Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Barbara Hardy has been thinking and writing about George Eliot for about fifty years, always in ways that push against reigning orthodoxies, and that immerse us in particular patterns of imagery, affect, or narrative organization that make the substance and texture of George Eliot's work come alive. Her new book is no exception. This 'anti-biography', as she calls it, is an attempt 'to redress the balance' of conventional biography by focusing on the effect of George Eliot's life on her writing, rather than on retelling the story of her life (xi). In fact, it redresses more balances than that. Hardy has always been honest about the ways that formal literary criticism covers over the felt experience of reading in its need to tell bigger stories; near the end of this book she more nearly encapsulates what she is doing when she refers to 'lived moments often ignored in the broad narrative sweep of biography, and fictional moments neglected in theme-and-pattern-seeking criticism' (147). As I read George Eliot: A Critic's Biography, I came to think of it as a series of little thought gardens planted at various junctures and less-visited spots in the highly landscaped territory of George Eliot biography. These gardens can sometimes seem almost random - this is not a book for a reader who does not already have a basic chronology of George Eliot's life in mind - but they are wonderfully fertilizing for the imagination, and likely to spread in fruitful ways. Most importantly, they humanize: Hardy's George Eliot is not a formidable intellectual, or a voice of her century, or a suffering and conflicted being; she is a writer who, in odd ways and places, transforms some of her personal experiences when she makes fiction.
Each of Hardy's chapters juxtaposes biographical stories, texts of letters, and brief moments from novels or essays that bear on central categories: family, lovers, travel and foreignness, women friends, illness and death. The final chapter collects image clusters that thread from letters to fictions throughout George Eliot's life. The chapters are neither systematic nor comprehensive; if the reader sometimes wonders exactly where she is being led from paragraph to paragraph, she may well find compensation in the suggestiveness and originality of the judgements and perceptions. When it comes to making connections between letters or persons and moments in novels, Hardy has perfect emotional pitch, and she often quietly undermines old biographical saws as she goes along. We have heard too much of all the bad mothers in George Eliot's novels and their linkage with Christiana Evans, but Hardy tells us about passages in which strong mother-love is represented. When she points to the passage in Adam Bede where the narrator comments, 'Family likeness has often a great sadness in it', Hardy presents it convincingly as an undercover appeal to brother Isaac. When she connects George Eliot's many rowing scenes with her affinity for Rousseau, or emphasizes the need for foreignness in a writer so often saddled with an ideology of rootedness, fresh air breathes through the book.