Magazine article The Spectator

Many Needs, Many Names

Magazine article The Spectator

Many Needs, Many Names

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Lowry GEORGE ELIOT: A LIFE by Rosemary Ashton Hamish Hamilton, 25, pp. 465

In 1991 Rosemary Ashton published a compelling life of George Henry Lewes, the Victorian essayist, drama critic, natural scientist and biographer of Goethe. In the shadows of that book one was, however, always aware of the colossal presence of his partner for 25 years, George Eliot, and Ashton now gives her centre stage. Eliot's is a remarkable story, told by Ashton with sensitivity and flair, of a mind locating its natural energy and undergoing a dramatic expansion from narrowness and timidity to an imaginative moral sympathy unequalled by any other writer of the age; as fascinating, in its successive adaptations to opportunity and circumstance, as anything described by Eliot's contemporary, Charles Darwin.

The author of those monuments to realism, Adam Bede and Middlemarch, began her life as Mary Anne or Polly Evans, the priggish evangelical daughter of a Warwickshire land agent. Until her late teens she wrote precious notelets to her friends in which she signed herself 'Clematis' and asked for their prayers, that my spirit may not become warped by intercourse with earthly trifles and considerations of worldly interest, but may rather be urged to cling closely to heavenly hopes.

Fortunately for posterity, her hopes were dashed. At 21 Polly set out to learn German, that unflowery language, in seven months flat and began to translate David Friedrich Strauss's Kantian critique of the Gospels, The Life of Christ. The successful completion of this massive task gave her the confidence to think for herself, but it also shook her faith. Her subsequent quarrel with her much-loved and equally tenacious father was only partly patched up.

After the latter's death she took a step which would have shocked him even more, moving to London where she began to edit the Westminster Review for the publisher John Chapman. Although journalism provided her with an exhilarating new intellectual outlet, she had too feeling an intelligence not to give her instincts their due: she wanted a love relationship based on parity, and she wanted marriage - she was later to find both, but not simultaneously.

All the while she was aware of being sadly handicapped by her looks. Apart from Robert Evans's principled stubbornness she had also inherited his heavy masculine face, and, knowing that her male friends did not find her attractive, had often humiliatingly to reassure them that it was not her habit `to imagine that any one is falling in love with me'.

This did not stop her from falling in love with them, but although she was prepared to turn a blind eye to their lack of physical charm, they apparently could not do the same for her. Ashton quotes a pitiful letter in which this proud woman begs the dull sociologist Herbert Spencer for his affection by pleading, `You will find that I can be satisfied with very little.' The wheedling disingenuousness of this promise is as disturbing here as it is in the letters which Charlotte Bronte was writing to her unresponsive maitre in Brussels, M. Heger, around this time (`if he gives me a little just a little - I shall be satisfied'). Of course the words of these plain women have a sense which they did not intend. As Ashton notes, Spencer's general socio-psychological theories were superseded by Freud's schema of the ego, superego and id; no one except the Bronte biographer thinks of Constantin Heger now. Both, it turns out, were little men.

In the end Marian Evans - as she called herself at 22 - did not have to be satisfied with little. …

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