English, Department of



Graham Handley

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes began to live together in July 1854, and her letters to friends and to her brother lsaac later show how seriously she regarded their relationship. As far as she was concerned it was permanent, a marriage of true minds and hearts. As she put it, 'Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done. They obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner. 'In her letter to lsaac she refers to Lewes as her husband; her dedications of the manuscripts of her novels are always to her dear husband Yet she was hurt and humiliated by the fact that society did not accept their union. And thus, after 24 years of 'married' life with Lewes until his death in 1878, she was still unsettled enough to need the formal tie denied her with him. And 18 months after Lewes's death she married John Walter Cross, 20 years her junior. Seven months later she died.

Biographers have generally regarded her 'marriage' to Lewes as being uniformly happy. I find this hard to accept - though of course I suggest that they were very happy for the most part - in view of George Eliot's presentation of the trials and tribulations of marriage over the range of her fiction. Both Lewes and Marian were moody and suffered from ill-health; their relationship, I suggest, had its own ups and downs which were beneath the surface of anything that has been discovered. She drew from life, from her own observation of relationships but she drew also, I suggest, from personal experience.

From the first story onwards marriage is presented as a trap as well as a delight. Milly Barton with her growing family has poverty to contend with as well as her husband's insensitivity to the burdens she carries. She accepts it all, even draws sympathy and love from it, but we note the author's irony as she dies, the implication being that only too late does he realise what he has inflicted upon her by being blind to her needs. There is no word of criticism from her, but this enhances the sympathetic appraisal of her marriage experience. In Janet's Repentance that experience is even more searing though it is qualified by optimism and redemption. Janet comes through the valley of alcoholism into the green fields of salvation, but not before she has been brutalised and degraded by her degraded husband. We are moved by her isolation within her marriage, but it is not until we move on to The Mill on the Floss that we have marriage explored at depth. It is a twinfold exploration, given at a comic and economic level with the Dodson aunts and their spouses, given at an intensely dramatic level, ultimately. a tragic level, with Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver. As with Jane Austen, money plays an important part in the marriages of George Eliot's fiction. Mrs. Glegg's loan to Mr. Tulliver and her threat to call it in show the profit-motif which rules her behaviour: she is somewhat mollified when she realises that her own husband has provided rather better for her than she had hoped. Mrs. Tulliver has an irascible husband who goes to litigation and loses, subsequently has a stroke, and is bankrupted. By the Dodson code she has married badly. But the sensitivity and insight with which she is drawn is remarkable, and even more remarkable is the focus on the broken father and his attempts to make small retributions to the wife he has failed.