Book: George Eliot: The Last Victorian

Cover image

George Eliot: The Last Victorian

Author: Kathryn Hughes
Publisher: Cooper Square Press

A major new biography of a great english writer who has particular relevance for our own age.

For the sheer breadth of experience embodied in her life and work, George Eliot presents an ever alluring subject for biographers. The daughter of one of the new breed of self-made businessmen, she had a scandalous liaison with the married writer and editor George Henry Lewes that made an outcast of her until literary fame overcame “polite” scruples. Unparalleled among the great English novelists for her understanding of the important intellectual and political debates of her day, she nonetheless maintained a fervent attachment to the pragmatic middle ground, where idealism is tempered by love, habit, and history. It is no wonder that many a previous biographer has foundered in the face of so much richness and complexity, producing lopsided or not entirely coherent portraits of the writer.

Kathryn Hughes’s sympathetic, human, and immensely readable biography provides a truly nuanced view of Eliot, and is the first to grapple equally with the personal dramas that shaped her psyche-particularly her rejection by her brother Isaac-and her social and intellectual context. Hughes shows how these elements together forged the themes of Eliot’s work, her insistence that ideological interests be subordinated to the bonds between human beings-a message that has keen resonance in our own uneasy time.


From Gordon Haight’s scrupulous 1968 work George Eliot through Ruby Redinger’s 1976 feminist rethinking George Eliot: The Emergent Self and beyond, the unconventional life and probing fiction of Victorian England’s loftiest female author has attracted the scrutiny of numerous biographers. British scholar Kathryn Hughes’s pungent account distinguishes itself by limning Mary Ann Evans’s turbulent emotions with as much acuity as she does the creative drive that eventually led one of London’s most prominent editors and critics to reinvent herself as the novelist George Eliot. Cast out of respectable public life when she moved in with the married George Henry Lewes, Eliot found personal happiness with a man who understood her need for all-consuming love and artistic salvation. Lewes demonstrated his dedication to her by screening Eliot from outside criticism and inner doubts that could have prevented her from writing. Hughes’s analysis of their relationship is as sympathetic yet candid as the rest of her narrative. She paints a vivid portrait of Victorian intellectual life and Eliot’s provocative role within it as a writer who questioned conventional wisdom of all sorts, but whose heroines ultimately chose lives of modest usefulness within the existing society. As her biographer puts it in a typically well turned phrase, “Eliot’s novels show people how they can deal with the pain of being a Victorian by remaining one.” —Wendy Smith

It was a scandal when Victorian society realised that the morally sensitive novelist George Eliot was Marian Evans, lover of the married freethinking journalist George Henry Lewes. It was easier to sling accusations of loose morals than to contemplate the very high ethical standards of a value system all the more rigorous for being self-devised.

Kathryn Hughes’ excellent new biography of the woman who became one of the most appealing of Victorian sages has, at its heart, a sense of just how scandalous George Eliot was in her day and how much courage and nervous energy she had to expend in living a life by her own rules. Hughes suggests, convincingly, that this energy is heavily paralleled in the virtue shared by her most attractive central characters, a capacity to endure and stand by righteousness. And there is also a capacity to feel pain—Hughes attaches this, but not reductively, to the rejection of Eliot by her family for her apostasy to freethinking agnosticism from the Evangelical Christianity in which she grew up.

Eliot’s has always been a powerful story because she achieved intellectual independence as well as artistic success in a society loaded against her by propriety and sexism; Hughes does it full justice.—Roz Kaveney

Views: 246 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.017 sec