“Biographies generally are a disease of English literature,” George Eliot once wrote to a friend. “The best history of a writer is contained in his writing—these are his chief actions.” The disease would seem to be incurable. Literary biography not only still flourishes but now encroaches on memoir, autofiction, even self-help. We expect the subject to assist the biographer and ourselves in our ordinary quandaries. The smooth aperçus of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997) were too long-nineties to last, but many recent publications emulate its approach. Lara Feigel’s recent Look! We Have Come Through! (2022) might have been titled How D.H. Lawrence Can Change Your Life: it showed how comfortable but discontented metropolitan professionals could refresh themselves with doses of his furious primitivism. In John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche (2018), the philosopher’s preoccupation with how to become what one is blurs in the mists of Sils Maria with the problems of being John Kaag. In such books, the biographer mines the life and work of a writer in the confident expectation that they record experiences with the power to help or transform us.
George Eliot is a lodestar for two new books that encourage especially seductive but tricky forms of identification between the subjects, writers and readers of literary biography. Both see not just her books but her life and especially her relationship with George Henry Lewes—which, though illicit in the eyes of Victorian society, offered the intellectual and romantic fulfillment of a good marriage—as sources of wisdom for the present. In The Marriage Question, Clare Carlisle combines the story of Eliot’s1 quest for personal fulfillment with a critical study of her novels to establish her as a philosopher of marriage, one who regarded its rewards as almost on a par with the consolations of religion. Joanna Biggs, by contrast, asks what “George” can do for her in A Life of One’s Own, a memoir of surviving and thriving as a writer in the aftermath of divorce.
The impulse to look to Eliot for such guidance began with her contemporaries, who brought to her works the Protestant instinct for patterning life upon an authoritative text instinct with wisdom. The Scottish autodidact Alexander Main, who felt she had “forever sanctified the Novel by making it the vehicle of the grandest and most uncompromising moral truth,” persuaded Eliot to let him fillet her writings for “heart-searching Thoughts which go to the very roots of our being—and all these expressed in single sentences and paragraphs.” His Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings in Prose and Verse: Selected from the Works of George Eliot (1872) was laid out like the florilegia of biblical verses his readers used in their Sunday devotions. The sayings ranged from sententiae that could fit inside a fortune cookie—“One can say everything best over a meal”—to hefty chunks of dialogue. Although he distinguished between the utterances of “George Eliot (in propria persona)” and her characters, he considered her genius to pervade the whole.
Main presented his author as an oracle, an abstract channel for “essences of high truth.” His belief in her morality was untroubled by much knowledge of her life. That was by design. When Marian Evans began writing fiction, she called herself “Marian Lewes,” even though Lewes was stuck in a marriage to someone else. On the title pages of her novels, though, she became “George Eliot,” a neutral (and male) pseudonym her cautious publishers retained even after it became transparent. In seeking the wisdom of Eliot also in the daring coups of her life, Carlisle and Biggs reflect a later twentieth-century shift in appreciation of which Phyllis Rose’s 1983 book Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages remains the classic expression. Rose wrote with deliberate prurience about literary couples who were unhappy, childless and shared a strange kink: chastity. She felt that what she called Higher Gossip—a nod to the Victorian preoccupation with the Higher Criticism of the gospels—was not only forgivable but could be educative for her contemporaries. They lived in the aftermath of the loosening of sexual mores, the liberalization of divorce and the availability of contraception, but true emancipation eluded them. They prized authentic love but still assumed that it must follow a “sterile” plot, culminating in the “banal” denouement of marriage. But that was where the story should begin: her readers would learn that only the embrace of “complexity” could keep individuality alive in marriage. For Rose, the Leweses were a beacon rather than a cautionary tale, because they had escaped the legal strictures and social conventions that often made Victorian marriage a haunted house of bitterness and self-abnegation.
Where earlier biographers had diagnosed in Eliot a weakness for male companionship, Rose saw that Eliot had rightly felt and fearlessly expressed her awareness that only sexual fulfillment would unlock her creativity. The bravest thing about her union with Lewes was her insistence on its rightness, which shocked stealthy libertines even more than pulpit bashers. As a husband in spirit rather than law, Lewes could invert accepted understandings of his marital power and devote himself to the realization of Eliot’s promise. Although Rose glanced at Eliot’s novels, what attracted her was the improvised equality that made them possible in the first place. In patiently working out a life together that allowed them both to flourish, Rose thought the Leweses might inspire her own generation, whose romantic imaginations had not yet caught up with their new freedoms. The expectations and taboos that corseted Victorian relationships now seem even more distant than when Parallel Lives was published. Yet Carlisle and Biggs have not only inherited its claim that Eliot’s life remains exemplary but extended it, hoping to find in both the life and the novels guidance for our relationships in freer but disordered times.
