In Love with George Eliot by Kathy O’Shaughnessy
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
If you’ve ever read the classics (either for school or pleasure) you’ve heard of George Eliot. If you’re like me, you didn’t know, until later, that Eliot was a pen name and the great English novelist is actually Marian Evans. I learned this decades ago, but beyond that knew nothing about Evans herself. Now, thanks to In Love with George Eliot, by Kathy O’Shaughnessy I’m better acquainted with this surprising woman, whose personal life was an affront to Victorian society.
To put it succinctly, Evans had poor taste in men. This is compounded by the fact that the circle of intellectuals she moved within espoused “Free Love”—meaning, largely, to love without legal ties, as opposed to loving numerous partners at the same time (although that could be a complication). For Evans the problems begin with John Chapman, the radical publisher of the Westminster Review. Evans had experience as a translator, but wanted to be a writer, so went to work for the journal as an assistant editor. She became involved with the married Chapman, who was also carrying on an affair with his children’s governess.
While she gave her heart to Chapman, it’s clear that, even as a young woman, Evans understands her intellectual superiority, even when emotionally involved.
But each time they talk, she is aware of his effortful formulations, that then lead him into an intellectual tangle. Whereas she, by marshalling her mind, as with a scalpel, can simply cut the interfering threads, and the thought, the important thought, can be seen.
Keeping this kind of awareness in mind helps with some of the more confusing mores of the times. It is Evans’s long-term relationship with a married man, George Lewes, that is at the heart of In Love with George Eliot. Lewes is a well-regarded critic and philosopher and is married, with three children. His wife’s lover is his best friend and they have four children.
Apparently, with discretion, Evans could have had a known relationship with Lewes, but hiding and lying was antithetical to her. She and Lewes lived together as man and wife in the countryside, away from London. This choice on Evans’s part is not inconsequential and much of In Love deals with the repercussions. Namely, being cut off by her beloved older brother and the rest of her siblings. Socially, they are pariahs as well. Only those who move in the same small circles will associate with them, leaving Evans largely alone.
While it is personally painful, it leads her to an inner life that finds its way onto the page.
And then, in her ostracized life, lonely now, so aware of being held in disrepute—writing had offered her the freedom to speak, which felt beautiful.
O’Shaughnessy’s portrait of Evans is finely drawn, but there are double standards of Victorian society and inconsistencies in her life that feel incomprehensible to the modern reader. It is only Evans who is shunned. Lewes is received in all circles and can socialize freely. Once the money starts coming in from Eliot’s novels Evans supports not only Lewes, but ALL his family—wife, children legitimate and otherwise. What?!
There is an aspect of In Love that feel questionable. There are two modern academics, women who are writing about Marian Evans. They’re useful for introducing her journals and letters, but they add very little else to the story. I never understood their reason for existing, except for a dubious contemporary claim about Evans’s life.
On Monday I reviewed a novel that required careful reading. In Love with George Eliot is a similar case. O’Shaughnessy inhabits Evans so completely that the novel mimics the stately pace of the times. The reward is that her style echoes Evan’s own keenly honed introspection and makes for compelling reading about a highly unusual woman who knew her gift to be so strong she could not be held back. Marvelous.
If you’d like to read other fiction about great female writers I’d highly suggest Vanessa and her Sister, a novel about Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Scribe US in exchange for an honest review.*