books George Eliot: The Last VictorianAuthor Kathryn Hughes –

I THOROUGHLY enjoyed this book So often you read short bios of an author and all you get is the quick and dirty overview although Benet s Reader s Encyclopedia will remain with me to the death notwithstanding the existence of Wikipedia and none of the immense collection of details that gives the essence and underlying meaning behind an artist s life This book helped me understand that George Eliot s essence was not lived with a guy in Victorian era England without being married Her lover was her muse and without him we wouldn t have the masterpiece that is Middlemarch Seems so funny that their lack of legal marriage is the always the first and sometimes only fact mentioned about her.I was also encouraged by the pure, unadulterated labor that George Eliot put into her writing Headaches, misgivings, self doubt Anyone who produces anything of value carpenter to programmer, milliner to farmer works under these stresses Although I m not a writer, I m pretty sure that novels don t pop into existence, Stephen King like, for every author.I also want to point out if only for my own reference that having had severe headaches all my life, I m comforted by the knowledge that our modern age computers 5 lane freeways terrorism is not to blame Life has been stressful since Ally Oop fashioned his first club. Kathryn Hughes s 1998 biography of the author of Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Middlemarch, among other novels, is well researched, engaging, and sometimes wryly humorous Hughes shows George Eliot in all her contradictions and complexity, explaining as much as anyone could how the writer got the way she was.Eliot is frustrating to many feminists because despite living an unconventional life, she highly valued conventionality She was the Last Victorian in the sense that her brilliant heroines usually chose to renounce the full development of their brains for a quiet domestic life Eliot herself had a remarkable career and 23 years of living with a married man who couldn t get a divorce under contemporary British law For many years she was a social outcast, even from her family.But she was in many ways a conservative, believing in gradual and incremental change over revolution or anything imposed from the top down if people weren t psychologically and socially ready She passed through passionate religious phases, ending up what I d call a highly moral humanist Together with husband George Henry Lewes, she financially supported his actual wife, the woman s many illegitimate children, and a long list of Lewes s relatives without complaint It was fascinating to learn from this book that there never would have been a George Eliot, novelist, if not for Lewes, who encouraged her to move from journalism into fiction and became Cheerleader No 1 After once expressing the mildest doubt about her untested ability to write dramatically, he learned a lesson thereafter keeping his and everyone s reservations from her, propping her up through her paralyzing bouts of depression and dark periods of low self esteem, even getting publisher Blackwell to write his pathologically touchy author fulsome letters of encouragement After Lewes died, Eliot married a man 20 years younger, who during the short time they were together before her own death, performed the same sustaining function.If you don t believe me, read the book and see what a strong case Hughes makes from the available data Eliot was undoubtedly a genius but also a victim of debilitating insecurities. Mary Ann Evans, Aka George Eliot Achieved Lasting Renown With The Novels Silas Marner, Middlemarch, And Adam Bede Her Masterworks Were Written After Years Of Living An Unconventional Life, Including A Scandalous Voyage To Europe With The Married Writer And Editor George Henry Lewes The Scandal Intensified When She Moved In With Lewes After He Separated From His Wife Eliot Re Entered London S Social Life Years Later, When Her Literary Success Made It Impossible For Respectable Society To Dismiss Her Even Queen Victoria Enjoyed Her Books She Counted Among Her Friends And Supporters Dickens, Trollope, And Several Other Victorian Literati In This Intimate Biography, Author Hughes Provides Insight Into Eliot S Life And Work, Weighing Eliot S Motivations For Her Controversial Actions, And Examining The Paradoxical Victorian Society Which She Documented To Perfection In Her Novels George Eliot What a hot tamale I thought this biography was slightly superficial at times, but at others very insightful And what fascinating material Overall I quite liked it. A very delightful and thorough biography of Marian Evans Lewes I m not sure the lay reader who hasn t read at least two of Eliot s works would enjoy it, but the textual interplay between art and life was really fun to uncover I think I actually enjoyed the beginning sections of the book when Evans was still finding her way towards fiction the most Many fascinating letters survive from this time One real tragedy is that no letters survive between Eliot and her longtime companion George Henry Lewes Surely one of the most enduring and passionate literary love stories of all time, between such unlikely figures Alas I bet they wrote some great letters