Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 48 (2017)
There have been several good new biographies of George Eliot in recent years but none quite like this. Davis's subtle and searching analysis focuses almost exclusively on the writing as he traces the complex ways in which the experience of Mary Ann, or later Marian, Evans is 'transferred', to use the term of his title, into the creation of George Eliot and her work. The first life of relative failure, unhappiness and unsuccessful relationships is transformed into a second life as George Eliot, successful novelist and woman of letters, and this closely written and argued study explores the relationship between the two and shows how that second life contains within it traces of the first. He makes clear how George Eliot never completely got over being Mary Ann Evans, how her intellectual superiority was sporadically undermined by her sense of physical plainness, and her fleeting sense of success qualified by melancholy and self-doubt (p. 78). This is not a biography in the conventional sense, but a biography of the mind and the writing of George Eliot, revealing through painstaking analysis what she thought and how she saw the world. Davis has a magisterial command of all her writing, not just her fiction, and of her reading, too, in particular her reading of the writers she translated, Strauss, Feuerbach and Spinoza. Translation in an extended sense is a central term here, for Davis shows how she translates the work of those thinkers into herself and herself into the work; and indeed how she translates all her reading and experience into her writing. What Feuerbach helped her to see was what lay beneath the apparently dull and commonplace surface of ordinary life and how she could rewrite this hidden script in an act of creative translation. Davis's own work of translation is to bring to light the complex processes involved in this creation. In her work, he maintains, 'something always cuts across simple straight lines' (p. 137); and the same could be said of his study which is always teasing out the subtle complexity of her fictional writing and its entangled roots in the long preparation of reading and thinking that occupied the first thirty-five years of her life.