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George Eliot: The Last Victorian [NOOK Book]

Overview

This highly praised biography is the first to explore fully the way in which her painful early life and rejection by her brother Isaac in particular, shaped the insight and art which made her both Victorian England?s last great visionary and the first modern.An immensely readable biography of the 19th century writer whose territory comprised nothing less than the entire span of Victorian society. Kathryn Hughes provides a truly nuanced view of Eliot, and is the first to grapple equally with the personal dramas ...
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George Eliot: The Last Victorian

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Overview

This highly praised biography is the first to explore fully the way in which her painful early life and rejection by her brother Isaac in particular, shaped the insight and art which made her both Victorian England’s last great visionary and the first modern.An immensely readable biography of the 19th century writer whose territory comprised nothing less than the entire span of Victorian society. Kathryn Hughes provides a truly nuanced view of Eliot, and is the first to grapple equally with the personal dramas that shaped her personality – 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 time. With wit and sympathy Kathryn Hughes has written a wonderfully vivid account of Eliot’s life that is both moving, stimulating and at times laugh-out-loud funny.
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Editorial Reviews

Biography
...[A]bsorbing....a dense, exhaustively researched biography, as befitting a subject who, according to the author, was among the most intellectually rigorous writers the 19th century produced.
Library Journal
A lecturer in 19th-century English literature and author of The Victorian Governess, Hughes takes a crack at capturing the protean Eliot on paper.
Booknews
A peripatetic scholar of 19th-century English literature and history, Hughes focuses more fully on Eliot's (1819-80) private life than other recent biographers. She details the scandal that cast her into social exile until her literary successes established her at the heart of the London literary elite. She finds her to have been by turns ambitious and insecure, cerebral and earthy, provocative and conservative. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Evelyn Toynton
...[A]mong the shining dead, there are still a few who seem as though they must have been free of human foolishness....among the English novelists, the most likely candidate for this company would appear to be...George Eliot....Yet she was silly like us....It remains the task of Eliot's biographers to reconcile, somehow, this dichotomy between the majestic wisdom of her fiction and the follies to which her hunger for love could lead her..... Hughes...has made an honorable attempt to give us a ''relevant'' George Eliot...
The New York Times Book Review
Biography
...[A]bsorbing....a dense, exhaustively researched biography, as befitting a subject who, according to the author, was among the most intellectually rigorous writers the 19th century produced.
Kirkus Reviews
The third biography in scarcely as many years gets personal with the Victorian novelist known primarily through her intellectual achievements. While Frederick Karl's George Eliot: Voice of a Century (1995) perpetuated Eliot's image as a Victorian Sybil ("a massive, mythic figurehad, given to spouting riddles") and Rosemary Ashton's George Eliot: A Life (1997) tried to maintain a balance between her life and her work, Hughes (The Victorian Governess, not reviewed) focuses on her character behind the facade of fame, which Eliot could have done without. Although this approach requires some reading between the lines of early correspondence and Eliot's fiction, while Hughes often skims her intellectual and philosophical development, it also brings a sense of close familiarity with this private, inward woman. Hughes's rendering of Mary Ann Evans's life avoids gossipy revisionism and credibly fleshes out her transformation from Midlands evangelical to cosmopolitan Victorian intellectual and from an unnoticed London literary journalist to world-famous novelist George Eliot. In these pages, Mary Ann's youthful puritanical priggishness is offset by her deep emotional needs, which often arose in egotistic demands for attention from older, maternal women and in affairs with older, libidinous men, such as the philanthropist Charles Bray and the publisher John Chapman—and which typically led to "embarrassingly sudden departures from other people's houses." Evans's break with her family is particularly painful here, as Hughes shows her first quarreling with her revered father over religion, then with her adored brother over her longtime liaison with the married George Henry Lewes ("one ofthe few people in London who was demonstrably plainer than herself"). Hughes gives Lewes special credit not only for his attentive support of Eliot's doubt-ridden career in fiction, but also for their emotional union, which flourished despite his reputation for frivolity and bohemianism. Not the whole story, but a refreshingly intimate portrait. (16 pages b&w photos and illustrations, not seen)
Newsday
It is Kathryn Hughes' achievement in this excellent, extremely readable biography to show that neither George Eliot nor the Victorians were what we sometimes lazily think them.
Elle
Writers like George Eliot are capable of changing you. Eliot, at great cost, achieved for herself an intellectual and sexual independence that took another three-quarters of a century for most women to gain.... [This] fine biography—fluid, readable, and intelligent—may become the definitive study of Eliot, one of the more telling eccentrics of an eccentric period.... [An] enlightening and entertaining literary biography.
The New Yorker
In this shrewd work, Hughes takes the long view, illuminating the way that Eliot's often painful choices changed other people's minds. The intellectual and emotional events that seared her life are all here—Eliot's loss of faith, her family's fury, her unconsecrated union with a married man, her tragic second marriage.
The New York Review Of Books
Hughes writes well, neither patronizing her subject nor unduly attempting to champion her. She is good on the human weaknesses and vanity which underlay Eliot's proclaimed convictions and certainties.... [An] admirably sensible biography.
— John Bayley
London Sunday Times
[A] triumph, intelligent, persuasive, and beautifully written.
Victoria Magazine Editors
Here is a gifted woman's life lived courageously on its own terms.
The New York Review Of Books - John Bayley
Hughes writes well, neither patronizing her subject nor unduly attempting to champion her. She is good on the human weaknesses and vanity which underlay Eliot's proclaimed convictions and certainties.... [An] admirably sensible biography.
Elle
Writers like George Eliot are capable of changing you. Eliot, at great cost, achieved for herself an intellectual and sexual independence that took another three-quarters of a century for most women to gain.... [This] fine biography—fluid, readable, and intelligent—may become the definitive study of Eliot, one of the more telling eccentrics of an eccentric period.... [An] enlightening and entertaining literary biography.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007381609
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/2012
  • Sold by: Harper Collins UK
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: ePub edition
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 366,164
  • File size: 753 KB

