The Life of George Eliot
A Critical Biography
Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015
Paperback reissue (first hardback edition, 2012)
xiii+299 p. ISBN 978-1118917671. £27.99
Reviewed by Fionnuala Dillane
University College Dublin
Before the arrival of this lively and lucid critical biography, first published in 2012, Nancy Henry had already revealed much to us about George Eliot in areas long overlooked by other biographers. Her unparallelled edition of George Eliot’s last work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879) brought back to critical attention an entirely neglected but curious collection of essays by the Victorian journalist, poet, and fiction writer who for too long had been regarded as the monumental novelist of her age in terms that did little favours to George Eliot or to her generically varied and innovative work. Among other things, Henry’s decoding of the sharp ironies, punning jokes and arch tones that constitute Impressions further challenged overly-simplistic and dated readings of Eliot as a rather humourless and moralistic sage. The layered account of Eliot’s ambivalent attitudes to Britain’s colonial enterprises in George Eliot and the British Empire (2002) continued Henry’s iconoclastic and refreshing take on the eminent Victorian. Eliot’s critical attitude to hegemonic, monolithic expansionist ideologies in her later work was discussed alongside some very intimate versions of Imperial encroachments on domestic life. The Cambridge Introduction to George Eliot (2008) followed, offering Henry’s first efforts at a comprehensive overview of George Eliot’s oeuvre in the condensed mode demanded by the ‘Introduction’ medium.
This critical biography, then, is a welcome fuller and fascinating unpacking of the relationship between the life and the work of this still-intriguing figure. Given George Eliot’s long-entrenched canonical presence in the Anglo-American tradition and the atypical trajectory of her life, she has of course attracted more than her fair share of biographers. A compact but illuminating summary and historical contextualisation of much of this previous work serves the reader well in the opening chapter. Henry offers judicious appraisal of her predecessors, saving particularly acerbic comments for the untested and much repeated assumptions included by Gordon Haight in his hugely influential 1968 biography George Eliot a Life. The underlying gender bias of Haight’s attitude to Marian Evans’s relationship with George Henry Lewes and the particular dynamics of Lewes’s complicated family situation before he committed to a life with Evans are subjected to clear-sighted, no-nonsense critique. Henry draws our attention to work by more recent Eliot scholars to take on some of the more persistent biographical staples, including the much-repeated claim of the irrelevance of her mother to her writing; the characterisation of Agnes Lewes as a ‘promiscuous breeder’; the writer’s apparent pathological insecurity; and the related supposed need for Lewes’s unwavering, uncritical support to release her into creative life. Henry effectively punctures such compelling, neat but ultimately simplistic and sexist narratives: she leaves us in no doubt about the old canard that Lewes was trapped in marriage to Agnes Lewes and so could not marry George Eliot because he had condoned her adultery by accepting her son fathered by his friend Thornton Hunt as his own. Whatever the reasons for not marrying Marian Evans (which, Henry speculates, includes a reluctance that is equally shared by Lewes and the self- conscious Evans to make public material in the divorce courts of their own liaison), the myth of the legal obstacle is just that – a myth.
This brisk revisionist line, along with debates about the significance of Eliot’s mother, the reality of Agnes, who made Eliot the ‘other woman’, the reality of being that ‘other woman’, and so on may seem like minor skirmishes in the large imaginative life of England’s great European novelist, but collectively, Henry makes clear that the repetition of what she persuasively argues are over-simplified misreadings of the life obscures some of the more interesting dynamics of George Eliot’s fiction and poetry, while also demonstrating that attending to these details brings to the fore a persistently complex domestic and personal history that has implications for the work. A welcome and valuable contribution of this biography to our understanding of the writer is found in Henry’s expert tracing of patterns of complicated marriages and convoluted family units in that creative work. The intractability of relationship formations dominates Henry’s readings of both the life and the work. Again and again, she returns, as George Eliot did, to triangulated configurations – triangulation, with its inevitable conflicts and choices, being the necessary engine of plot tension to the work, and unfortunately for George Eliot, in Henry’s telling, resulting in a troubled, self-questioning life.
The study takes the expected, chronological shape: Henry begins with familiar statements from her subject on the limitations of biography, historicises biographical approaches and follows with a series of chapters that take us from Mary Ann Evans’s early years in rural Warwickshire to Coventry, her journalistic life in London, meeting her life partner, G.H. Lewes, the emergence of ‘George Eliot’ over the course of the writing of her ‘Clerical Scenes’ for Blackwood’s Magazine and Adam Bede. Chapters 5-9 address her major works from Silas Marner to Impressions. It ends with a brief account of her final years and the publication of her ‘official’ biography by her husband of less than a year, John Walter Cross, an enterprise Henry is unusual in treating with deft sympathy. Henry enlivens and extends the familiar throughout with a thematic insistence on the importance of biographical models for George Eliot’s fictional development: ‘Biography is one of the literary genres that influenced how she thought about fiction and chose to trace the lives of her fictional characters’ . It is a two-handed argument: George Eliot repeatedly insists on differences between the facts of the life and the imaginative and creative use of such facts in her fiction but she also used biographical models to develop her characters and to map and interpret the inevitable imbrications of individual and social life. Eliot’s fictional work then takes biographical shape. And as a result, Henry suggests a guiding principle of her own approach in her claim that: ‘the art of biography may lie in identifying the themes that make the story of a life more like a novel than an objective recording of facts and events’ .
Consequently, her readings of Eliot's narrative style, plot and theme are motivated by biographical questions and her reading of the life-as-performance takes shape from her tracing of thematic and symbolic patterns. Eliot’s realism, Henry argues is a stylised ‘tightly controlled’ selective narrative to offer a complicated realism where what the narrator chooses not to tell us becomes as significant as what is told: ‘What kind of childhood did Hetty have? Who were Tito’s biological parents? What really happened between Gwendolen and her stepfather?’ . She demonstrates how the work becomes more ‘dense and allusive, less popular, and less autobiographical all at the same time as it moved in the direction of aestheticism and Modernism’ . It is no surprise that this book is now available in paperback: compact and hugely suggestive, bringing us new things to think about, showing us old myths to discard; in its productive disruption of commonplace fact/fiction approaches to the life and works mode, it enriches and enlarges our understanding of the writer and her writings.
☞ Illustrated version on The Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/eliot/henry.html
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