Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2019

In Love with George Eliot, by Kathy O’Shaughnessy

Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of George Eliot’s birth, Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s debut novel In Love with George Eliot is a real pleasure to read, even if you haven’t read any of her novels.

I’ve read them all, and also her short stories Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) (the only title, alas, reviewed here on this blog).  I have lost count of how many times I’ve read my favourites, Middlemarch (1871-2); Silas Marner (1861); and The Mill on the Floss (1860).  I liked the others too: Adam Bede (1859); Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) and Daniel Deronda (1876); I just haven’t got round to re-reading them yet.

The only one I wasn’t keen on was Romola (1863), and now, thanks to O’Shaughnessy’s novel, I know why.  But I also now know more about the guiding principles and common themes in all Eliot’s books.  I knew the basic outline of her biography from the introductions to the Penguin editions I’ve read, and you can see this too at Wikipedia, but IMO the WP summary focusses overmuch on the political aspects of Eliot’s fiction.  It gives entirely the wrong impression of it, which is a shame if it puts some people off because the novels are often very amusing in the way that Jane Austen’s are. Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s intimate knowledge of Eliot from her reading of her letters and journals, and from the welter of biographies, brings a different George Eliot to light.

What I have always loved about Eliot’s fiction, especially the novels set in provincial England, is her portraits of human dilemmas.  People struggling with everyday life; people making heroic choices even when things go wrong and other people misunderstand; people making judgements based on gossip or societal mores instead of seeing the need to see people in the round.  In this novel, O’Shaughnessy shows how thoughtful Eliot was, not in the sense of being kind to others (though she was), but in the sense that she thought deeply, whether she was in conversation with those around her or at other times in contemplation about the relationships she had. Without the benefit of modern psychological insights, Eliot was brilliantly observant of the way people behaved and their motivations for doing so.  She was mostly so restrained and tactful in her responses, that when on reflection she thought she had not quite meant what she said or might be misconstrued, she dashed off letters to her friends to clarify and apologise if necessary.

There were, of course, good reasons why she was so circumspect with her friends.  George Eliot’s real name was Marion Evans, and though she took the name ‘Mrs Lewes’ she was never able to marry the love of her life.  The scandal of her life with the married George Henry Lewes meant that her place in society was compromised, and relationships that mattered to her were gravely affected.  She was estranged from her brother Isaac, and he saw to it that her sisters broke off contact as well.  The loneliness of her early years with Lewes made her miss the companionship of women; it was typical of the hypocrisy of the era that men could visit without compromising their reputations or setting a ‘bad example’ to the detriment of conventional marriage, but women of her own class could not and would not be seen to associate with her.

The revelation that ‘Mrs Lewes’ was the mysterious author of Adam Bede changed everything, and (with the exception of her brother Isaac) people who had kept away came flocking.  Lewes was more than Marion’s partner and lover, he was her agent as well, and he shielded her from the occasional negative review, he stage-managed the ‘at-homes’ so that her work wasn’t interrupted, and he encouraged her when the work wasn’t going well.  (He was a writer too, and the fact that Marion finished his magnum opus after his death is an indication of the extent to which he put her work first.  Not to sentimentalise this behaviour or to give it a feminist slant that would probably have surprised them both, Lewes was well aware that her phenomenal success made her the breadwinner.  Since he was not only supporting his children by the wife who wouldn’t divorce him, but also those she’d had by another man (and his best friend at that!), providing practical support to Marion so that she could write was a pragmatic decision.  Nonetheless, this stance was uncommon at the time and all credit to him.  (The novel shows Marion’s belated discovery and appreciation of how much he’d always done for her, after his death.  It’s very poignant, but also so true.  In the midst of great grief, we often find ourselves at sea because we have lost the one who shared the domestic responsibilities, and then we feel guilty and ashamed for missing the loved one for these practical reasons.)

Through her characters’ impressions of Marion, O’Shaughnessy shows her ambitions and doubts about her writing, even when she was celebrated as one of the greatest authors of her time.  Late at night, her sleepless partner George Henry Lewes stole into her study and feeling like a trespasser read her notebook:

…it was her scope, the wideness of her searching eye, roving from ancient to modern, from historian to historian, that struck him with a flame-like clarity, then; that to understand history was her driving object — to understand, even, what might constitute history of progress. He read on: what was she chasing, with her reading?  Was she meditating the idea that each perspective called history was in time superseded by another?  Was no perspective, in short, the essential perspective?  The drive, the eye, her remarkable eye, had a probing intention that was nothing short of majestic.  In woman or man.