Meet the Author

Kathryn Hughes is the author of ‘The Victorian Governess’, ‘The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton’ and the hugely acclaimed ‘George Eliot: The Last Victorian’. Educated at Oxford University, she holds a Ph.D in Victorian studies. She is a visiting lecturer at several British universities and reviews regularly for the Daily Telegraph and the Literary Review.


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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

`Dear Old Griff'

* * *

Early Years
1819-28


In the early hours of 22 November 1819 a baby girl was born in a small stone farmhouse, tucked away in the woodiest part of Warwickshire, about four miles from Nuneaton. It was not an important event. Mary Anne was the fifth child and third daughter of Robert Evans, and the terse note Evans made in his diary of her arrival suggests that he had other things to think about that day. As land agent to the Newdigate family of Arbury Hall, the forty-six-year-old Evans was in charge of 7000 acres of mixed arable and dairy farmland, a coal-mine, a canal and, his particular love, miles of ancient deciduous forest, the remnants of Shakespeare's Arden. A new baby, a female too, was not something for which a man like Robert Evans had time to stop.

    Six months earlier another little girl, equally obscure in her own way, had been born in a corner of Kensington Palace. Princess Alexandrina Victoria was also the child of a middle-aged man, the fifty-two-year-old Prince Edward of Kent, himself the fourth son of Mad King George III. None of George's surviving twelve children had so far managed to produce a viable heir to succeed the Prince Regent, who was about to take over as king in his own right. It had been made brutally clear to the four elderly remaining bachelors, Edward among them, that the patriotic moment had come to give up their mistresses, acquire legal wives and produce a crop of lusty boys. But despite three sketchy, resentful marriages, the desired heir had yet to appear. Still,at this point it was too soon to give up hope completely. Princess Alexandrina Victoria, born on 24 May 1819, was promisingly robust and her mother, while past thirty, was young enough to try again for a son. If anyone bothered to think ahead for the little girl, the most they might imagine was that she would one day become the elder sister of a great king.

