English, Department of


Date of this Version


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The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019


Kathryn Hughes has written a most readable biography, breezy, relaxed, clear narrative, just right for the reader of literary biography who isn't deeply interested in literature. The story of Mary Ann and Marian Evans, Marian Evans Lewes, George Eliot and Mrs. Cross is as fascinating as the plot of the novels, and bears re-telling, but I'm doubtful about the appeal of this new book to scholars and students, whose needs for information about George Eliot's life are served by the existing biographies, and who may be misled by the sketchy criticism. It is not as if Kathryn Hughes fills the big gap which exists between a much-analysed art and a much-discussed life.

The title suggests the relative superficiality of her treatment: many critics have discussed George Eliot's so-called Victorian authoritarian and enclosed realism, and her anticipations of modernism in artistic self-consciousness, narrative experiment, shifts of discourse and open endings, but Hughes doesn't join such discussion, plunging in with a claim for the artist as the most acute chronicler of the Victorian age. She was an acute chronicler, but scarcely the only contender: to stay within fiction, there's a case to be made for Thackeray and Dickens, to name but two. And George Eliot was much more than a chronicler.

Other much-discussed subjects, like the choice of unexceptional heroines, are mentioned as troubling feminist critics, but the argument is barely touched, not developed or discussed in relation to all the other artists to whom it applies, Jane Austen, for instance, who also preferred the historical norm to autobiography when writing the woman's lot. Critical comment is all too cursorily allusive, but to say this may suggest that the idea in the title and the generalizations participate in a conversation with other scholars, as they don't.

The biographer tells the novels' stories briskly and racily, and observes their depositories of life experience, making familiar comment on sources or inspirations for the characters in Scenes of Clerical life, Adam, Dinah, the Tullivers, Lydgate, Casaubon, Klesmer, Mordecai etc., but in the end unsurprisingly accepts George Eliot's insistence that her reconstructive imagination created character and story. Incidentally, to use a life source for a novel is not plagiarism, as Hughes calls it at least twice: George Eliot wanted to dissociate herself from the charge of simple life-imitation, to claim her art for fiction not autobiography.

Hughes's account of the development of thinking and feeling, the moral and psychological life-changes and crises inseparable from family life and personal relations, is good. She tackles the characters in this story with insight and detachment, with the exception of George Henry Lewes whom she often describes in the prejudiced terms of contemporaries who disliked him - Charles Norton or Elizabeth Gaskell, say - calling him 'a little man', giving few details of his science, his great Goethe biography and his influential literary criticism, but acquainted with Anna Kitchel's excellent neglected study and taking him seriously as thinker and ideal partner in an excellent final summing-up of the famous couple's intellectual, social and sexual relationship.