Eliot stressed that though her marriage was “not a legal one,” it was “regarded by us both as a sacred bond.” As a philosopher of religion by trade, Clare Carlisle is well placed to animate the heterodox spirituality that caused Eliot to affirm marriage as sacred even as she flouted its clerical definition. If Rose understood marriage as a dangerous heirloom from the Victorians, whose help we needed to render it harmless, Carlisle sees it as a timeless “mystery” that takes us “close to the heart of our life’s meaning.” She feels that Eliot’s determination to make a special kind of marriage work generated precious insights into its place in a full life, which can be traced both in her life and her writings.
A meditation on existing biographies of Eliot, The Marriage Question is obedient to their rhythms. It starts in the middle, with what the first biography of Eliot (written by her second—and first legal—husband John Cross) hailed as the “most important event” of her life: waiting at St. Katharine’s Dock one July morning to embark with Lewes on a Continental honeymoon at the age of 34. Carlisle retraces the traditional outline: there is her Midlands upbringing as Mary Anne Evans, full of flirtations and rebellion against her family’s churchiness; the move to London as Marian Evans, into journalism and romantic embroilments; union with Lewes; a tricky interlude in which she lived in social isolation as Marian Lewes while becoming famous as the novelist George Eliot. Lewes’s death in November 1878 ended a period of eminent respectability and was followed by her death two years later, though not before she had become Mary Ann Cross.
Carlisle does not argue that Eliot was the kind of philosopher who could have been hired by the university department where she herself works. Eliot was certainly a gifted translator of philosophical treatises—Carlisle lately edited her translation of Spinoza’s Ethics—and an astute commentator on epistemology, sociology and the natural sciences. But she was always a writer more than a theorist, one who said she was wary of any “formula which does not get itself clothed for me in some human figure and individual experience.” Her strength lay in mining sciences to generate the worlds in which she tested human relations. Carlisle has benefited from the pile of monographs—invariably titled “George Eliot and”—that have charted these borrowings, but follows Eliot in making them “thoroughly incarnate,” showing how her “double life” with Lewes allowed her “to feel and think with double strength.” Lewes was a reformed rake and a scruffy wife guy who smoothed her literary labors. But he was also an intellectual historian who became a famed popularizer of scientific research. Their honeymoon was also a research trip, to complete his seminal biography of Goethe. Their interests mingled and entered her fiction. Lewes passed on his love of Spinoza to Eliot, who deployed his monism to imagine characters who were continuous with their material and social universe. Her experiences rock pooling with Lewes—peering at organisms in what he was the first to call an “anthropomorphic” way—encouraged the organicism of her imagination: St Ogg’s, the town in The Mill on the Floss (1860), is no mere backdrop to its characters, but their “environment,” to use a neologism of the day.
Carlisle lures us back to Eliot’s whole body of work, even to such unvisited tombs as Romola or The Spanish Gypsy, by presenting it as a sustained meditation on what it means to choose a spouse or preserve selfhood within marriage. Most Victorian novels, from the masterpieces to the lending-library filler, relied on marriage plots, but Eliot’s, Carlisle argues, had a more ambitious aesthetic and intellectual purpose. Eliot’s multifarious mind always threatened to wander off into what Middlemarch (1871-2) calls “the tempting range of relevancies called the universe.” By magnifying—inflating—the dilemmas of marriage, Eliot made them into a master key for the problems that interested her. In The Mill on the Floss and Romola (1862-3), conflicts between women’s suitors and family taxonomize the divides in past societies. Conversely, the marriage plot “grows metaphysical” in the late masterpieces, holding up a dark mirror to the self in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda (1876). The town of Middlemarch is experiencing the arrival of the railways and of political liberalism, but these upheavals are just the mock-heroic setting for deeper disorientations. Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon, Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy contract disastrous marriages because they are victims of “preconceived romance”: they do not know the people they think will complete them, because they do not know themselves. The Casaubons and Lydgates become figures of the self’s struggle to master its opposite or even for the ideal’s battle to assimilate and dominate the real (Eliot and Lewes had been rereading Hegel with new understanding).
Dorothea and Casaubon, Grandcourt and Gwendolen: Carlisle finds so many flawed marriages in Eliot’s fiction that she wonders whether her own was the idyll her admirers sometimes make it out to be. It is hard to tell. As Lewes once cautioned, in writing biography we must not “substitute a possible evolution for an actual evolution.” The dynamics of their partnership remain mysterious because their letters to one another went into their graves. They were often unhappy. They had constant health problems. There were money worries, work troubles and the burden of getting Lewes’s sons started in life. Eliot’s research regimen induced the return of the “demon”: depression. Lewes, who fretted as she spent months amassing antiquarian notes for novels she feared she would never finish, knew all about marrying Casaubon. Our immersion in the difficulties and frustrations inevitable in and idiosyncratic to any long relationship makes Eliot’s happiness seem the more resonant, because fragile, and her fictional efforts to adjudicate good and bad marriages the fruit of hard-won experience. The Leweses’ struggles with precarity might also heighten our identification with them.
