Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 19 (1988)
Before going on to my chosen subject I thought you might like to hear a little about this new biography of George Eliot. You could indeed be forgiven for saying, 'Not another biography of George Eliot'. A new study must come out most years, either in this country or in America and I would be the first to admit that the definitive biography by Gordon Haight will not be superseded for some time. So what more is there to say about the great lady?
Well, after reading Haight and others, I was struck by the fact that of George Eliot's sixty odd years we know a great deal about the last thirty, and precious little about the first thirty: those spent here in Nuneaton and Coventry, in fact. I checked Haight's coverage of that -67 pages on the first half of her life compared to 500 on the rest. People often say the first 5 years of a person's life are the formative ones. I won't argue with that, but I can't help thinking then that the first 30 years must be of some consequence in shaping the personality. I hasten to assure you that I am not writing a deep searching psychological study of George Eliot at all. I want to know about the person. What was she like, what were her family really like? And the Brays, who are very much the lynchpin in her story; we have never really got to know them.
So I set out to research George Eliot's life myself, to re-examine the evidence and to see if anything else had come to light since Haight's biography. I am still in the middle of it but some interesting snippets have already come to light and though I don't propose to give it all away at this stage, I will, I hope, whet your appetite. There is in existence an early photograph of George Eliot taken about the time she went to London. A new painting of her father has appeared, in which he looks the part of the prosperous business man, and one of her sister Chrissey. I was excited to come upon an unpublished section of manuscript, for the novel, 'The Mill on the Floss', in George Eliot's handwriting. Re-examining the evidence has also disposed of a few popular misconceptions. One, which caused a frantic phone call to Kathleen Adams, was the discovery that Robert Evans never came to this part of the world to be land-agent for the Arbury Estate. Not indeed until 1835, when George Eliot was at Miss Franklins' School did he get that job. And, even then, he had a row with the Newdigates and gave his notice in after a few weeks. Admittedly that quarrel was patched up and he went on to act as the agent for the Arbury Estate, but the real estate he was brought to Warwickshire to manage, was the far smaller Astley one. For the confusion over places we have to go back to Cross, and he can be forgiven for that. But why did subsequent scholars take everything for granted and never check? That is not the only point; there have been several others so far and I am confident that a fuller and slightly different picture of George Eliot will ultimately emerge, but it is going to be 1989 at least, before you or I will see the finished book.
To go back a little, I thought I would tell you how I encountered George Eliot. I would say it was an introduction by a mutual friend. That might seem strange - possibly even eerie - considering both George Eliot and the friend have been dead for many years! The friend I speak of is Georgiana Burne-J ones, one of the four Macdonald sisters and it was during my research into the lives of this interesting quartet that I met George Eliot. Georgiana was always called Georgie, just to confuse the story, and she was a close friend of George Eliot's for the last thirteen years of the novelist's life. It was a friendship Georgie Burne-Jones valued highly and it helped her through a difficult phase of her life; George Eliot also placed great store on this friendship for different reasons - it is perhaps worth remembering that Mrs. Burne-Jones was one of only five people George Eliot told of her marriage to John Cross.