English, Department of



Graham Handley

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 21 (1990)


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


Early in 1988 I was asked by a publisher in Bristol to write a book called George Eliot: The State of the Art. It was to be largely a survey of criticism, scholarship and biography ranging from contemporary responses to the novels as they appeared right through to the middle of last year (1989), the 170th anniversary of George Eliot's birth. The joy was, however, that it took me back to the works themselves as I checked what had been said; and it took me back to the Letters in Haight's edition. But some of the secondary literature - the 'criticism' which passes for evaluation, the 'fiction' which passes for biography surprised me: I came to realise that George Eliot, elevated into the great tradition from which she is unlikely to be displaced, was the victim of a continuing industry of sensational production. We are told that D.H. Lawrence, having great difficulty in finding a publisher for Women in Love, even tried to place it with Mills and Boon: no such difficulty has attended the stream of 'biographers' who have given Marian Evans the romantic treatment of which the romantic publishers would certainly approve.

It is true that the outward facts of Marian' s life read like a novel, since she lived unmarried with the man she loved for twenty-four years, he supported her in her ambitions and creativity to become a great writer, she attained eminence, was a literary lawgiver, her moral prescriptions accepted by society and, after her partner's death, she married a friend twenty years younger than herself, only to die six months later. It is the stuff of romance, particularly when one bears in mind the fact that George Eliot was living within the confines and strictures of the Victorian period, which took its moral stance from 'our little humbug of a Queen', as Marian Evans described her in 1848. And after George Eliot's death in 1880 biographers as well as critics were quick to discover that capital could be made out of George Eliot's 'marriage'; to use the current cliche, there is still plenty of mileage in her. Before the end of this century I have little doubt that there will be at least another 50 books on her, from the esoterically critical to the indulgently biographical. In the latter, the purveyors will claim to know her; but, to reverse Lewes's phrase, to know her is to lose her. Marian Evans is to be found in her letters, and not in family or local gossip at the remove of three or four generations: George Eliot is to be found in her books. Marian Evans, writing anonymously for the Westminster Review in January 1852 on Carlyle's Life of Sterling, defined her own attitude to biography, arguing for 'a real "Life", setting forth briefly and vividly the man's inward and outward struggles, aims and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows .... But the conditions required for the perfection of life writing, - personal intimacy, a loving and poetic nature which sees the beauty and depth of familiar things, and the artistic power which seizes characteristic points and renders them with life-like effect, - are seldom found in combination.' It ~ asking a lot, and most biographers fall well short of this ideal either in approach or practice. Publishers ask or are asked, and when we read some of what is printed we are reminded of another of George Eliot's untender sayings (this time in a letter to Edward Burne Jones in March 1873), 'A nasty mind makes nasty art, whether for art or any other sake. And a meagre mind will bring forth what is meagre.' She could not know how she would be diminished by meagre minds. There are of course exceptions. Mathilde Blind's appraisal (1883) pre-dates Cross and takes up astringent feminist position on some issues raised by George Eliot's work. The neglected Mary Deakin wrote an excellent study of George Eliot's early life (1913), while in 1936 Blanche Colton Williams produced a sensitive and responsible biography based on source material. But running parallel to these are the execrable The Inner Life of George Eliot (1911) the first 'psycho-biography' , by Charles Gardner: in 1932 Emilie and Georges Romieu produced The Life of George Eliot (translated by Brian Downs) and in 1939 Simon Dewes published Marian: The Life of George Eliot. This runs through to Ina Taylor's George Eliot: Woman of Contradictions (1989).