    Officially the futures of these two little girls, Mary Anne and Alexandrina Victoria, were not promising. As for every other female child born that year, the worlds of commerce, industry and the professions were closed to them. As adults they would not be able to speak in the House of Commons, or vote for someone to do so on their behalf. They would not be eligible to take a degree at one of the ancient universities, become a lawyer, or manage the economic processes which were turning Britain into the most powerful nation on earth. Instead, their duties would be assumed to lie exclusively at home, whether palace or farmhouse, as companions and carers of husbands, children and ageing parents.

    Yet that, as we know, is not what happened. Neither girl lived the life that the circumstances of her birth had seemed to decree. Instead, each emerged from obscurity to define the tone and temper of the age. Princess Alexandrina Victoria, pushed further up the line of succession by her father's early death, even gave her name to it. `Victorian' became the brand name for a confident, expansive hegemony which was extended absent-mindedly beyond her own lifetime. `Victorian' was the sound of unassailable depth, stretch and solidity. It meant money in the bank and ships steaming the earth, factories that clattered all night and buildings that stretched for the sky. Its shape was the odd little figure of Victoria herself, sweet and girlish in the early years, fat and biddyish at the end. Wherever `Victorian' energy and bustle made themselves felt, you could be sure to find that distinctive image, stamped into coins and erected in stone, woven into table-cloths and framed in cheap wood. In its ordinary femininity the figure of Victoria offered the moral counterpoise to all that striving and getting. The solid husband, puffy bosom and string of children represented the kind of good woman for whom Britain was busy getting rich.

    George Eliot's image, by contrast, was rarely seen by anyone. Indeed, it was whispered that she was so hideous that, Medusa-like, you only had to look upon her to be turned to stone. And her name, during its early years of fame, suggested the very opposite of Victorianism. Her avowed agnosticism, sexual freedom, commercial success and childlessness were troubling reminders of everything that had been repressed from the public version of life under the great little Queen. By 1860 Victoria and Eliot had come to stand for the twin poles of female behaviour, respectability and disgrace. One gave her name to virtuous repression, a rigid channelling of desire into the safe haven of marriage and family. The other, made wickeder by male disguise, became a symbol of the `Fallen Woman', banished to the edges of society or, in Eliot's actual case, to a series of dreary suburban exiles.

    That was the bluster. In real life — that messy matter which refuses to run along official lines — the Queen and Eliot shared more than distracted, greying fathers. Their emotional inheritance was uncannily similar and pressed their lives into matching moulds. Both had mothers who were intrusive yet remote, a tension which left them edgy for affection until the end of their days. Victoria slept in the Duchess of Kent's room right up to her coronation, while Eliot spent her first thirty years looking for comfortable middle-aged women whom she could call `Mother'. When it came to men, both clung with the hunger of children rather than the secure attachment of grown women. Prince Albert and George Henry Lewes not only negotiated the public world for their partners, but lavished them with the intense and symbiotic affection usually associated with maternally minded wives. And when both men died before them, their widows fell into an extended stupor which recalled the despair of an abandoned baby.

    What roused them in the end were intense connections with new and unsuitable men. The Queen found John Brown, then the Munshi, both servants, one black. Eliot, meanwhile, married John Cross, a banker twenty years younger and with nothing more than a gentleman's education. Menopausal randiness was sniggeringly invoked as the reason for these ludicrous liaisons. Victoria was called `Mrs Brown' behind her back. And when John Cross had to be fished out of Venice's Grand Canal during his honeymoon, the whisper went round the London clubs that he had preferred to drown rather than make love to the hideous old George Eliot.

    Because of Eliot's `scandalous' private life, which actually the Queen did not think so very bad, there was no possibility of the two women meeting. Yet recognising their twinship, they stalked each other obliquely down the years. Eliot first mentions Victoria in 1848 when, having briefly caught the revolutionary mood, she speaks slangily in a letter of `our little humbug of a queen'. Ironically, only eleven years later, Victoria had fallen in love with Eliot's first full-length novel, Adam Bede, because of what she saw as its social conservatism, its warm endorsement of the status quo. The villagers of Hayslope, headed by Adam himself, reminded her of her beloved Highland servants, and in 1861 she commissioned paintings of two of the book's central scenes by the artist Edward Henry Corbould.

