The Transferred Life of George Eliot: The Biography of a Novelist by Philip Davis - review by Patricia Duncker

Patricia Duncker

The Eyes Have It

The Transferred Life of George Eliot: The Biography of a Novelist


Oxford University Press 410pp £25 order from our bookshop

Has George Eliot been lucky in her biographers? Since Gordon Haight’s monumental classic biography, published in 1968, her story has been rewritten again and again, mostly by women. Eliot was a writer with many names and many identities; she attracts all comers. Brenda Maddox even wrote a brief and cheerful scandal-biography (2009), which suggests that Eliot led a racy sex life, demanded rapacious sums for her novels and flung herself at every man who took the slightest interest in her. Maddox is one of the few biographers who looked carefully at the Italian police reports of the sad fortunes of John Walter Cross, whom Eliot actually married in May 1880, seven months before her death. Cross was twenty years her junior and threw himself into the Grand Canal while the couple were on honeymoon in Venice, a failed suicide attempt that generated a lot of malicious speculation. Cross, unkindly described as ‘George Eliot’s widow’ after her death in December that year, tended the sacred flame of his wife’s genius and became one of her first biographers. Philip Davis praises Ruby Redinger’s George Eliot: The Emergent Self (1975) and the term ‘emergent’, coined by Eliot’s not-quite-husband G H Lewes, figures as a key concept in Davis’s discussion of the ways in which her two loves of 1852, the philosopher Herbert Spencer and Lewes himself, influenced her intellectual trajectory.

Davis’s approach to his subject is as moral and high-minded as the lady herself. He traces the process through which Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans became George Eliot. Davis has written an intellectual biography, a life of the mind. Instead of asking how her writing might be illuminated by understanding her life, Davis interrogates the fiction, which is central throughout this densely written and original study, and asks what we can learn from her writing about how she saw the world and what she thought. What is it like to see through Eliot’s eyes and to be seen by her? People who knew her dwelt on the arresting beauty of her eyes and her voice. The former, painted at different times of her life, appear on the cover, reminding us of the capacity for judgement and selection that shaped her work, exemplified in her famous use of the omniscient narrator.

Davis knows Eliot’s writing – her fiction, essays, letters, even her manuscripts – down to the last dash and comma. The great strength of this book is his practice of close reading. Until you see this microscopic consideration of a text done well, you do not realise how small a part slow, reflective, thoughtful close reading plays in contemporary criticism, or how difficult it is to do. Davis has a ferocious talent for seizing upon details and teasing out their significance; he pounces on a verb, or a conjunction, or a hesitation in Eliot’s grammar, showing how it elucidates and deepens both the thinking of her characters and the novelist’s own perceptions. Davis is the slow and careful reader George Eliot desired. The results are a revelation.

In an early analysis of her childhood passions and traumas, Davis concentrates on the relationship between brothers and sisters: Isaac and Mary Ann Evans; Tom and Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (1860); the moment of compassion Mr Tulliver shows towards his hapless sister Gritty; and the ‘Brother and Sister’ sonnet sequence, written in 1869 and published in 1874. Each version of this relationship is closely examined in terms of the shifting movements of loyalty, love, betrayal and condemnation within it and also its connection to the others. Eliot’s habit of layering each moment with meaning is traced with committed sympathy. Davis demonstrates the truth of D H Lawrence’s observation on Eliot’s work, ‘It was she who started putting all the action inside.’ If a crucial passage from an early text proves vital to a later argument, Davis will discuss it again, and that passage then seems entirely new and different. Davis’s organisation of his study manages to be both chronological and thematic. This book is filled with echoes.

Davis is well aware of the dissenting voices that can justly be raised against Eliot. Here was an advocate of Christian morality without God, an atheist author of fictions filled with sensitive clerics, a writer whose misplaced faith in the best of human nature seems withered and ridiculous in the face of Europe’s dark history. His strategy is to marshal the objections raised by her contemporaries, in particular R H Hutton and the belligerent Nietzsche. Hutton, editor of The Spectator, was an important contemporary reader, and she took his criticisms seriously. He noted the importance of her translations, especially of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, to her intellectual development. For him, Eliot was unable to do without the opium of religious consolation; she could not leave her characters or her readers in a universe that had become ‘a mighty stranger’. Nietzsche’s characteristic savagery, meanwhile, took no prisoners:

G. Eliot. – They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little blue-stockings à la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear-inspiring manner as a moral fanatic.

Eliot believed that we can find meaning in our sorrows and in human goodness. Yet oppression, pain and grief very rarely improve the moral character of the one who suffers. Did her fictions offer the fraudulent consolation to her readers that she denied herself? Eliot never ceased to doubt the value of her writing and the permanence of her legacy.

Women writers and readers, then and now, have a good deal to gain and lose by championing the life and work of Eliot. The fact that Eliot herself eloped with the married G H Lewes but insisted on calling herself Mrs Lewes irritated the enemies of Victorian hypocrisy and compromise. No one can deny Eliot’s towering intellectual authority or the extraordinary power of her work, but we can question her sexual politics, often at odds with the more radical women of her entourage, even those who were her most astute and loyal readers, such as Barbara Bodichon and Edith Simcox. She often portrayed pretty women as ignorant or selfish victims, both of men and of their own egotism and stupidity: Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede, Rosamond in Middlemarch and Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. Even the noble women Eliot represents as ardent seekers after truth and the ‘Perfect Right’ are often either obtuse or deluded. And it is here that the omniscient narrator, seeing all, seems patronising and cruel.

Davis would disagree. He believes that Eliot wrote her books in blood and suffered every step of the way with her characters; great art can teach us how to live and how to feel. For me, the jury is still out on that one, but I do believe that George Eliot can teach us how to think. How many books of erudite, intellectual biography and closely argued literary criticism can ever be described as an enthralling, lucid, page-turning read? The Transferred Life of George Eliot is all these things and Philip Davis is the searching, perceptive critic this great novelist deserves.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

OUP Niven

Follow Literary Review on Twitter