Magazine article The Spectator

Good, Bad and Ugly

Magazine article The Spectator

Good, Bad and Ugly

Article excerpt


by Kathryn Hughes

Fourth Estate, L20, pp. 384

George Eliot's reputation as a writer has never stood higher, but she lacks a definitive biography. Rosemary Ashton wrote a life in 1996 which dealt with Eliot the writer. Now Kathryn Hughes has written a sparkling life of Eliot the woman; she drags her down from her pedestal and out of the classroom, strips off her blue stockings and reinvents her for us in the 1990s.

Mary Anne Evans had a big ugly head and a long lumpy nose; she was plain but clever. Her father was agent and man of business to the Newdigate family of Warwickshire landowners, a self-made man strong as oak who would stand no nonsense. Her ill, tight-lipped mother sent her away at five to boarding-school. Jilted by her adored brother Isaac, Mary Anne grew up thin-skinned and awkward. When she was 15 her mother died, and she came home to the comfortable Midlands farm to keep house - a sour, priggish girl, deeply religious and struggling with a demon ambition.

After Isaac married, Mary Anne and her father moved to Coventry, to find her a husband. One January Sunday she refused to go to church, and her world collapsed. Not going to church put her outside the Coventry marriage market, defying her father's patriarchal authority. It plunged her into a dense, tangled thicket of theological argument. And it brought her close to Charles Bray, a free-loving, free-thinking ribbon manufacturer, with whom she may have had an affair. Mary Anne translated Strauss's Life of Jesus, gossiped on a bear rug under the Brays' acacia tree and fell unrequitedly in love with almost everyone she met, men and women alike.

Aged 30, Marian, as she now called herself, moved to London, to live as a lodger with the publisher John Chapman and his wife. She fell in love with him. Of course the threesome didn't work out, but he came to depend on her skill in editing his ailing magazine, the Westminster Review. She earned a reputation for sleeping around (George Eliot of all people!); but her cleverness apparently made her irresistibly attractive to literary men. Herbert Spencer was another lover, though exceptionally this time there was no sex. …

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