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George Eliot in Loveby Brenda Maddox
George Eliot is one of the most celebrated novelists in history. Her books, including Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, and Adam Bede, are as appreciated now as they were in the nineteenth century. Yet her nonconformist and captivating personal lifea compelling story in itselfis not well known. Ridiculed as an ugly duckling, Eliot violated strict/i>
George Eliot is one of the most celebrated novelists in history. Her books, including Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, and Adam Bede, are as appreciated now as they were in the nineteenth century. Yet her nonconformist and captivating personal lifea compelling story in itselfis not well known. Ridiculed as an ugly duckling, Eliot violated strict social codes by living with a married man for most of her adult life. Soon after he died, she married a much younger man who attempted suicide during their honeymoon. The obstacles Eliot overcame in her life informed her work and have made her legacy an enduring one.
Brenda Maddox brings her lively style to bear on the intersection of Eliot's life and novels. She delves into the human side of this larger-than-life figure, revealing the pleasure and pain behind the intellectual's public face. The result is a deeply personal biography that sheds new light on a woman who lived life on her own terms and altered the literary landscape in the process.
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[A] jaunty sketch of Eliot's life.
Here, we get a clear and absorbing sense of Eliot, not as public intellectual or thinker, but as a human being, silly, on occasion, like us.
This brief life is lively, compressed, fluent, sympathetic, and well-written.
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George Eliot in Love
By Brenda Maddox
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Brenda Maddox
All rights reserved.
FATHER'S LITTLE WENCH (1819–1832)
"But were another childhood-world my share, I would be born a little sister there."
—George Eliot, "Brother and Sister" sonnets, 1874
Her face was her fortune. When their second daughter was born on November 22, 1819, Robert and Christiana Evans could see at a glance that she would find it hard to fulfill a girl's primary task: to find a husband; she would have to make her own way in life. The heavy, irregular features resembling her father's were there from the start: large, drooping nose, long chin, prominent jaw. Decades later, when she had become a famous novelist, many would attempt to describe her odd appearance. George Eliot, the young Henry James wrote to his father in 1870, was "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." But James quickly noticed (as her parents seem not to have done) that "in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind."
Mary Anne Evans was born into the middle class of Middle England, in Warwickshire, at South Farm, outside the town of Nuneaton. She was third of the five children of Robert and Christiana, his second wife. The twin sons who arrived fourteen months later died shortly after birth. Mary Anne's mother never recovered. She was chronically ill and depressed, and being left with the unattractive little girl as her last child only made matters worse. Mary Anne unfortunately inherited both her mother's poor health and low spirits.
Robert Evans was land agent for the Arbury estate, which stood on the wooded fringes of Nuneaton. Situated over Warwickshire's richest coalfield, Nuneaton was four miles from Coventry, an industrial, once-medieval city southeast of larger and newer Birmingham. The railway would not reach Coventry or Birmingham until 1836.
When Mary Anne was only a few months old, the family moved to Griff House, on the edge of the Arbury estate. Griff was a spacious, eight-bedroom redbrick house with a cobbled courtyard, ivy-covered walls, and large chimney pots. Its grounds held numerous barns, stables, dairy sheds, and what was called "the Round Pond."
A reminder that there was a larger world came twice a day, at ten in the morning and three in the afternoon, when the stage coach rumbled along the Coventry Road, past the Griff gates on one side and a quarry on the other.
The rest of the time, the residents of the Arbury estate lived within its seven-thousand-acre universe of farms, forests, and mines. Running through the property was the canal that carried coal from the mines into Coventry. Mary Anne's strong feelings about the dangers of water so vividly expressed in The Mill on the Floss perhaps originated here, with the pond and the canal so nearby.
Before the Reform Act of 1832, England was governed by its landowning class. Five percent of the population owned seventy-nine percent of the land. This landed gentry also held most of the votes in the House of Commons. Many places of rapid growth, like Birmingham, had no representation at all, while virtually unpopulated electoral districts sent a Member to Parliament. Seats in these "rotten" boroughs (those of fewer than two thousand people) and "pocket" boroughs (where patrons chose the Members) were controlled by the local landowners, who sold or gave them out at their whim.
