When George Eliot and G H Lewes met Richard Wagner’s wife Cosima, they were instantly enchanted. Throughout the Wagners’ five-week sojourn in London in 1877, the pair enthusiastically escorted her around town: ‘We are both in love with Madame Wagner,’ wrote Lewes; ‘a rare person, worthy to see the best things,’ echoed George Eliot. This is bizarre, on various counts. Did Cosima, for instance, not know of George Eliot’s essay expressing distinctly tepid enthusiasm for Wagner’s operas? And how on earth could George Eliot not be repelled by the Wagners’ notoriously violent anti-Semitism, when she herself had just published a novel so sympathetic to the Jews and a Jewish homeland as Daniel Deronda?
One can only conclude that Cosima must have had enormous charm and tact when she chose to exert it. But these are qualities singularly absent from Oliver Hilmes’s scrupulously researched biography, fluently translated from the German by Stewart Spencer. Hilmes claims not to be parti pris about his