A wise reader once remarked to me that reading George Eliot is like having a conversation with one’s cleverest, most clear-eyed friend. In which case, In Love with George Eliot is like peeking into their diary and learning their secrets. Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s novel follows Marian Evans (Eliot’s real name) from her first steps into London literary society to her death in 1880 at the age of sixty-one. O’Shaughnessy draws liberally on letters, diaries and articles written by both Evans and her circle, which give the novel the tinge of a historical document and lend it depth and veracity.
We see the development of her gargantuan mind and exquisite sensibility as she makes tentative forays into writing. We see, too, her social ostracism as she lives openly with George Henry Lewes, a married man. Evans is brave and penetrating, self-reflective almost ‘to the point of sickness’. But she is also thin-skinned and deeply sensitive, desperate for approval and full of ‘some supplicating need’. O’Shaughnessy is more interested in Evans’s private and inner life than in her proto-feminism or radical atheist convictions. Thus we spend much time at home alone with Evans and Lewes, seeing how he becomes her gatekeeper and protector, shielding her from harsh words. She turns to writing in part as a way to communicate with the world: ‘writing had offered her the freedom to speak, which felt beautiful … In real life she spoke to so few people.’