Ina Taylor’s concise, often acidulous study of George Eliot is full of unexpected delights for the reader. But the author fails to prove her central thesis: that Eliot—novelist, translatoi; editor, and intellectual—was “a woman of contradictions.” To be sure, Taylor views her subject in an unfamiliar, decidedly harsher light. Previous biographies—from John Walter Cross’s near-idolatrous arrangement of her letters and diaries in George Eliot’s Life as Related in her Letters and Journals (1881) to Gordon S. Haight’s classic George Eliot: A Biography (1968)—have emphasized the writer’s moral courage, independence, and personal charm. Taylor’s biography, in contrast, reveals Eliot as clear-minded and resolute enough to determine her own destiny, no matter what society might expect of her. A woman of strong sexual energy, she enjoyed flirting with (generally older) men; a materialist, she struck a hard bargain to squeeze money from her publishers; an egotist, she used wealth and prestige to shore up her social pretensions and overcome youthful feelings of inadequacy by a show of ostentatious grandeur. For Taylor, George Eliot shrinks in moral dimension to an eccentric Victorian whose lifelong touchstones were needs for security and respectability.
In the face of conventional judgments far more inclined to pardon Eliot’s personal weaknesses and to emphasize instead her plucky rebelliousness against a static, male-dominated social order, Taylor argues that earlier biographers have relied too much upon the exaggerations of Cross, and that suppressed evidence which has recently come to light requires a reevaluation of Eliot’s true nature. In an introductory chapter entitled “What’s New About George Eliot?” Taylor argues that Cross, who was married to Eliot only seven months before she died, had strong reasons to cover up information hostile to her reputation. In particular, he excluded from his account all references to John Chapman, who was a close—possibly intimate—friend of the writer during her journalistic days as editor of the Westminster Review. Cross also neglected to discuss the extent of his wife’s earlier friendship with the radical Charles Bray and his circle. By exaggerating the importance of his own role in Eliot’s emotional life and by portraying her as a bloodless saint, Cross had attempted, Taylor believes, to atone for his sense of guilt and confusion following her death. Within recent years, scholars have discovered that the couple’s honeymoon, which Cross had represented as idyllic, in reality was a disaster. Twenty years his wife’s junior, Cross, faced with “the prospect of being tied to an elderly woman for the rest of his life, or hers,” had been driven to desperation. He had found “marriage to the greatest novelist of the day so unbearable” that he had tried to commit suicide by drowning in a Venice canal.
Although the couple hushed up any references to the attempt, alluding instead to Cross’s “illness,” they lived their remaining months together in guarded circumstances. After his wife’s sudden death from a cold infection that rapidly worsened, Cross continued to guard Eliot’s reputation, and his own, from any suggestion of scandal. In this endeavor he was like most other Victorian biographers, who conventionally concealed from their readers any hints of improprieties. For later scholars of George Eliot, however, Cross’s sentimental account of his wife’s exemplary moral conduct—taken together with the more solid evidence of letters revealing her kindness, good common sense, tact, and generosity of spirit—influenced commentators to accept a portrait of the master that resembled one of a plaster saint. Taylor breaks the artificial mold and shows instead a living person within.
Taylor’s work never proves that George Eliot was a woman of contradictions. Many of the so-called contradictions that Taylor observes are actually paradoxes compounded by Cross and his followers. In other words, the inconsistencies Taylor discovers stem from the contrast between a sentimental image of the writer-saint and the real person. During the course of her industrious life, Eliot rarely pretended to emotions that she did not feel, rarely acted a false role to conform with expectations of society, and rarely spoke or wrote words that she could not authentically defend with the example of her conduct. Among any group of distinguished Victorians, she must stand out as exceptionally honest—judged by either nineteenth or twentieth century standards. An avowed enemy of cant, Eliot fought a lifelong battle to discover truth that she could validate, even at the cost of surrendering her cherished youthful religious dogmas.
Then what “contradictions” can Taylor assert against her subject? Eliot never pretended to remain sexually pure in the Victorian sense; she lived openly—as husband and wife—with George Henry Lewes for nearly a quarter century. Lewes was already married but separated from his wife in an “open” arrangement; the union between the two writers was as committed, mutually respectful, and faithful as any of the more conventional relationships among Victorian notables. Indeed, the Lewes-Eliot relationship was a model of harmony. Taylor cannot fault her subject for moral contradiction, therefore, since her union was without hypocrisy, although clearly in defiance of public views on acceptable wedlock.
A more serious contradiction in Eliot’s moral armor, according to Taylor, is the matter of the writer’s “mercenary” bent. She was “a woman who claimed her writing as an art form, yet approached it from a mercenary angle”—by which Taylor means that Eliot demanded from her editors and publishers the money that she deserved for her labors. As a...
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