    George Eliot noticed how hard the Queen took the loss of Prince Albert in 1861 and, aware of the similarities in their age and temperament, wondered how she would manage the dreadful moment when it came to her. The Queen, in turn, was touched by the delicate letter of condolence that Eliot and Lewes wrote to one of her courtier's children on his death and asked whether she might tear off their double signature as a memento.

    The Queen's daughters went even further. By the 1870s Eliot's increasing celebrity and the evident stability of her relationship with Lewes meant that she was no longer a total social exile. Among the great and the good who pressed for an introduction were two of the royal princesses. Brisk and bright, Vicky and Louise lobbied behind the scenes for a meeting and then, in Louise's case at least, dispensed with royal protocol by coming up to speak to George Eliot first.

    The princesses were among the thousands of ordinary Victorians, neither especially clever nor brave, who ignored the early grim warnings of clergymen and critics about the `immorality' of George Eliot's life and work. By the 1860s working-class men and middle-class mothers, New Englanders (that most puritan of constituencies) and Jews, Italians and Australians were all reading her. Cheap editions and foreign translations carried George Eliot into every kind of home. Even lending libraries, those most skittishly respectable of `family' institutions, bowed to consumer demand and grudgingly increased their stock of Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss.

    What is more, all these Victorians read the damnable George Eliot with an intensity and engagement that was never the case with Dickens or Trollope. While readers of Bleak House might sniff over the death of Jo and even stir themselves to wonder whether something might not be done for crossing-sweepers in general, they did not bombard Dickens with letters asking how they should live. That intimate engagement was reserved for Eliot, who alone seemed to understand the pain and difficulty of being alive in the nineteenth century. From around the world, men and women wrote to her begging for advice about the most personal matters, from marriage through God to their own poetry. Or else, like Princess Louise, they stalked her at concert halls, hoping for a word or a glance.

    The worries which Eliot's troubled readers laid before her concerned the dislocations of a social and moral world that was changing at the speed of light. Here were the doubts and disorientations that had been displaced from that triumphant version of Victorianism. An exploding urban population, for instance, might well suggest bustling productivity, but it could also mean a growing sense of social anomie. Rural communities were indeed invigorated by their new proximity to big towns, but they were also losing their fittest sons and daughters to factories and, later, to offices and shops. Meanwhile the suburbs, conceived as a rus in urbe, pleased no one, least of all George Eliot, who spent five years hating Richmond and Wandsworth for their odd mix of nosy neighbours and lack of real green.

    For if in one way Victorians felt more separate from each other, in others they were being offered opportunities to come together as never before. It was not just the railway that was changing the psycho-geography of the country, bringing friends, enemies and business partners into constant contact. The postal service, democratised in 1840 by the introduction of the Penny Post, allowed letters to fly from one end of the country to the other at a pace that makes our own mail service look like a slowcoach. Then there was the telephone which, at the end of her life, George Eliot was invited to try. As a result of these changes Victorians found themselves pulled in two directions. Scattering from their original communities, they spent the rest of their lives trying to reconstitute these earlier networks in imaginary forms.

    Science, too, was taking away the old certainties and replacing them with new and sometimes painful ones. It would not be until 1859 that Darwin would publish Origin of Species, but plenty of other geologists and biologists were already embracing the possibility that the world was older than Genesis suggested, in which case the Bible was perhaps not the Last Word on God's Word. Perhaps, indeed, it was not God's Word at all, but rather the product of man's need to believe in something other than himself. This certainly was the double conclusion that Eliot came to during the early anonymous years of her career when she translated those seminal German texts, Strauss's The Life of Jesus (1835-6) and Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841). Her readers likewise wrestled with the awful possibility that there was no moral authority except the one which was to be found by digging deep within themselves. Not only did a godless universe lay terrifying burdens of responsibility upon the individual, but it unsettled the idea of an afterlife. To a culture which had always believed that, no matter how dismal earthly life might be, there was a reward waiting in heaven, this was a horrifying blow beside which the possibility that one was an ape paled into insignificance.

