No wonder it ached

Dinah Birch

  • The Journals of George Eliot edited by Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston
    Cambridge, 447 pp, £55.00, February 1999, ISBN 0 521 57412 9
  • George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes
    Fourth Estate, 384 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 1 85702 420 6

It is odd that the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ has proved so durable. It persisted long after the identity of Adam Bede’s author had become public knowledge, and there has been no serious attempt to dislodge it since. Why has George Eliot never been known by her own name? One reason is that it has never been quite clear what it was. She began life as Mary Anne Evans, daughter of Robert Evans, a sturdy and prosperous land agent in Warwickshire. But Mary Anne sounds rather like a servant’s name (the White Rabbit’s housemaid is called Mary Ann). As the rising fortunes of the family gave her a lady’s education, she began to experiment and adapt – trying out Marianne, losing the final ‘e’, and later settling on Marian. Throughout her life, she accumulated nicknames: Minie, Polly, Pollian, together with more dignified and maternal tags in middle age – Madre, Mutter or Madonna.

Her surname was harder to lose. Her strong face and still more robust mind did not fit her for the conventions of Victorian courtship and marriage. George Henry Lewes, the man she finally settled down with, was one of the few members of her circle still plainer than she was, and his ‘divine ugliness’ was a significant factor in their long and harmonious alliance. She wrote to her censorious brother Isaac to explain that she had ‘changed her name’. But the man she always referred to as her ‘husband’ was already married, and unable to divorce. After she started living with him in 1854, she called herself Marian Evans Lewes, and was sharp with feminist friends who continued to use her maiden name (‘you must please not call me Miss Evans again’). When Lewes died in 1878 she had to change her name by deed poll to Mary Ann Evans Lewes in order to claim the money she earned through her own literary labours. Later, she changed it again when she married Johnny Cross. Under what name could she have published her fiction? It is clear that neither ‘Evans’ nor ‘Lewes’ would have done. Her invented title became the only fixed point in a shifting world of reference.

Other frameworks for her personality were equally unstable. She moved from being a farm girl with a rural Warwickshire accent to an august sibyl courted by literary London. Childless, she became the stepmother of a large family. Pioneer and rebel, she proclaimed the virtues of social conservatism. Deeply concerned with the binding powers of memory and place, she moved constantly, trying out different ways of life in a succession of rooms and houses. She made her name as a translator and literary journalist, converted herself into the most innovative novelist of her time, then became a poet, and finally an essayist. Hers is among the most restless lives of the period. She was never content with what was safely known and could be taken for granted. The certainties of religion, science, history and politics crumbled under her concentrated gaze.

She was sent away to boarding-school at the age of five – young, even by 19th-century standards – and to the end of her life she remembered what that first exile had been like: the terrifying dreams, the wall of unforgiving backs excluding her from the warmth of the fire. Her mother seems not to have liked her much. She was not pretty, and she was not a son. Desperate for security, she found that learning gave her a means of control. What made her intellect so formidable was its capacity to receive and absorb whatever lay within its reach, no matter how recondite, dull or challenging. Nothing lay outside her scope: all the everyday business of life was material for analysis. Testing every assumption, twisting it this way and that, her sceptical mind turned the novel inside out. Eliot’s first fiction, ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’, is a challenge to the sensation-hungry reader. Amos, quintessence of mediocrity, must be the most unprepossessing hero in the history of literature. Stupid, plain (‘even the small-pox’ that has attacked his face ‘seems to have been of a mongrel, indefinite kind’) and self-centred, he thoughtlessly brings his wife to an early grave. Blind vanity causes the suffering which becomes moral redemption, as he is ‘consecrated anew by his great sorrow’. His theology had been ineffectual, but his grief unites the parish. Amos’s lack of intellectual distinction is the point of the story. Eliot wants her readers to learn that sympathy, not reason, is what holds us together.

Eliot figured her own life’s experiences in the didactic history of Amos Barton. Estranged from her narrow-minded family, she learned a great deal about loneliness during the unhappy years spent in search of companionship. Her relations with men, turbulent and painful, provided many lessons in human egotism. The self-regarding behaviour of Herbert Spencer, who repeatedly voiced the need for a wife but found Eliot insufficiently beautiful for the job, was especially instructive. George Lewes’s love and unwavering loyalty enabled her to translate these insights into stories and their commitment to each other at last allowed her the emotional stability that she had needed. It is not a coincidence that her new name as a writer is half that of her lover.

Anxiously modifying his wife’s memory for posthumous respectability, Johnny Cross destroyed her journals for the years between 1849 and 1854, the most tumultuous and uncertain years of her life. Much of what survived has previously been published in piecemeal fashion, some in Cross’s deadening memorial, George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (‘a Reticence in three volumes’, Gladstone called it), and some in Gordon Haight’s magisterial work as editor and biographer. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston have now provided a very welcome and complete edition of all the diaries and journals, covering the years between Eliot’s union with Lewes in 1854, when she was 35, and her death in 1880. Only around a quarter of this text has not previously been published, but the rhythms and balance of these journals feel quite different when presented in a coherent form. The writings are of two rather different kinds. First, there is a day-to-day record of her social and professional life. A typical entry – for Monday, 18 December 1854, when she was living in Berlin with Lewes: ‘Read Scherr. Finished revising Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics. Walked till dinner. Read a little of Tasso and then we went to Prof. Gruppe’s and spent a pleasant evening with him, his wife and her naive sister.’ Down-to-earth and decisive, the records speak of a busy and purposeful life. Eliot takes pleasure in her social activities, in acquiring new learning, and in the rising standard of living secured by the large sums of money she is increasingly able to earn. They make cheerful reading: ‘Few women, I fear, have had such reason as I have to think the long sad years of youth were worth living for the sake of middle age.’