As a young man, Robert Evans had been an artisan, good with his hands, especially at carpentry. His skills soon secured him a place in this fixed hierarchy, although he was very conscious that his wife's social status was slightly higher than his because her father owned a small property. Even so, as a manager, Evans stood well above a simple farmer or weaver. Land agency, or estate management, was a decidedly middle-class occupation. The job demanded skill and knowledge, and Evans was one of the best. Mary Anne later claimed that he was "unique amongst land agents for his manifold knowledge and experience," which saved his employers the cost of hiring experts for surveying, excavating, bookkeeping, and making various decisions about property ownership. Evans, physically strong and commercially shrewd, was indispensable to the Newdigate family, who employed him.
Evans's loyalty to the Newdigates was unshakable. He followed his master in always voting Conservative, and his first wife, Harriet Poynton, had been a lady's maid on the Newdigate staff. The couple had two children, Robert and Frances (or Fanny), but Harriet died giving birth to their third child (who also died) in 1809.
Arbury Hall, the center of Evans's world, was the seat of Francis Parker Newdigate. As plain Francis Parker, he had inherited the estate in 1806 from a baronet cousin, Sir Roger Newdigate. Taking Newdigate as his own name, he moved south to Nuneaton from his estate at Kirk Hallam in Derbyshire and brought Robert Evans with him. The Evans family, originally from Wales, had lived in Derbyshire for many generations before this, and a brother remained in Kirk Hallam to manage some acres rented from Newdigate.
Evans's duties at the Arbury estate included acting as a relief officer. He distributed assistance to the poor and helped administer the workhouse, the hospital trust, and the Sunday school. He called Newdigate's attention to the need to lower rents when the harvest was poor. Mary Anne acquired from him a sympathy and sense of responsibility for the welfare of working families; she saw how they went hungry when the crops were bad and how their children suffered when their shoes were worn through.
* * *
Many would later remark on the absence of significant mothers in the fiction of George Eliot. The well-chronicled depressions in Mary Anne Evans's life may have stemmed from the fact that her mother did not love her—not in the way that a child needs for self-confidence throughout life. In Mary Anne's personal journals and diaries there is little evidence that her own mother figured very strongly in her life except to register disapproval. Her mother was aggravated by Mary Anne's straight and wispy hair, which resisted all efforts to keep it out of her eyes—so unlike her elder sister Chrissey's hair, blonde and curly, as a girl's should be. Her brother later recalled that he had been his mother's favorite, and that Chrissey was the favorite of their aunts because she, unlike Mary Anne, was always neat and tidy. Fortunately for the little girl, she became her father's pet. Clever and interested in everything he did, she was a good companion for Evans, who was then in his mid-forties. He took his "little wench," as he called her, with him as he drove on his rounds. It was he who gave her her first book, The Linnet's Life. She loved the pictures, especially one showing the linnet (a common gray-brown songbird) feeding her young.
Mary Anne would accompany her father along the mile-long drive leading up to Arbury Hall, an Elizabethan mansion romanticized in the eighteenth century with Gothic revival touches such as battlements, fan-vaulting, turrets, and oriel windows. While Evans transacted his business, his daughter would sit obediently with the housekeeper or servants in an anteroom. She did the same when he went to nearby Astley Castle to see his employer's son, Colonel Newdigate. At her father's side, Mary Anne absorbed the rhythms of the agricultural year. All her life the sight of well-kept fields would please her; she would always prefer country to town. She also accepted as the natural order of things the stratification of a community by property and rank and later wove it lovingly into the background of her best novels set in England.