He continued turning the pages.  But slowly he was aware of another realisation.  She, novelist that she was, must incarnate her thoughts into human drama.  No wonder she was dazzled by this challenge! (p.159)

One of the aspects of this novel that I liked was that the frontier between the known facts of Marion Evans’ life and her imagined thoughts and feelings is always clear because Marion is the character, and George Eliot is the historical personage.  In Love with George Eliot will enhance any reader’s appreciation of this great English author!

PS, the next day: I realised, when I was writing about something else today, that I was so absorbed by the George Eliot story, I had completely forgotten to mention the parallel story in this novel! In our own time, there are two women organising a conference about George Eliot, to be held in Venice. They are academic competitors, and though neither of them realise it at first, they are also competitors for the same man and there are other complications too. This aspect of this sub-plot is a parallel to the Eliot story and Lewes’ relationship with his wife, but it also enables other, more contemporary reflections on Eliot’s oeuvre and her place in literary history. Ann wants to shoehorn George Eliot into her feminist perspective, while the narrator has a more nuanced view (which is less marketable as a keynote address). Which goes to show also that George Eliot is an ‘industry’ now, and people build academic careers around her…

George Eliot by François D’Albert Durade (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

One other thing I wanted to mention.  I feel as if I’ve always known that George Eliot was a woman, and my mental image of ‘George Eliot’ has always been the 1849 portrait by François D’Albert Durade.  To me she was not a woman who had a ‘man’s name’, she had made her pseudonym her own i.e. it was the name of a very special woman, a literary hero of mine.  Prior to reading O’Shaughnessy’s novel, I couldn’t have told you George Eliot’s ‘real name.’  It simply didn’t register with me.

But in this novel, ‘my’ George Eliot’ is referred to as Marion or ‘Mrs Lewes’, and ‘George Eliot’ is merely the pseudonym, made necessary not just by the sexism of the era which consigned women’s writing to silly romances (as lampooned by Marion herself in an early essay for the journal Westminster Revierw), but also because she did not want her novel ‘tainted’ by the scandal of her relationship with Lewes.  So O’Shaughnessy’s reclaiming of the name Marion in the novel made George Eliot a different being, for me.

Image credit:

George Eliot c 1849 by François D’Albert Durade, (1804-1886) – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1405, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78993800

Author: Kathy O’Shaughnessy
Title: In Love with George Eliot
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2019, 400 pages
ISBN: 9781925849103
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing

Available from Fishpond: In Love with George Eliot


Responses

  1. I’ve only read Middlemarch which I loved. What an unusual life she had.

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    • You’ve read the best one, then. I love that book too. It was so interesting to read in this novel that Dorothea and Casaubon were modelled on a couple she encountered on her travels…

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  2. I’ve never bought the story that women authors took men’s names to get published because it is patently not true. Yes, some women hid behind noms de plume, but so do some men. And I agree with you that any name, once you attach it to a person, ceases to confer gender.

    I like George Eliot’s writing, and have read quite a few of her books, without ever considering them as a body of work. I have to go to the bookshop later today, and I’ll place an order for In Love with … (I don’t like the sound of the parallel timeline, a tired gimmick, and will have to hope it is not intrusive).

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    • Well, I think that — given I forgot all about it when I first published this review — I hope you’ll find that it doesn’t get in the way:)

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  3. I have read all of the fiction of George Eliot (or Marion Evans) except for two of her novels, ‘Romula’ and ‘Felix Holt, the Radical.
    ‘Middlemarch’ is one of my favorite novels of all time.

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    • It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Just a perfect, perfect novel:)

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  4. Love Middlemarch! Those wonderful closing lines about those who “rest in unvisited tombs” – glorious prose! Ranks as one of my all time favourite books.

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    • Very often, these books written in homage are a disappointment, but I really liked this one.

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  5. I’m thrilled to read you enjoyed this Lisa. I have a copy but had feeling a little nervous about it, in case it didn’t live up to my high hopes.

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    • I really did love it. Almost as good as reading Eliot herself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • High praise indeed. It will probably make me want to reread Eliot though!!

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        • It does!
          I am really struggling with the novel I’m reading at the moment, and it’s so tempting to zap it and retreat to Middlemarch…

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