Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
The outlines of Marian Evans's life in the years immediately preceding her emergence as George Eliot are well-known-her work for the Westminster Review, her relationships with Chapman, Spencer and Lewes, and then her departure with the latter to Germany in July 1854. What these two studies do in their different ways is fill in the picture with fascinating detail. In focusing on the house that John Chapman rented from 1847 to 1854 and from which he ran the Westminster Review and his publishing business, Rosemary Ashton recreates the circle of radical intellectuals that the future novelist came into contact with through living there and working as the effective editor of Chapman' s journal. The Strand was mid-Victorian London's main East-West thoroughfare, and here its press and bustle are brought vividly to life: it was the centre of journalism, the meeting place for raffish bohemians, and the main shopping street of the great metropolis, home to an immensely varied retail trade, from cutlers and drapers to wax chandlers and wigmakers. Chapman was not the least colourful resident of the street, and we see him here working from five in the morning until ten at night; courting, and then tactlessly alienating, wealthy backers in his efforts to stave of financial ruin (the Westminster always ran at a loss); juggling uneasy relations with the various women in his life; and on one occasion surprising a thief in the act of stealing his silver plate, chasing him down the Strand, tripping him and seizing him by the throat. Ashton draws on a wide range of sources, some of them unknown to Gordon Haight when he wrote his George Eliot and John Chapman (1940). Thus the mismatch in Chapman's marriage, which may help explain his susceptibility to other women, is sharply illustrated by the testimony of a young woman from a Unitarian family, who describes the couple's appearance in the following terms: 'He, tall with a fine expressive face, full of alert intellectual power, and absorbed in ideas; she, short, stout and unattractive'. Only twenty-six when he took over the lease on the house, Chapman made No 142 the centre of radical intellectual life in the capital. Holding regular soirees and renting rooms to often illustrious visitors, like Emerson, from America and Europe, he gathered around him the progressive minds of his day and made his house a forum for free thinkers and political liberals from Britain and abroad.