Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Oxford's publication of 'Bite-sized biographies of Britain's most fascinating historical figures' brings to mind Pascal's famous apology for the length of his letter: 'I have not had time to make it shorter'. Would Rosemary Ashton, who has written both long and short biographies, agree that it is more taxing to produce a 'bite-sized' account that a long one? Brevity demands clear aims, selection of salient points, stringent compression. These tests Rosemary Ashton passes with enviable ease, combining compression with elegance. She begins by summarizing her aims: 'In this study, originally written for the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I hope to bring into focus the unusual qualities George Eliot possessed [ ...], among which are included George Eliot's rejection of orthodox religion, her acceptance of an unconventional 'marriage’, the breadth of her learning, her command of languages, her exceptional knowledge of philosophy, history, science, English and European literature. Professor Ashton's aim is also to show the continuity of [George Eliot's] intellectual, imaginative, and narrative skills from her early letters and reviews to the novels themselves'. This interest in the development of George Eliot's creative powers is accompanied by a concern to establish links between her experiences of life and her writings.
Rosemary Ashton sets George Eliot firmly in 'fat Central England' with its elms and buttercups, but notes too Warwickshire's combined rural idyll and industrial poverty. Even as a child, Mary Anne observed the contrast between the lives of tenants and the lives of the gentry at Arbury Hall although 'as a clever and serious school-girl' she was briefly allowed to cross the boundary and 'browse in the family library'. Her wide reading of both spiritual and non-religious writing and her later contact with many liberal thinkers led not only to her crisis of faith but ultimately to that ability to see both sides of a question which permeates her novels, enabling her to catch in Adam Bede, for example, 'the unkindness as well as the neighborliness of country life'. Other early signs of creative potential are clearly indicated. In October 1846 she wrote to Charles Bray giving him a fictional account of a visit from 'Professor Biicherwurm of Moderig University' ('Professor Bookworm of Musty University'). Rosemary Ashton believes the anecdote reveals at an early stage George Eliot's 'wit, wisdom, imagination, and an ability to turn her own experience to good account fictionally'. She makes brave jokes about her plain appearance and possible spinsterhood and 'exploits with playful ease the hard intellectual labour ... of translating Strauss' s work' when she imagines translating the work of a Professor whose commentary on the little book of Tobit runs into five volumes. Ashton also maintains that Eliot 'found her voice as a writer in her work for the Westminster Review from 1851 to 1856. In the essayist, increasingly confident, wide-ranging, witty and rhetorically complex, we can see many of the characteristics of the future novelist ... '. The value she sets on Art as 'an extension of our sympathies' sounds 'like a manifesto for the kind of fiction she was to write herself’. Her confident letters to Chapman show her rising above her customary diffidence although her love letters to Herbert Spencer certainly reveal vulnerability. Since it seems she was for a time attracted to both Spencer and Lewes, she must have understood emotional confusion as it appeared in the uncertainties of her most autobiographical heroine, Maggie Tulliver, drawn to three men at once - Philip, Stephen - and Tom. Moreover, she used her own experience when she placed her heroines in emotional situations which provoked scandal. Yet Ashton, recalling the Dodson aunts, shows also how Eliot turned 'painful personal experience to comic, as well as tragic, account'.