eliot's life, however, is always a tale of the heart, as much as of the mind. Her first foray into London involved a painful entanglement with Chapman and hectic scenes with his wife and mistress. Her hopeless love for that cold fish Herbert Spencer is recorded in proud, heart-rending letters. Then in 1854, the "strong-minded woman", as Carlyle called her, left for the continent with George Henry Lewes, a married man, unable to divorce because he had condoned his wife's adultery with Thornton Hunt. In Marian's own view she was now Mrs Lewes. Not so in the eyes of the world. For years, men visited but wives did not, and her stern, beloved brother Isaac did not contact her again until she married John Cross in 1880, 18 months after Lewes's death. Even this legal marriage, which mollified her family, shocked many of her friends, not least because Cross was 20 years her junior.

This book records the dramas and crises, but always with an eye to Eliot the writer and thinker. Its value lies less in new readings of the novels than in sure exposition of the social, intellectual and literary conditions. Without fuss, Ashton sites Eliot's achievement in a literary landscape which moves from Scott and George Sand to Dickens, Tennyson and Browning, (and, more unusually, Balzac and Tolstoy). She is equally clear and concise in examining the strands that link the novels to the work of Darwin and Spencer, say, or the agitation for political reform, or the strenuous efforts of Eliot's friends for women's rights, the suffrage and education. And she rightly devotes almost as much space to the young Marian Evans as to the mature George Eliot, providing an exceptionally lucid commentary on her translations of Strauss, Feuerbach and Spinoza, and on the great critical essays of the early 1850s. Yet she avoids dryness, making deft use of Cara Bray's manuscript diary, for example, to convey the complex attitudes of the "free-thinking" circle at Rosehill which were so important to Eliot's development.

The tone is occasionally too lecture-like (dim, wrinkled-brow readers are once told to "note the metaphor again"), but more often such firmness is a welcome hand steering us across a road of heavy intellectual traffic. For all its deep scholarship, this is a fluent, vivid book. Ashton has a lovely dry wit, well exercised on pompous men (and on Eliot's own solemn, self-deluding statements). She also has a soft spot for rogues like Charles Bray and John Chapman, displaying their irrepressible energy and charm as well as their sexy, self-justifying complacency. And one can't help feeling that she herself is half in love with George Lewes, whose life she has already written elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, the strongest aspect of this biography is the slow-building analysis of George Eliot's relationship with her husband. She won confidence from knowing she was loved and desired, and although they decided against having children, her maternal care for Lewes's sons is movingly demonstrated here. And from the moment on the quay-side when she boarded the boat for Germany, and later, on holidays in Tenby and the Scilly Isles, collecting specimens among the rocks with her skirt hitched up, we see the novelist emerging. In practical terms, Lewes prompted her to write fiction, organised her contracts and soothed her terrible authorial fears. If he did keep her in a "mental greenhouse", as Margaret Oliphant called it, hiding bad notices and warning correspondents to keep clear of worrying subjects, only in such a climate of encouragement (fostered by her publisher John Blackwood, Ashton's second hero) could her talent have flowered. Almost more important, as this book meticulously shows, was the couple's constant intellectual exchange, mutual interests and arguments that flowed into and enriched all Eliot's fiction.

Every re-reading of George Eliot's novels offers something surprising, a forgotten aspect that suddenly springs into focus. The same is true of her life. Rosemary Ashton's calm, crisp and dispassionate narrative uncovers no long-hidden secrets, but it makes one thrill again to the breadth of Eliot's genius and the passionate, vulnerable nature that accompanied her wide-ranging mind.

! Jenny Uglow has just completed a biography of Hogarth, to be published next year.