However, still highly recommend this biography for any fan of Eliot and the Victorians I love biographies of women writers, and Eliot is one of the pillars of Victorian literature In a repressive time she contrived to live her life and do her art exactly as she wanted. Kathryn Hughes succeeds in presenting a vivid and psychologically acute portrayal of George Eliot one of the giants of English literature Eliot is definitely my most favourite author and while I already had a fair amount of knowledge concerning her notoriously controversial life, after reading Hughes s biography I am able to perceive Eliot s work with a totally refreshing insight, as determined by her moral and philosophical outlook I am glad that Hughes avoids the typical feminist buffoonery of simply blaming the men for the difficulties and predicaments faced by the women artists In fact, Hughes identifies that the one of the main causes of Eliot s life long morbid sensitivity and self doubt was as a consequence of rejection by her mother at such a young age Her mother preferred her older brother Isaac over her and at the age of five, Eliot was sent off to a distant boarding school where she failed to find the emotional attachment she so craved and needed For most of her young life, Eliot looked for a mother figure and she would often poignantly re interpret her friends kindness towards her as a devotion shown by a mother to her child Eliot s already emotional detachment from her mother was exacerbated by her brother Isaac s increasing alienation, which she later in life so masterfully recreates in her most autobiographical novel The Mill on the Floss Eliot s life was not easy and her plain appearance only further increased her difficulties It was very painful to read the continuous rejections and humiliations she had to suffer because of her ugliness The flattering and prettified cover image of this biography doesn t do her justice at all She had a heavy jaw, a large mouth and big nose and was often a butt of malicious jokes concerning her appearance The irony is that Hughes criticises early biographers of Eliot for toning down or being embarrassed by her horse like features, yet her own biography s cover image is the least representation of what Eliot looked liked in real life One could argue that it doesn t really matter if Eliot wasn t exactly a looker , but to ignore it is to undermine the damaging effect it had on her personality and her relationships with men prior to G.H Lewis Men were attracted by her charm and her prodigious intelligence, which was often misinterpreted by her as sexual attraction and she would form embarrassing attachments to them which would of course end up in tears of self loathing and humiliation.Hughes shines when she tackles the ultimate Eliot question which no modern biographer can eschew Why Eliot who as a Victorian woman led the most radical life imaginable, adopted a socially conservative attitude in her novels Women and men who try to cross social and class boundaries in her novels are pushed back and often punished very severely It s not that Eliot rejected feminism or she was against the idea of progress , she was just not a Utopian She championed literary realism because it was her aim to present life as it is, not as it should be Applying the darwinian principle to human societies, she insisted that human development must be slow and organic, that change must not be imposed from above but must come gradually and from within She shared the Wordsworthian view of the significance of nature and native land in the life of a man Most of her novels are set in provincial, countryside communities and she was afraid that the rapid industrialization would completely destroy the landscape which she loved and treasured so much as a child and always looked back it wistfully whenever she was exiled to London s Suburbia which she found so suffocating The biography lags behind in providing a solid literary criticism of Eliot s novels hence the 4 stars Often Hughes would resort to writing mere summaries of novel s plots and would spend too much time on searching for real people Eliot based her characters on Sometimes, she gets her information wrong For example, she says that Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede gives birth in a field , when in actual fact, she gives birth in a room She actually abandons the baby in the field Or that, G.H Lewis wrote the review of Bronte s Jane Eyre in 1847, when in fact, he wrote it in 1848 I found it ironic and amusing when G.H Lewis defended Eliot s right to remain anonymous behind her masculine pseudonym, so that her book could be judged on it s own merits, and not prejudiced as a work of a woman, or of a particular woman I wonder whether he realised that only few years ago when he himself wrote reviews of Bronte s novels, he couldn t bear not to refer to her sex, calling her novel Shirley masculine and a very antipode of lady like In the end, it was her relationship with G.H Lewis which actually sustained Eliot and gave her life a meaningful direction He gave her the love and self confidence she needed to write her novels For twenty years, it was Lewis who managed her literary career from sorting out minor quibbles with her publisher to boosting her morale