It was relatively late in life—at age thirty- seven—that Marian Evans published, anonymously, her first fiction, thus commencing the novelistic career which made hers, under the pseudonym George Eliot, one of the preeminent voices of the Victorian era. For Rosemary Ashton, indeed, Eliot “was the greatest woman of the century,” for the extraordinary reach of her intellectual and personal knowledge and understanding, for the daring steps of her young womanhood, and for the novels in which, Ashton argues, more than any other single writer, she “capture[d] sympathetically the discontinuities, contradictions, and bewilderments” of the nineteenth century.
Ashton’s biography seeks to justify this strong admiration by weaving an account of Eliot’s personal life with examinations of her novels and other writing, and with discussions of Victorian society and social thought. For Eliot’s life, Ashton builds on Gordon S. Haight’s 1968 biography (George Eliot) and his 1954-1955 and 1978 editions of her letters (The George Eliot Letters), with the advantage of access to some letters not available to Haight. In writing a critical biography, Ashton goes beyond both Haight and the more psychologically speculative Ruby Redinger (George Eliot: The Emergent Self, 1976). She may, in fact, leave us wanting more psychological probing, but her results are more satisfying than those achieved either by Redinger or by Frederick R. Karl, whose more massive George Eliot, Voice of a Century: A Biography (1995) gets bogged down in details and lacks Ashton’s steady clarity of focus.
Eliot’s novels are dominated, Ashton points out, by individuals in the midst of change and “out of step” with their immediate culture, families, and acquaintances. This could describe most great nineteenth-century fiction and that of other eras as well. The interest of Ashton’s biography, though, is her absorbing account of how Evans not only found herself “out of step” but also, unlike Maggie Tulliver (the heroine of her partially autobiographical The Mill on the Floss, 1860), managed to connect her own mind with some of the most advanced social thinking of her time and to find sufficient balance in an unorthodox life to write sympathetically, but as a critical exile, about the middle-England world of her origins.
In a sense, Mary Anne Evans (as she then spelled her name—later variants were Mary Ann, Marian, Pollian, and Polly) was moving away from these origins by the age of ten, when she had become close to a teacher, Maria Lewis, whose strong Evangelical Puritan distrust of “trivial” pleasures, contrasting distinctly with the less dogmatic Church of England positions of the Evans home, were seized on by the child. This Puritanical strain drove Evans intellectually and emotionally throughout her teens. In the end, the intensity of the drive seems to have been at least as important as its content, for after her return to her father’s household at sixteen, Evans both immersed herself in reading religious controversy and engaged in a wide reading of the literature which her religious authorities regarded as frivolous and deceitful and which went well beyond the interests of her unbookish family. At twenty, she asked her father to hire her a German tutor and progressed so rapidly that, in several months, she was reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. At the same time, she was learning Italian and keeping up her Latin; she had already mastered French.
With an ever-widening curiosity and hunger for understanding, Evans was prepared at twenty-two, after she and her father had moved to Coventry, for entry into an entirely different social circle, the intellectually and, to a degree, sexually liberal world of the philanthropist Charles Bray, his wife Cara and her sister Sara Hennell (who became Evans’s closest friends), and their brother Charles Hennell (who had recently published an important study of the origins of Christianity). Hennell’s book concluded by questioning key points of Christian doctrine, including the divinity of Christ. Evans’s own reading had readied her to accept Hennell’s conclusions, and in a dramatic gesture at the beginning of 1842, she told her father she could no longer accompany him to church. This act of rebellion produced a schism between father and daughter. Eventually it was mediated by Evans’s brother Isaac, but by this...
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