    That much-vaunted prosperity turned out to be a tricky business too. For every Victorian who felt rich, there were two who felt very poor indeed, especially during the volatile 1840s and again in the late 1860s. During Eliot's early years in the Midlands she saw the effect of trade slumps on the lives of working families. As a schoolgirl in Nuneaton she had watched while idle weavers queued for free soup; at home, during the holidays, she sorted out second-hand clothing for unemployed miners' families. Even her own sister, married promisingly to a gentlemanly doctor, found herself as a widow fighting to stay out of the workhouse.

    To middle-class Victorians these sights and stories added to a growing sense that they were not, after all, in control of the economic and social revolution being carried out in their name. Getting the vote in 1832 had initially seemed to give them the power to reshape the world in their own image: the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 had represented a real triumph of urban needs over the agricultural interest. But it soon became clear that early fears that 1832 would be the first step towards a raggle-taggle democracy were justified. On three occasions during the `hungry forties' working-class men and women rallied themselves around the Charter, a frightening document demanding universal suffrage and annual parliaments. By the mid-1860s, with the economy newly unsettled, urban working men were once again agitating violently for the vote.

    These were worrying times. The fat little figure of the Queen was not enough to soothe Victorians' fears that the blustery world in which they lived might not one day blow apart completely. In fear and hope they turned to the woman whose name they were initially only supposed to whisper and whose image they were seldom allowed to see. George Eliot's novels offered Victorians the chance to understand their edginess in its wider intellectual setting and to rehearse responses by identifying with characters who looked and sounded like themselves. Thanks to her immense erudition in everything from theology to biology, anthropology to psychology, Eliot was able to give current doubts their proper historic context. Dorothea's ardent desire to do great deeds, for instance, is set alongside St Teresa's matching passion in the sixteenth century and their contrasting destinies explained. In the same way Tom Tulliver's battles with his sister Maggie are understood not just in terms of their individual personalities, but as the meeting point of several arcs of genetic, cultural, and family conditioning at a particular moment in human history.

    While disenchantment with Victorianism led readers to George Eliot, George Eliot's advice to them was that they should remain Victorians. Despite the ruptures of the speedy present, Eliot believed that it was possible, indeed essential, that her readers stay within the parameters of the `working-day world' — a phrase that would stand at the heart of her philosophy. She would not champion an oppositional culture, in which people put themselves outside the ordinary social and human networks which both nurtured and frustrated them. From Darwin she took not just the radical implications (we are all monkeys, there is probably no God), but the conservative ones too. Societies evolve over thousands of years; change — if it is to work — must come gradually and from within. Opting out into political, religious or feminist Utopias will not do. Eliot's novels show people how they can deal with the pain of being a Victorian by remaining one. Hence all those low-key endings which have embarrassed feminists and radicals for over a century. Dorothea's ardent nature is pressed into small and localised service as an MP's wife, Romola's phenomenal erudition is set aside for her duties as a sick-nurse, Dinah gives up her lay preaching to become a mother.

    Eliot's insistence on making her characters stay inside the community, acknowledge the status quo, give up fantasies about the ballot, behave as if there is a God (even if there isn't) bewildered her peers. Feminist and radical friends assumed that a woman who lived with a married man, who had broken with her family over religion, who was one of the highest-earning women in Britain, must surely be encouraging others to do the same. And when they found that she did not want the vote for women, that she felt remote from Girton and that she sometimes even went to church, they felt baffled and betrayed.

    What Eliot's critics missed was that she was no reactionary, desperately trying to hold back the moment when High Victorianism would crumble. Right from her earliest fictions, from the days of Adam Bede in 1859, she had understood her culture's fragility, as well as its enduring strengths. None the less, she believed in the Victorian project, that it was possible for mankind to move forward towards a place or time that was in some way better. This would only happen by a slow process of development during which men and women embraced their doubts, accepted that there would be loss as well as gain, and took their enlarged vision and diminished expectations back into the everyday struggle. In Daniel Deronda, Eliot's penultimate book and last proper novel, she shows how this new Victorianism, projected on to a Palestinian Jewish homeland, might look and sound. Although it will cohere around a particular social, geographic and religious culture, it will acknowledge other centres and identities. It will know and honour its own past, while anticipating a future which is radically different. By being sure of its own voice, it will be able to listen attentively to those of others.