whenever she fell into her usual morbid despair and self doubt As Hughes correctly points out that without George Henry Lewis, there could have been no George Eliot I ve made the review unnecessary longer, only because I love Eliot so much, both as a truly unique person and also as a greatest novelist In her time, she was a critical and commercial success I emphasize critical because there were many others who wrote absolute trash but still were a commercial success Later in her life, people would go mad about her wherever she went a stark contrast to a woman who in her earlier life twice got kicked out of her friends house In our modern time, she will perhaps never be as popular and widely read as Dickens Unlike Dickens, her novels are not page turners or filled with sinister plots They also lack the cloying sentimentality which permeates Dickens s work What Eliot offers in her novels is humanity stripped naked to its very core, with its raw and conflicting emotions We could see our own reflection in her deeply flawed characters She hated bigotry and rejected the dogmatic doctrines of organised religion Instead, she believed that morality should come from within ourselves, not from some supernatural power She believed in the effectiveness of meliorism in order to improve human society, saying that The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice Not a bad thing, I guess. On the very last page of this excellent, engrossing biography, Hughes makes a case for the newly minted 21st century as it was upon publication needing Eliot and her particular brand of Victorian social conservatism For Eliot believed that it was possible for society to move forward from the centre shunned by Post Modernism The pace would be slow, certainly, the mood both sceptical and humble But there would also be value, purpose, a sense that this was right Eliot despaired of Progress, with its crude Victorian triumphalism and lack of doubt In its place she proposed Meliorism, a slow, consensual grasping towards something better It is Meliorism which we need now Given all that s happened in the seventeen years since these words were written, and given the last year and a half alone, I wonder if Hughes still thinks this I get the idea she s advocating, just as I get it when Eliot preaches it herself I don t totally buy it I think Eliot s portrayal of Radicalism, while valid, is incomplete, and that the provincial creatures she portrays might have done well with a, say, Ida Wells or Grimke sisters in their midst It s the part of Eliot I can t quite square with the enjoyment I get from her novels Fruitless, foolish and tone deaf though such wishes may be, I don t want a George Eliot advising caution or the right kind of nationalism I need her on the MeToo side. As I ve mentioned before, for many years, it s been my ambition to research whether or not George Eliot had any contact with Rav Hirsch s community in Frankfurt when she researched Daniel Deronda. I ve taken a few steps toward that goal in recent months, and reading this biography was one of them It was impressively thorough, so I learned plenty about the life and work of Marian Lewes George Eliot, but not a whole lot about the writing ofDaniel Derondaspecifically The author doesn t share my enthusiasm for the book her reaction parallels the British one in George Eliot s era, and mine parallels the Jews But no matter, I m one step closer to being a George Eliot scholar now, and because the book paints such a kind and maternal portrait of her, I love her as a person even. On the one hand, George Eliot was easily one of the most sensational women of the nineteenth century, to say nothing of the millenium, and this bio makes her accessible to someone who read and liked Mill on the Floss, but doesn t know much about Eliot s contemporary world On the other hand, George Eliot was a woman who lived intensely through ideas, and beyond explaining Eliot s falling away from orthodox Christianity, and then very obliquely nodding toward the fact that the notion of natural history informed her novels, this bio is strikingly mum on what Eliot read and how it informed her work Instead, it s a chatty and gossipy, minutely attentive to George Eliot s hurt feelings, the changing dynamics of her friendships, and of course, the ups and downs of those endlessly speculated upon romances with men If you know nothing about Eliot s life, it s fascinating If you know even a bit about Eliot s life, it s rather hackneyed The book is premised on the idea that your emotional engagements with people are what shape you first and foremost, and the author s interpretations of Eliot s novels proceed accordingly But Eliot herself didn t believe this at least not about the life that she was leading Part of what made Eliot sensational and unorthodox and what led her to write at all was how intensely the ideas she encountered in books lit up her entire world You ll get none of that from Kathryn Hughes s version of her life.On the one hand I want to recognize and applaud the fact that this book makes the life of Eliot accessible to the modern reader On the other hand, I m disappointed that it didn t do the truly hard but worthwhile task of making her full life both emotional and intellectual vivid and engaging.