Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1999

George Eliot: The Last Victorian, by Kathryn Hughes

reviewed by Daniel O’Hara

It is a pleasure to welcome the new paperback edition of Kathryn Hughes’ biography of George Eliot, first published in hard covers last year. Though not a replacement for either the ground-breaking biography by Gordon Haight (first published in 1968), or the scholarly recent work by Rosemary Ashton (1996), Dr Hughes succeeds, perhaps better than any of her predecessors, in showing how the psychological consequences of Mary Anne Evans’ early life – rejection by a distant mother, unrequited adoration for her father and brother – manifested themselves in her own later dependent relationships and, above all, in her writing.

From a rather priggish Evangelical country-girl, her voracious reading and introduction, in her early twenties, to radicals and intellectuals through her Coventry neighbours, Charles and Cara Bray, led to her rejection of Orthodox Christianity, alienation from her family, the commission to translate D. F. Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined and a succession of unwise and unfilled crushes on unsuitable men.

At 34 she finally settled down with G. H. Lewes – a married man – who, until his death twenty-four years later, was her lover, mentor, business manager and much else beside. Under his influence, the experienced translator, editor and journalist was transformed into a novelist, the greatest of her time. But there was then, of course, an awful price to be paid by a woman who allowed herself such an ‘irregular’ relationship. For years she was shunned by ‘respectable’ society, The family cut her dead; brother Isaac even instructed solicitors to convey his unyielding disapproval. T. H. Huxley refused to allow his wife into her company.

Having previously set her cap at one repressed homosexual – Herbert Spencer – she finally married another after the death of Lewes. At the age of sixty, she who had thrice been a bridesmaid eventually walked the aisle with John Cross, a man over twenty years her junior. Isaac now wrote to welcome her back to ‘respectability’. Though a long-time family friend and admirer of the great novelist, Cross was obviously unprepared for the demands of married life. During their honeymoon in Venice, he threw himself into the Grand Canal, begging the gondoliers who came to his rescue to leave him to drown. They didn’t, of course, and after his recovery the newlyweds slowly made their way back to England.

In the few months that remained to them, they were largely preoccupied in finding, decorating, and furnishing the grand house they purchased in Cheyne Walk by the Thames at Chelsea. Two weeks after they moved in, she died and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, next to Lewes, to whom she was never legally married, but who more than anyone deserves to be reckoned her true husband. Though Cross survived for another 44 years, he never remarried. Over the next few years he worked on the three-volume biography of his wife that concealed almost as much as it revealed.

Informed George Eliot enthusiasts will certainly enjoy this biography, and those coming afresh to the life, times and works of the greatest Victorian novelist will find in Kathryn Hughes the best current guide. Her book is intelligent, witty, and full of insight, but she never gets bogged down in scholarly minutiae. No-one else manages quite so well to bring the woman and the works into mutually-illuminating conjunction and a deep but lightly-worn scholarship always ensures that her acute insights are fresh and compelling. She is candid without being condescending, sympathetic but not sentimental. And it’s a great read!

If scrupulous accuracy is to be respected, however, it must be admitted that occasionally there is confusion about dates. On page 61, the move from Griff to Bird Grove is given as “March 1840”, though it was exactly a year later. And Mary Anne’s move back to Foleshill after the first phase of the ‘Holy War’ is said on page 81 to have been on 30 April 1841, which is again a whole year out. In between, the chronology of Isaac’s courtship and marriage seems a little confused. These few reservations apart, the book is excellent.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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