But these upbeat entries are qualified by an equally persistent undertow of sadness and illness. Eliot rarely feels completely well. It would be tempting to see this simply as the psychosomatic invalidism of the middle-class Victorian woman, were it not for the fact that it was so widely shared by the men of her acquaintance. Living on their wits, they were constantly preoccupied by their aching heads. Herbert Spencer became a full-time hypochondriac. He adopted a special rubber hat, to accommodate the towels soaked in salt water that he wrapped round his sleepless temples. It was an arrangement that can have done little to promote his marriage prospects. Lewes ails still more often than his companion (‘George very feeble and delicate just now’). For Eliot, the main worry was that ill-health prevented her from writing. Entry after entry frets over her slow rate of production, as she is delayed by colds, coughs and perpetual headache. ‘I have been feeling very unwell ... the days have not been fruitful ... Headache continued so that I could do nothing ... For the last two or three days I have been disordered by dyspepsia, and unfitted for doing anything well ... continual bilious headache.’ These physical disorders were evidently related to the pressure to perform. Eliot’s prosperity, financial and emotional, was dependent on her continuing success. Many, in turn, relied on her: Lewes, Lewes’s wife and numerous children, his mother, her own widowed sister Chrissey and her children. If her head failed, she would no longer be able to support them. No wonder it ached.

Eliot left an unforgettable account of baffled creativity in Casaubon, the arid scholar of Middlemarch, ‘nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind’. Various candidates have been put forward as possible models for Casaubon – Mark Pattison, with his quick-witted young wife Emilia; old Dr Robert Brabant, who had attracted the young Mary Ann and who repeatedly failed to finish the scholarly projects he began; and the self-absorbed Herbert Spencer. But when asked to identify the original, George Eliot would point to her own heart. The journals are a reminder of how conscious she was of the painful prospect of not living up to anticipated greatness. She had seen such distress, and she had felt it along her nerves. Dread was as keen a motive as ambition in keeping her to a self-imposed schedule of study and writing that she often found exhausting. Yet the journals are also a vivid demonstration of the freer side of her nature. This is particularly true of the sustained account of foreign trips that makes up the second strand of these texts, accompanying the more mundane record of daily events. Eliot was most able to thrive when she was on the move, her mind open to fresh places and unfamiliar customs. Headaches vanish, while ideas and impressions form patterns that will later evolve into fiction. She especially loved to visit Germany. Her first trip with Lewes had taken her there, and she had spent the happiest weeks of her life in Weimar and Berlin. The Germans might be a little uncultivated, and too fond of sausage; but they cared nothing for her lack of a marriage certificate. ‘After all, Germany is no bad place to live in, and the Germans, to counterbalance their want of taste and politeness, are at least free from the bigotry and exclusiveness of their more refined cousins.’ Once in Germany, her senses seem to sharpen as her spirits revive. Nothing escapes her affectionate notice. She feels perfectly at home in a Catholic church in Nuremberg:

How the music warmed one’s heart! I loved the good people about me, even to the soldier who stood with his back to us, giving us a full view of his close cropped head, wìth its pale yellowish hair standing up in bristles on the crown, as if his hat had acted like a forcing-pot. Then there was a little baby, in a close-fitting cap on its little round head, looking round with bright black eyes as it sucked its bit of bread. Such a funny little complete face – rich brown complexion and miniature roman nose. And then its mother lifted it up, that it might see the rose-decked altar, where the priests were standing.

Images like these stock the novelist’s larder. Eliot became adept in finding ways of representing the people she knew and the things she had seen without falsifying their individuality. This was a matter that had involved her in some embarrassment in her early years as a novelist. Resolute in her refusal to idealise, she at first incorporated memory into fiction rather too directly. The readiness with which members of her own family could be seen in characters such as the Dodson sisters in The Mill on the Floss, or Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, did not bring the longed for reconciliation any closer. She seems sometimes to have been surprised and disconcerted by the pain dial she could inflict. John Gwyther, the curate Eliot had known in nearby Chilvers Coton throughout the 1830s, was all too easily recognisable in the hapless Amos Barton. In 1859, Gwyther wrote a pained and laborious letter explaining that his ‘Eldest Daughter’ had spotted the resemblance. George Eliot’s reply is defensive: ‘for any annoyance, even though it may have been brief and not well-founded, which the appearance of the story may have caused Mr Gwyther, the writer is sincerely sorry.’ Later, a more sophisticated method of assimilating known material helped her to avoid these complications – there are several credible alternatives for the role of Casaubon’s model.

Eliot continued to write out of what she had known and experienced. This is why the journals matter: they give us immediate access to what she was to reformulate in her fiction. But the richest sources of memory lie in childhood and youth. Here the diaries are of no use – they begin with her maturity – and we cannot do without the work of biographers. The appearance of Haight’s revisionary volume in 1968 marked out the territory and many new interpretations have appeared since then, including several biographical studies in the last ten years. Kathryn Hughes’s vigorous and readable account breaks little new ground, but it is winningly sympathetic and psychologically shrewd. Her identification of the coldness of George Eliot’s mother as a crucial factor in the edgy emotional hunger that drove Eliot’s intelligence is convincing. Bad mothers, it seems, nurture the best novelists, though not every maternal inadequate has a daughter who can transform childish alienation into Middlemarch.