The ethical, even metaphysical weight with which Eliot invested her own marriage and those of her characters remains impressive. But behind Adam Bede’s declaration that there is no “greater thing” for “two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life” lurks a form of religiosity now alien to us. Although she had entered literary life as a translator of David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, who had dissolved Christ into myth and turned God into the skyward projection of human feelings, Eliot had not banished the sacred, merely rooted it in what must now strike us as surprising places. Her insistence that her marriage was sacred although not solemnized, as Carlisle points out, was the latest installment in a Protestant spiritualization of conjugal sexuality that had begun when the renegade monk Martin Luther preached against celibacy and got married himself. Britain’s traditions of Protestant Dissent, which made it easier for ordinary people to define religion for themselves, encouraged a confusion between home and chapel, marriage bed and altar. Eliot’s faith that she, rather than any church, could decide what counted as a marriage was a spiky outcrop from this cultural bedrock. It is true that even radical Dissenters—such as Eliot’s Unitarian friends—bridled at the idea that living in sin could be holy. Yet after the Whig government of the 1830s had allowed marriages to be recorded in registry offices rather than churches, her domestic arrangements were a question of respectability rather than theology.
Eliot had heightened the scandal of her non-marriage by her austere determination to speak the truth about it. The shock would have faded more rapidly had she not shunned social contacts for years. Once the Leweses were ready to receive guests, the moralizing British made their habitual allowances for celebrity—even the Queen’s family wanted to meet her. Carlisle sees Eliot’s exclusion from the funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey that she so desired as a sign that she stayed an outsider to the end. But Thomas Henry Huxley, who she quotes as opposing the honor on account of Eliot’s “notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage” was a freethinker of Dissenting stock. His point was about honesty rather than orthodoxy: people as “free” as Eliot or himself should not “hanker” for the unction of the churches they had rejected.
Huxley’s sentiments were a manifestation of the Puritanism in which he no longer believed. The half-life of Christianity was likewise stronger in Eliot than he or we might imagine. Her “intellectual difference” with it gave way to “emotional agreement” and the “profoundest interest” in the inner life of its followers. To the end of her life, she toiled through tomes of ecclesiastical history and went to hear sermons. She discouraged anxious correspondents from quitting their churches. Her spiritual Toryism was foreign to Lewes, a cheerful pagan, but they exalted their double life in Christian—even, despite their disapproval of the Pope, Catholic—terms. Sunday receptions at their London home were “services” held at the “shrine” to his “Madonna.” Lewes was half-joking, but the heavy poetry and essays of Eliot’s later years reveal her growing comfort in the robes of a motherly sage, who had lost his sense that life was important but not serious. Eliot’s second husband, John Cross, completed her regrettable sanctification. He wasn’t able to get her into the Abbey after she died just months into their marriage, but he did produce her mausoleum, a life and letters that sandpapered away the comic asides from her early correspondence to present her as the kind of moralist Alexander Main revered.
Poor Johnny! Victorianists have spent decades peering under his hollow statue of Eliot to discover truer versions of her. But older habits of veneration persist. The George Eliot Fellowship is so devotional that they lay annual wreaths at an obelisk in her birthplace of Nuneaton. Scholars might be wary of such tributes—although I did recently meet a lecturer who had tattooed some of the peroration from Middlemarch onto their forearm. Yet their patient exegesis of her novels reflects a tacit belief that they still tell us how to live. They might have been historicized, read against the grain or indicted as symptoms of an imperial imagination, but they bob up corklike after every effort to undo the canon or to “undiscipline” Victorian studies. The academic fixation on Eliot covertly echoes Main’s faith that her words can be laid into patterns that counsel us in our quandaries. Carlisle at least does so explicitly, setting up a spiritual loop in which what binds us as readers with Eliot is a shared devotion to the numinous work of marriage. She echoes Eliot’s transposed Christianity, inviting readers to regard marriage as an “initiation” or a “sacrament,” but does not tell us how dressing up the struggles and satisfactions of our relationships in churchy jargon might actually improve them. Eliot’s writing may be so thickly rippled with a vanished religiosity that her “marriage question” cannot haunt us in the same way or with equivalent intensity.
