‘I couldn’t have written more books,’ she said, ‘if I hadn’t been human.’
One of the most contradictory and even scandalous Victorians, George Eliot is still being perceived mostly through the image which more or less had been established in her own times: a great author, a genius, the best novelist in the English language, an intellectual. Her human features, however, remain unrecognized, altered by gossip and more often than not simply ignored or denied. ‘In Love with George Eliot’ is Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s tribute to the great novelist’s bicentenary (22 November 1819). As the title suggests, the book is mostly about the time when Marian Evans became George Eliot and wrote all her wonderful literary masterpieces – from Adam Bede to Daniel Deronda. Nonetheless, this is not an ordinary biography or a piece of literary history. It is a novel incorporating fact and fiction to offer a much more personal approach to Marian Evans Lewes, the human being, rather than the novelist.
'In Love with George Eliot' is a novel with two plotlines, divided in five parts. The Victorian storyline (Marian’s, set between the early 1850s and her death in 1880) is narrated in a manner similar to Eliot’s – an omniscient narrator who gets close to the character’s mind and emotions, whereas the contemporary storyline is narrated in the first person singular by the protagonist Kate with quite noticeable autobiographical references to O’Shaughnessy herself. Even though the Victorian story prevails, the two plotlines are connected and transmit into one another – the manner of writing is quite similar to A. S. Byatt’s in Possession, where the contemporaries live in the shadows of their Victorian predecessors in terms of emotional and human openness. Even the love triangles, or more exactly – rectangles in both plotlines of the book, are similar: Agnes is unfaithful to George Lewes with his best friend Thornton, so the disappointed husband finds love and comfort with Marian; Ann is unfaithful to Hans with his colleague Devlin, so he goes to Kate. Lewes and Marian, Hans and Kate could probably be read as another set of Randolf Ash – Christabel LaMotte / Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. However, unlike Byatt’s novel, ‘In love with George Eliot’ is more personal and focused mostly on the humanity behind the public image of Eliot.
Mary Ann Evans or Marian as she chooses to be called is anything but a conventional woman, let alone Victorian. Her exceptional thirst for knowledge is only comparable to her craving for love. After some painful and unsuccessful experience she manages to find her soulmate and kindred spirit, the married George Lewes, for whom she dares sacrifice her social status and become a pariah in the Victorian society. O’Shaughnessy lifts the curtain to show the intimacy of their relationship, depicted as an inspiring love story but also supported by other people’s statements and observations.
All the letters, notes and diary entries quoted in the Victorian plotline are genuine – an enormous effort and a significant research of the author who is by all means academically familiar with all the Eliot data (a huge and constantly growing amount of academic writing, archives, memoirs… practically endless) and deserves admiration. The Victorian era is recreated with its most remarkable intellectuals and authors who are present in the book as being part of Marian’s limited circle of friends and acquaintances. There are the Brays (Charles and Cara), her oldest friends along with Sara Hennel, who later becomes jealous of her success. Another open-minded Victorian couple, Richard and Maria Congreve, offer their support in times of trouble and so does Barbara Bodichon. Of course, there are those who hurt her, intentionally or not, such as Herbert Spencer and John Chapman. Henry James is also present with his famous quotation regarding the unconventional Victorian author: ‘She is a feat of ugliness’. That infamous ‘ugliness’ is probably the core of Marian’s ambition to prove herself the best in everything she does. Her success comes at a price she pays regularly, but for her new admirers it seems a miracle or a kind of fairy tale. Even her most intellectual women friend Edith Simcox wonders: ‘How had she done it, earned her own heaven so perfectly? Her books, her lover, her hospitable home and admiring friends?’ However Simcox cannot convince Marian to announce herself a feminist since the novelist strongly believes that talent has nothing to do with gender: ‘ In my view, fiction should only be written if the writer has talent. So much work is produced by people who should not produce – whether women or men.’
Being even more intelligent and talented than most of her acclaimed contemporaries, Marian Evans never tries to suppress her femininity. For her feelings are just as important as the mind: ‘Ruskin opens the mind. Read Ruskin, my dear Maria. This is how life is lived. Through feeling.’ Moreover, she constantly sacrifices herself in the name of her loved ones and is deeply hurt every time when they let her down.
What touched me most as a reader is the vivid depiction of the grief Marian feels after Lewes’ death. It is so excruciatingly painful and tangible. Her sorrow is what makes her decision to marry Johnny Cross sensible and non other that Lewes’ own son Charles understands it perfectly well: ‘Charles came the following evening straight after seeing Johnny. He had wanted to see Marian immediately. He was happy for her. The Pater wouldn’t have minded either – he didn’t have a jealous bone in his body. Marian had never been so fond of Charles. She in turn tried to explain herself to him. ‘I couldn’t have written more books,’ she said, ‘if I hadn’t been human.’ And later she adds: ‘I am so tired of being put on pedestal, and expected to vent wisdom.’
‘In Love with George Eliot’ is a novel for people who already are in love with the famous writer, but it could also make you fall in love with her even deeper. As Kate, the narrator of the contemporary plotline says:‘ writing this book, I have been fascinated when Eliot finds herself sprouting feelings and sensations, like some impossible plant growing from her own chest, arms, hands for Cross.' Even though her marriage to Cross is disastrous, it shows her emotional and caring nature which could not and should not be condemned.
(1) https://youtu.be/Qv7gyFBSDws podcast and video interview, Nalini Haynes talks to Kathy O’Shaughnessy
(2)‘ In Love with George Eloit’ , Kathy O’Shaughnessey, Published November 1st 2019 by Scribe UK