The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life review – one from the heart | Biography books

“There is something dazzling about marriage,” writes Clare Carlisle at the start of this wonderful book. “That leap into the open-endedness of another human being.” Prof Carlisle knows about such leaps: she is the biographer of madcap Danish sage Søren Kierkegaard, for whom Abraham’s leap of faith in God is the ultimate act of trust, beyond reason or calculation. Marriage could be like that.

George Eliot imagined so. “The very possibility of a constantly growing blessedness in marriage is to me the very basis of good in our moral life,” she wrote to a friend. Happily, Eliot realised that possibility by leaping, as Victorian contemporaries would see it, into a sinful relationship unsolemnised by church or state with the philosopher and journalist George Henry Lewes. Friends snubbed her; beloved brother Isaac didn’t speak to her for 23 years; Queen Victoria read her but wouldn’t stoop to meet this scandalous woman.

And yet the marriages Eliot depicted most strikingly in her novels were nightmares of coercion and control – as if she were trying to warn women against leaping into folly. Janet Dempster is battered and thrown into the street barefoot by her drunken husband in Scenes of Clerical Life. In Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke, seeking intellectual communion with a like-minded spouse, winds up jealously circumscribed, thwarted and exploited by Casaubon, her pompous husk of a husband.

In her last great novel, Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth is assaulted and humiliated sexually by Grandcourt. On her wedding night, awaiting Grandcourt’s arrival in the bedroom, she sees herself repeated ad infinitum in glass panels, becoming part of, as Carlisle puts it, “a long procession of virgin brides who have gone before and will follow after across the marital threshold”.

Perhaps it was for the best that Eliot’s most lovably untamed heroine, Maggie Tulliver of The Mill on the Floss, turns down two suitors and then drowns in a flood instead of joining that procession. Eliot side-stepped that fate in another way.

We meet Eliot at the start of Carlisle’s book at St Katharine Docks in London. It’s dawn in July 1854, and she is ready to make her leap of faith. She and Lewes are flitting to Germany on what amounts to a honeymoon. There he will research his biography of Goethe and she will become an artist.

At that moment, she was not yet George, but someone else. Born Mary Anne Evans, she also used the name Marian and even Marianne, before assuming the pen name George Eliot, while letting herself be known as Mrs Lewes (not least to prospective landlords), and Polly to her beloved (whom in return she called Little Man). The woman we know as George had more than a double life: she made her way through Victorian patriarchy by any aliases necessary.

Like Jane Eyre’s Rochester, Lewes was ugly yet (or so Carlisle tells us) irresistible. Eliot was ugly too: Henry James, a great admirer of her fiction, described Eliot as “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous”. But at least she was as weighed down with baggage as Lewes. Like Rochester, Lewes was already married. True, he didn’t keep Agnes Lewes in the attic as Rochester did with Bertha, his purportedly mad Creole bride; rather Agnes, after having had three sons by Lewes, betrayed him and went on to have four more children with his friend Thornton Hunt.

We don’t get to hear much from Agnes, though what she thought about marriage and adultery would have been interesting reading. Lewes could never afford to divorce her. Eliot supplanted her nonetheless, signing herself “Mother” in letters to the Lewes’s three sons. Eliot’s literary earnings, brokered by Lewes who in effect served as her literary agent, supported Agnes, even after Lewes’s death.

Lena Dunham once tweeted of Eliot that “she was ugly AND horny!”. Let’s hope, but how Dunham would know is beyond me. Eliot took her correspondence with Lewes to her grave in Highgate cemetery. Carlisle’s biography focuses on intellectual rather than sexual fulfilment, depicting Mr and Mrs Lewes reading Dante, Darwin, Hegel and Goethe to one another in the afternoons after mornings spent in their respective studies frenziedly pen-scratching.

What did she see in him? “The secret to his lovableness,” wrote the couple’s suffragist friend Edith Simcox, “was that he was happy in being kind.” One can overstate Lewes’s kindness. As soon as they got to Berlin in 1854, Lewes encouraged Eliot to translate Spinoza’s Ethics from the Latin. But when the publisher wouldn’t pay the £75 Lewes demanded, he refused to hand over his beloved’s manuscript. The result? Eliot’s translation went unpublished for 100 years. A great shame since, as Carlisle explains, the excommunicated Jewish philosopher’s sense of what the role of feeling, rather than mere rational thought, could have in understanding human flourishing is key to appreciating Eliot’s mature writings.

This isn’t a small matter, since Carlisle, philosophy professor at King’s College London, shows us how through her novels Eliot expanded what philosophy could be, not least by taking marriage seriously in a way that mere male philosophers would or could not.

Finally, Eliot has got the biographer she deserves, namely an ardent and eloquent feminist philosopher who shows us how and why Eliot’s books, rightly read, are as philosophically profound as any treatise written by a man. Carlisle has edited Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics and recently wrote a book on the philosopher’s expansive understanding of religion.

“When I studied philosophy at university,” writes Carlisle, “most of the authors I read were unmarried men: Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.” They feared, she suspects, that marriage in general and kids in particular would hamper the serious business of philosophy. But that lack of experience, Carlisle implies, has made philosophy as dry-balled and fruitless as Rev Casaubon.

“Its habitual modes of rationalism and empiricism will not do,” writes Carlisle of philosophy near the end. “Marriage resists these lines of enquiry not because we have failed to think clearly or to gather sufficient evidence but because of the complexity and aliveness of the human heart.”

Her argument chimes with what another female philosopher, Iris Murdoch, wrote in her essay Against Dryness, where she indicted anglophone analytic philosophy for its detachment from the blood and guts of life. Murdoch’s novels, like Eliot’s, went where male-dominated academic philosophy feared to tread.

Two years after Lewes’s death aged 61 in 1878, George Eliot got married. John Cross was a banker 20 years her junior and had doubled her bank balance with canny investments. Their Venetian honeymoon was a disaster. Cross had a breakdown and attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Grand Canal. As if marriage is not just something one leaps into, but, in extremis, leaps out of.

Eliot died aged 61 in December 1880. Cross survived to write her multivolume hagiography and lobby the church to honour her. Only in 1980 was a memorial plaque for Eliot installed at Westminster Abbey between WH Auden and Dylan Thomas. It bears a quote from Scenes of Clerical Life: “The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second something to reverence.” Carlisle’s book shows us that, happily, Mr and Mrs Lewes, though they never married, found both.



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