George Eliot’s Rebellions

Originally published in the 24 March 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald.

The Transferred Life of George Eliot: The Biography of a Novelist
by Philip Davis
Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $35.00

If there is no God, George Eliot will do, Philip Davis’s mentor used to joke, by which he meant that she was “the best version of what a novel’s omniscient narrator might really stand for.” The woman herself might have balked at comparison to the deity—or she might not have. With followers of Feuerbach one never knows.

George Eliot’s peculiar worldview is the subject of Davis’s intellectual biography, which aims to show how Mary Ann Evans’s life taught her to think like a novelist. The intersection of fiction and real life is Davis’s speciality. A professor at Liverpool, he also works with The Reader, an organisation promoting the use of literature for socially beneficial purposes—sponsoring book clubs for prisons, training psychologists in “bibliotherapy,” etc.

It is the subject, not the author, that is poorly suited for a book of this type. George Eliot had no moral system. She rejected the very idea of moral systems. Before her pseudonym was unmasked, a reviewer for the Athenaeum speculated that the author of Adam Bede must be “a clever woman with an observant eye and an un-schooled moral nature.” Un-schooled is precisely the right word. Moral feelings assailed her in gusts, but she refused any effort to discipline them.

Not all of these feelings were humanitarian, and if Davis has a weakness it is his refusal to admit how discreditable his subject’s motivations could be. He defends one “sarcastic attack on the stupidity of ‘the average man’” (in Daniel Deronda, in this case, though it could have come from any of her books) by insisting that it “is not made out of intellectual snobbery; on the contrary, it is made on account of the demeaning damage done to unconventional people … by ignorant dismissiveness.” Does Davis know any intellectual snobbery that would not describe itself just that way?

Her petulant individualism led to the novelist’s two great rebellions: her abandonment of Christianity, and her scandalous decades-long relationship with George Henry Lewes, a married man. In matters of religion, she was no typical Victorian skeptic, for unlike her contemporaries Mill and Froude her rebellion was emotional rather than rational. Herbert Spencer was a close friend and a fellow unbeliever, but they clashed on morals due to precisely this difference. She refused to speak to him for months when she heard that he had prevaricated rather than lie when someone asked him point blank if he knew the writer behind the George Eliot pseudonym. The rational Spencer had to replace Christianity with a firm code. She did not see why he should need one, if it was going to inconvenience her.

Davis has not a bad word to say about his subject’s unconventional domestic arrangements, either because he is blinded by admiration for the woman he calls “the quintessential Novelist” or because he finds the strict Victorian mindset too foreign. This is a shame. Admittedly the pair were not entirely blameworthy since it had been Lewes’s wife who abandoned him, long before Marian appeared on the scene. On the other hand, their lecherous friend John Chapman cited their happiness when trying to persuade his own mistress to join his household alongside his wife. One Eliot biographer calls this “a useful example of an important reason why even sympathetic people felt they could not condone ‘hard-case’ examples of extra-marital relationships lest they act as trail-blazers.”

The great virtue of Middlemarch, according to Davis, is its simultaneity. As it shifts from Dorothy and Casaubon to Lydgate and Rosamond and back, the reader maintains a sense that “all the time that the one relationship was at the absolute centre of vision, another was still going on alone and unattended to.” (That god-like omniscience again.) But as the Chapman incident makes clear, a broader awareness of how her actions affected other people would have made George Eliot respect traditional values more, not less. Her Tolstoyan insistence on treating every person individually, in all his particularity, assumed the guise of a magnanimous perspective, but it was in her case a narrow and self-justifying one.