Very bright yet unsure of herself, Mary Anne doted on her brother Isaac, who was about three years older. Isaac was the center of her life. Together they spent part of each day at a dame school (a small informal school run by a local housewife) across from Griff. The rest of the day she followed him like a puppy and watched him fish. Some biographers have assumed that Mary Anne expressed the strength of this early attachment in an emotional passage cut out from a draft of The Mill on the Floss. Movingly, it describes how little Maggie Tulliver adores her older brother Tom,
who liked no one to play with him but Maggie; they went out together somewhere every day, and carried either hot buttered cakes with them because it was baking day, or apple-puffs well sugared; Tom was never angry with her for forgetting things, and liked her to tell him tales.... Above all, Tom loved her—oh, so much,—more even than she loved him, so that he would always want to have her with him and be afraid of vexing her; and he as well as every one else, thought her very clever.
Their closeness was shaken when, at the age of eight, Isaac was sent away to school at Foleshill, on the outskirts of Coventry. Losing her closest companion was painful enough, but when Isaac returned for the holidays, it seemed to Mary Anne he had changed. The gulf between them widened when he was given a pony and was free to roam by himself. Many forces converge to pull an older sibling away from an adoring younger one, but Mary Anne never stopped loving the brother whom, even then, she felt she had lost.
Christiana Evans seemed to prefer a child-free household. The two children from her husband's first marriage were packed off early—Robert, at seventeen, was sent to run the Kirk Hallam holdings in Derbyshire, and with him, his young sister Fanny, to keep house. In 1824, at age five, Mary Anne herself was sent away to join Chrissey as a boarder at Miss Lathom's school in Attleborough, less than a mile from Griff.
At Miss Lathom's she presented an odd combination of intelligence and awkwardness. She could not push past the older girls to get near the fire. Her suffering from the cold was an early sign of the poor health that was to cloud her life. She became afraid of the dark and suffered from night terrors. Frequently she burst into tears. One of her schoolmates remembered her as "a queer, three-cornered, awkward girl, who sat in corners and shyly watched her elders."
As a young child, she had been slow to learn to read; her half-sister, Fanny, assumed it was because she preferred to play outdoors with Isaac. However, by the age of seven, she had plunged into Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott, and was inconsolable when the book had to be returned to a neighbor before she had finished it. Out of frustration she began to write out an end to the story herself.
In 1828, when she was eight, Mary Anne was moved to Mrs. Wallington's, one of the best boarding schools in Nuneaton. It cost more than Miss Lathom's, but her parents did not balk at the expense of sending both their girls to a school that would smooth the rough edges of an agricultural childhood, teaching them manners, the piano, and French. It was considered an investment to prepare their daughters either to find good husbands or to support themselves as governesses. As the school was not far from home, the girls returned to Griff at weekends. During the week their father would drop by to see how they were getting along. He also saw to it that they got fresh eggs and country produce at the school.
There were thirty girls, all boarders, at Mrs. Wallington's. The school was run by three Irishwomen: Mrs. Wallington, from Cork, her eldest daughter Nancy, and Miss Maria Lewis. When her father fetched Mary Anne home for her tenth birthday, Miss Lewis came with them, and they all went to Chilvers Coton parish church together. The Evans family now recognized that Mary Anne was unusually clever and watched with pleasure the charades that she and Isaac would act out to entertain the household and visiting aunts.
In Miss Lewis, Mary Anne found the first person to perceive her intellectual gifts and also someone to provide the sympathetic mother figure she craved. She shared two characteristics with this favorite teacher: intellectual curiosity and a conspicuous lack of beauty. Miss Lewis had a severe squint that effectively doomed her to spinsterhood.
But Miss Lewis was more than a teacher. She was an evangelist, a disciple of the charismatic preacher John Edmund Jones, who was, like John Wesley, a Church of England evangelical. The challenge of Wesley's Methodism, as well as the vitality of Dissenting sects such as the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, had forced the Anglican Church to make a corner for evangelists, for whom ritual, liturgy, and the sacrament were less important than prayer and a knowledge of the Bible. Instead, they emphasized spreading the good tidings of the Gospels and striving for salvation through introspection and self-deprecation. Against this background, Miss Lewis guided her eager pupil into intensive Bible reading.
In Nuneaton, Jones's passionate sermons caused great division. Someone once threw a rock at him through the church window; his life was under constant threat. Robert Evans himself was moved to join the throng who went to hear the sermons, although he himself never veered from the High Anglican path favored by Arbury Hall. (However, his brother Samuel had become a Methodist, and Elizabeth, Samuel's wife, a Methodist preacher.)