It was Eliot's adult reading of Wordsworth and Scott that instilled in her the conviction that `A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land ... a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection'. But it was during her earliest years, as she accompanied her father around the Arbury estate in his pony trap, that she fell deeply in love with the Midlands countryside. Her `spot' was Warwickshire, the midmost county of England. Uniquely, the landscape was neither agricultural nor industrial, but a patchwork of both. In a stunning Introduction to Felix Holt, The Radical, George Eliot used the device of a stagecoach thundering across the Midlands on the eve of the 1832 Reform Act to describe a countryside where the old and new sit companionably side by side.


In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another: after looking down on a village dingy with coal-dust, noisy with the shaking of looms, he might skirt a parish all of fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes; after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades-union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region, where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of a near market for corn, cheese, and hay.


    Mary Anne's early life, contained within the four walls of Griff farmhouse, where her family moved early in 1820, still belonged securely to the agricultural `phase of English life' and was pegged to the daily and seasonal demands of a mixed dairy and arable farm. Although there were male labourers to do the heavy work and female servants to help in the house, much of the responsibility was shouldered by the Evans family itself. Like many of the farmers' wives who appear in Eliot's books, Mrs Evans took particular pride in her dairy, running it as carefully as Mrs Poyser in Adam Bede, who continually frets about low milk yields and late churnings. Like the wealthy but practical Nancy Lammeter in Silas Marner, too, Mrs Evans and her two daughters had bulky, well-developed hands which `bore the traces of butter-making, cheese-crushing, and even still coarser work'. Some years after George Eliot's death, a rumour circulated in literary London that one of her hands was bigger than the other, thanks to years of turning the churn. It was a story which her brother Isaac, now gentrified by a fancy education, good marriage and several decades of high agricultural prices, hated to hear repeated.

    The rhythms of agricultural life made themselves felt right through Mary Anne's young adulthood. As a prickly, bookish seventeen-year-old left to run the farmhouse after her mother's death, she railed against the fuss and bother of harvest supper and the hiring of new servants each Michaelmas. And yet the very depth of her adolescent alienation from this repetitive, witless way of life reveals how deeply it remained embedded in her. Thirty years on and established in a villa in London's Regent's Park, her first thought about the weather was always how it would affect the crops.

    But life on the Arbury estate was no bucolic idyll. The Newdigate lands contained some of the richest coal deposits in the county. As she grew older, the fields in which Mary Anne played had names like Engine Close and Coal-pit Field. Lumps of coal lay casually amid the grass. At night the girl was kept awake by the chug-chug of the Newcomen engine pumping water out of the mine less than a mile from her home. The canal in which she and Isaac fished was busy with barges taking the coal to Coventry. And when Mary Anne accompanied her father on his regular visits to Mr Newdigate at Arbury Hall, she would have noticed the huge crack which cut across the gold-and-white ceiling of the magnificent great hall. Subsidence caused by the mine-working had dramatically marked a building whose elaborate refashioning only a generation before had come to stand for everything that was elegantly Arcadian about aristocratic life.

    Nor did Mary Anne have to look very far to fit the uneven textures of the Arbury estate into the wider landscape. Most of the people in the scrappy hamlet of Griff were not farm labourers but miners. In the nearby villages people were mainly employed in cottage industries like nail making, ribbon weaving and framework knitting. The pale faces and twisted bodies of the handloom weavers struck Mary Anne as absolutely different from the Arbury farmers, a contrast she was to use later in suggesting the weaver Silas Marner's alienation from his ruddy Raveloe neighbours.