It is easy to imagine Joanna Biggs laying a wreath for Eliot. She is a natural pilgrim, who begins her book standing at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave and “realizing I didn’t want to be married anymore.” A Life of One’s Own values “George” along with Mary and seven other women writers dear to Biggs for helping her through divorce. In seeking to “peel” herself away from her marriage, Biggs resorts to reading, while candidly documenting how sadness often withers the appetite for books. Instead of an inert Great Tradition, Mary, George and Sylvia are for Biggs something closer to a friendship circle, who hold each other up across time and space. She reads their works—sometimes compulsively, sometimes effortfully—but remains at a remove from academic study. She takes whatever copy is to hand, and is illuminating on how the associations of our first encounter with a text color what we think it means. Her bibliography is deliberately spotty. Biggs reads fictions in a firmly old-fashioned way as documenting the personalities of their authors and exercising a Leavisite influence over life with a capital L. Or to put it in Rose’s terms, she looks for plots in lives and fictions that might clarify and expand her sense of who she is. When we read The Mill on the Floss, “we are all Maggies. I am one, you are one, she is one.”
George’s double life is for Biggs less a study in coupledom than a model for how to begin again: with relationships and in our work. Her sketch begins not with Lewes joining Eliot at St Katharine’s Dock, but with the day he popped into London so that she could write a breakthrough passage in what became Scenes of Clerical Life. Her reading of the “not-marriage” is perfunctory and familiar: all the happier because squares disapproved, though with some lengthening shadows. She is more interested in reading herself into Middlemarch: in letting herself be changed by but also consciously changing Dorothea, who learns too late but still in time that she has confused her life with her marriage. In yearning to escape from Casaubon’s papery labyrinth, she nerves Biggs to reject the dryasdust criticism she was taught at Oxford. And she feels that Dorothea “would understand” the mundane braveness of her newly single life, nights spent with reality television and all.
Even imaginary friends let us down. Biggs is “sometimes disappointed” by Eliot: by her tepid attitudes to the emancipation of women and even by her male pseudonym, which meant “gaming” rather than challenging a patriarchal system. Such moral presentism runs throughout the book: Biggs is likewise “disappointed” that Zora Neale Hurston did not write much on race. It makes A Life of One’s Own a valuable study in the phenomenology of reading, charting the swerves and exaggerations involved in the illusion that an author speaks directly to us and of our problems. Yet, as so often in writing about writers “and me,” the reader gets more “me” than necessary. The point of Rose’s Higher Gossip about the Victorian dead was to reveal to us our oppressive conventions. Biggs’s stories, meanwhile, are already familiar to any literary inhabitant of London’s Zone 2, whether that involves feeling like an impostor at Oxbridge or rejecting “children in the suburbs,” going briefly “negronied and wild” after a breakup or feeling relieved to find a nice flat of one’s own. “We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual,” wrote Eliot, in her commentary on Dorothea’s sad honeymoon in Rome. Eliot knew that it is hard work to produce a revelatory description of ordinary sorrows. Biggs, for her part, cannot quite muster the emotional distance to pull this off. Instead, her first-personal criticism attempts to close the divide between past and present by projecting her—which may also be our—contemporary problems onto the writers she loves.
Judging by the percentages of people who now divorce or never marry at all, our faith in marriage continues to dwindle. But what Phyllis Rose called our “bewildered respect” for the domestic convolutions of Victorian writers remains strong. The bewilderment may be healthier than the respect, because it acknowledges the remoteness of the past. To sustain what Eliot once called the “perilous joy” of marriage in modern societies is difficult; so is dealing with its end through divorce. But in the end, an overidentification with Eliot may neither help us in our perplexities nor deepen our appreciation of her novels. They are overtly keen to teach us things, but we do not read them for their moralizing, any more than we turn to the painters of the Dutch Golden Age whom Eliot admired for advice on draining marshes or the care of chequered floors.
The nineteenth-century historian Lord Acton once wrote to his daughter of Eliot’s eerie skill in not just rendering people’s ideas but in “creeping into their skin,” looking below the “borrowed shell” of a character’s precisely described tastes and opinions to reveal the “soul.” Acton’s aesthetic sensibility now seems as excessively devotional as Eliot’s, but even if we do not share their faith in souls, his words acutely render the varied scales at which her imagination works. Her famous odd couple bears out their truth. Eliot finely sketches Casaubon as a social type—the outdated antiquarian—but also as a quivering person, whose nature was “of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity” and shut him off from the consolation he sought in marriage. She enters feelingly into the ardor that Dorothea brings to her marriage, while exposing its mischievous effects on herself and others. The value of the following passage lies not in any one idea or phrase of the kind Alexander Main liked to cut and paste but in its patient unfurling of Dorothea’s self-deceptions:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects—that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.
We are no longer likely to take Eliot as our oracle: that “udder” is rather appalling to our ears. The mazy, cautious syntax which follows suggests she can instead assist us through the expansive precision with which she explores selfhood. Despite their confident flourishes, her works offer us neither a gospel, nor imitable heroines, but a kind of negative wisdom about our relations, which explains why we will never be wholly done with the struggle to know ourselves or our partners. It is in this sense that her writing still contains her “chief actions.”
Image credit: George Barker, attrib. (CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 / George Eliot Archive)