Mary Anne's personal combination of strong intellect, wide reading, and low self-esteem made her vulnerable to a doctrine of self-effacement and duty toward others. She also acquired a lifelong interest in the dilemmas of clergymen struggling to be true to faith and flock. Clerics would be among the most vivid characters in her fiction.
Later, she and Maria Lewis would keep up an extensive correspondence (in which Mary Anne would sign herself Polly—a nickname for Mary). In those letters, as well as in her reading, Mary Anne reveals an interest in philosophy and ethics extraordinary in a young girl. As Eliot biographer Kathryn Hughes wrote in George Eliot: The Last Victorian, "If loving God was what it took to keep Miss Lewis loving her, Mary Anne was happy to oblige."
Mary Anne's devotion to God and to her teacher would carry her through the next decade.CHAPTER 2
A SAINT, PERHAPS? (1832–1841)
When Mary Anne was twelve, she moved to the best girls' school in the Midlands. It was run by the Franklin sisters, daughters of a Coventry Baptist minister and themselves fervent evangelists, well read and well spoken. One had studied in Paris, where she acquired fluent French. This step up in scholastic rigor gave Mary Anne her first taste of a wider world; one pupil was from New York, another from India. Her sister Chrissey did not make the move—the school was too academic for her. After finishing at Mrs. Wallington's school in Nuneaton, Chrissey returned home to Griff, while Mary Anne remained with the Franklins until she was sixteen.
Franklin girls were urged to read widely. Mary Anne's taste was extended beyond the Bible to Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron, and Wordsworth. Maria Lewis sent her a novel; in response, Mary Anne sent back a surprisingly self-analytical confession about the temptations of fiction as a refuge from reality: "When I was quite a little child I could not be satisfied with the things around me; I was constantly living in a world of my own creation, and was quite contented to have no companions that I might be left to my own musings and imagine scenes in which I was chief actress."
From the start, Mary Anne's work was outstanding. In her first year she won the French prize (a copy of Pascal's Pensées) and she began to append to her notebooks a Frenchified version of her name, Marianne Evans. Her teachers read her essays for pleasure. One of her papers, which was remarkably confident and didactic for a girl of fourteen, was titled "Admiration and Conceit." In strong language, she condemned affectation as "one of the most contemptible weaknesses of the human species." Conceited men, she went on, were guilty of the "deceit of affectation" while women "who set great store by their personal charms" seemed concerned not only to elicit the admiration of one sex but at the same time "the envy of the other."
This pedagogic essay, with its psychological probing into human motives, suggests that she was both steeling herself against envying prettier girls, and preparing the moral groundwork to tell others how to live.
At the Franklins' school, Mary Anne worked very hard. Already she was an accomplished pianist, and the school often invited her to play for visitors. But her fine performances were often marred because she would end up running off in tears, convinced she had done badly. She worked on her speech, too. With diligence and deliberation, she eradicated her Midlands accent and the halting phrases of a farm girl. She lowered and modulated her voice; for the rest of her life the low, musical quality of her speech would be one of her most distinctive characteristics.
Even so, she retained a good ear for the local dialect. In a letter to a friend many years later, she spelled out how to speak it: "self" was "sen," "year" was "'ear," and "head" "yead." In "of," the f was never pronounced, nor the n in "in."
Excerpted from George Eliot in Love by Brenda Maddox. Copyright © 2010 Brenda Maddox. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author
Brenda Maddox is an award-winning author and journalist. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Observer, The Times, and New Statesman. Her book Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA won the Los Angeles Times Science Book Award for 2002 and her book D. H. Lawrence: The Married Man won the Whitbread Biography Prize. Her book Nora was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor. She lives in London and Wales.
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<i>George Eliot in Love</i> is one of those books that you could read over and over again and not get bored. I love that George didn't live by society's standards. She was true to herself and that in itself is a great achievement. She's a strong, powerful woman who you can't help but love. Read this book, the writing is phenomenal!