    Only a few miles along the road was Nuneaton, the market town where Mary Anne was soon to go to school. In her very first piece of fiction she describes the town — renamed Milby — as a place where intensive homeworking had already left its grimy mark: `The roads are black with coal-dust, the brick houses dingy with smoke; and at that time — the time of handloom weavers — every other cottage had a loom at its window, where you might see a pale, sickly-looking man or woman pressing a narrow chest against a board, and doing a sort of treadmill work with legs and arms.'

    As Eliot's description of hard labour and pinched surroundings suggests, these were not prosperous times for the Midlands. Victory over Napoleon in 1815 had meant an end to protection against imports of French and Swiss ribbon. A couple of months before Mary Anne's birth, a cut in the rate paid to silk weavers brought an angry crowd out on to the street. There was jeering and jostling, and a man accused of working under-price was tied backwards on a donkey and led through the streets. Later, as a schoolgirl in Nuneaton, she was to see hunger-fuelled rioting at first hand.

    As Mary Anne followed her father from miner's cottage to farmhouse to Arbury Hall itself, she learned to place herself within this complex social landscape. She noted that while tenant farmers might nod respectfully at her, when she got to Arbury Hall, she was left in the housekeeper's room while her father went to speak to the great man. She observed a whole range of accents, dress, customs and manners against which her own must be measured and adjusted. In this way she built up a library of visual and aural references to which she could return in her imagination when she was sitting, years later, in Richmond trying to recapture the way a gardener or a clergyman spoke. It was this faithfulness to the actual past, rather than a greetings-card version of it, which was to become a plank in her demand for a new kind of realism in fiction. In Adam Bede she breaks off in the middle of describing the young squire's coming-of-age party to ask her sentimental, suburban reader: `Have you ever seen a real English rustic perform a solo dance? Perhaps you have only seen a ballet rustic, smiling like a merry countryman in crockery, with graceful turns of the haunch and insinuating movements of the head. That is as much like the real thing as the "Bird Waltz" is like the song of the birds.' Mary Anne Evans had not only seen labourers dancing, she had watched them getting drunk, making love, milking and shearing. She had been patronised by the gentry and petted by their servants. And while these pictures were neither charming nor quaint, they sustained her sense of being rooted in a community which was to carry her through the long years of urban exile. She knew every field, every hedgerow and every clump of trees. In later life, she had only to close her eyes and she could conjure up the smell of cows' breath, hay and fresh rain. But she also knew the way the muddy canal absorbed the sunlight and the noise the looms made as the weavers worked into the night. Looking at the world through her father's expert eyes, she learned to see that these two strands of life were not conflicting, but that they represented a particular moment in the development of English life. The rural community had not been destroyed, but it was being radically regeared towards technology, profit and the power of the individual to manage his own life. And no one had benefited more from these changes than Robert Evans.

    Evans had been born in Roston Common, Derbyshire, in 1773, one of eight children. There were the usual family romances about gentry stock, but by the time Robert arrived any grand connections were nothing more than stories. His father, George, was a carpenter and his mother was called Mary Leech. The five Evans boys were determined to ride the wave of social and economic expansion unleashed by the first phase of industrialisation. Second son William rose to be a wealthy builder, while Thomas overcame a shaky start to become county surveyor for Dorset. Even dreamy Samuel, who turned Methodist and kept his eye on the future world, ran a ribbon factory. Only the eldest boy, George, was unsteady. He boycotted the family's carpentry business and there was talk of heavy drinking. When he died, the Evans clan turned its collective and implacable back on his young children.

    Mary Anne was to experience both sides of this Evans legacy. Like her father and his brothers, she rose out of the class into which she was born by dint of hard work and talent. She left behind the farm, the dairy and the brown canal, and fashioned herself into one of the leading intellectual and literary artists of the day. But just like her uncle George — was it coincidence that she took his name as the first half of her writing pseudonym? — she learned what it was like to belong to a family which regularly excluded those of whom it did not approve. When, at the age of twenty-two, she announced that she did not believe in God, her father sent her away from home. Fifteen years later, when she was living with a man to whom she was not married, her brother Isaac instructed her sisters never to speak or write to her again. The Evanses, like thousands of other ambitious families at that time, demanded that its members forge their individual destinies while skirting nonconformity.

