The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title of THE REAL LIFE OF MARY ANN EVANS: GEORGE ELIOT, HER LETTERS AND HER FICTION is a reference to Vladimir Nabakov’s novel THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT. The reference is fair warning that the complicated relations of text to text and text to life are more than a set of cross-references. Such simple words as “real,” “life,” and “art” often prove quite unstable when mixed or examined. Bodenheimer gets across the minefield of “my approach to these texts is” with patient, clearheaded scholarship, allowing the reader to follow along without having first to learn the jargon of any critical subculture. As George Eliot might, Bodenheimer uses analysis, common sense, and command of the language to proceed with her investigation. The reader is reminded that the friendly letter is also a work of fiction.

What Bodenheimer finds is arranged by theme rather than chronologically. Eliot was an abstract thinker who did not write romans a clef; Bodenheimer accordingly has chapters such as: “Mary Ann Evan’s Holy War,” “Constructing the Reader,” and “Ambition and Womanhood.” An example of the course that Bodenheimer’s investigations take is found in the chapter titled “The Labor of Choice.” Bodenheimer analyzes the theme of choice in Maggie Tulliver’s relationship with her brother Tom in THE MILL ON THE FLOSS: “Maggie is compelled to sacrifice the terms in which she would choose; then a pleasurable act that follows from her submission to another’s needs is interpreted as her choice of greed, selfishness, and forgetfulness.” Maggie’s choice is no choice. She must furthermore keep this fact a secret, erase it from her memory, and, thereby, repeat the scenario. Bodenheimer finds a thematic link between this element of THE MILL ON THE FLOSS and George Eliot’s life, specifically in her marriage to John Walter Cross. The marriage repeated her earlier marriage’s pattern of surprise, secrecy, and, in the letters at least, passivity and lack of choice. She had not so much decided to marry someone as she “had been given a last-minute chance at life,” to use Bodenheimer’s words.

Bodenheimer provides readers of George Eliot’s works with a thorough and illuminating analysis of the interplay between the great writer’s works and her life.