    In the case of the Evans boys, those destinies were forged in the workshop rather than the classroom. When they did attend school — run by Battle Massey, a name which would crop up in Adam Bede — it was to learn accounting, `mechanics' and `to write a plain hand'. Robert's hand did indeed remain plain all his adult life, but despite almost daily entries in his journal and a constant correspondence with his employers, he was never to become comfortable with the pen. Reading his papers remains a tricky business, thanks to patchy punctuation, haphazard spelling and a whimsical use of capitals and italics. `Balance' becomes `ballance', `laughed' is `laph'd', while `their' and `there' are constantly confused. Despite a career of forty years spent note-taking and report-making, Robert Evans remained uneasy with the written word, finding, like Mr Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, `the relation between spoken and written language, briefly known as spelling, one of the most puzzling things in this puzzling world'.

    Evans preferred to dwell in the stable and particular. As a young carpenter he had learned how to turn the elms and ash of Derbyshire and Staffordshire into windows, tables and doors. And as he walked through the forest on his way to the farmhouses where he was employed, he looked around at the trees that ended up on his work-bench. He took note of the conditions under which the best wood flourished. He saw when a stand was ready to be cut and when it should be left for a few weeks more. Later in his career it was said that he had only to look at a tree to know exactly how much timber it would yield.

    To any landed proprietor, intent not simply on gazing at his parkland but increasing its profit, a man like Evans could be useful. It was now that he came to the attention of Francis Parker, a shrewd young gentleman of about the same age, who spotted the carpenter's potential to be more than a maker of cottage doors and fancy cabinets. Parker persuaded his father — another Francis Parker — to put Evans to work managing Kirk Hallam, their Derbyshire estate. So began Evans's career as a self-made man. Reworked in fiction as the ruptured rivalrous bond between Adam Bede and Arthur Donnithorne, the real-life Parker and Evans remained cordial, but always mindful of their vastly different stations. Over the next forty years they offered each other — often by letter, since Parker lived much of the time in Blackheath, Kent — cautious encouragement and condolence as the trials of their parallel lives unfolded.

    In 1806, by a cat's cradle of a will, Francis Parker senior inherited a life interest in the magnificent Warwickshire estate of Arbury Hall from his cousin Sir Roger Newdigate. Parker, now renamed Newdigate, moved to Arbury and brought Evans with him as his agent. Evans, by now thirty-three and a father of two, was installed at South Farm, from where he could manage the 7000-acre estate while running his own farm.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgements
Ch. 1 'Dear Old Griff': Early Years 1819-28 1
Ch. 2 'On Being Called a Saint': An Evangelical Girlhood 1828-40 20
Ch. 3 'The Holy War': Coventry 1840-1 38
Ch. 4 'I Fall Not In Love With Everyone': The Rosehill Years 1841-9 59
Ch. 5 'The Land of Duty and Affection': Coventry, Geneva and London 1849-51 80
Ch. 6 'The Most Important Means of Enlightenment': Life at The Westminster Review 1851-2 102
Ch. 7 'A Man of Heart and Conscience': Meeting Mr Lewes 1852-4 126
Ch. 8 'I Don't Think She Is Mad': Exile 1854-6 150
Ch. 9 'The Breath of Cows and the Scent of Hay': Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede 1856-9 177
Ch. 10 'A Companion Picture of Provincial Life': The Mill on the Floss 1859-60 203
Ch. 11 'Pure, Natural Human Relations': Silas Marner and Romola 1860-3 229
Ch. 12 'The Bent of My Mind Is Conservative': Felix Holt and The Spanish Gypsy 1864-8 255
Ch. 13 'Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings': Middlemarch 1869-72 277
Ch. 14 'Full of the World': Daniel Deronda 1873-6 303
Ch. 15 'A Deep Sense of Change Within': Death, Love, Death 1876-80 325
Epilogue 345
Notes 349
Select Bibliography 370
Index 375
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