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The Best George Eliot Books

recommended by Philip Davis

The Transferred Life of George Eliot by Philip Davis

The Transferred Life of George Eliot
by Philip Davis


George Eliot is all but synonymous with Victorian realism; for D H Lawrence, she was the first novelist to start ‘putting all the action inside.’ Here, Philip Davis, author of The Transferred Life of George Eliot, selects the best books by or about one of the greatest novelists of all time: ‘If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—read George Eliot’

Interview by David Shackleton

The Transferred Life of George Eliot by Philip Davis

The Transferred Life of George Eliot
by Philip Davis

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You have written about the continuing importance of reading Victorian fiction. Why read George Eliot?

Initially, I think it’s a mistake to think that the most relevant literature is the most recent literature. Victorian realism is extraordinarily powerful, in ways that are not fully recognised, and George Eliot is the great representative of Victorian realism in ‘all ordinary human life’.

If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—then you should read George Eliot. The aim of the great Victorian novel was to include as richly as possible that diverse and difficult territory.

If you were to place her in a literary context, which other realist writers would you put her alongside?

Above all, Leo Tolstoy. But if we’re talking about the English context, then I suppose Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope and Anne Brontë. But she is in a different league to them. The only person who can touch her as a novelist, in my estimation, is Tolstoy.

If we think about later literary movements, we might think of naturalism and modernism. What are the advantages of realism over these later movements?

I tend to be wary of these titles and periods, because I think of reading as a sort of time travel. But think, for example, of D H Lawrence reading as a young man in provincial Eastwood in Nottinghamshire. He said to Jessie Chambers—the girl with whom he was reading—that it was George Eliot who ‘started putting all the action inside’.

“Victorian realism is extraordinarily powerful, in ways that are not fully recognised, and George Eliot is the great representative of Victorian realism in ‘all ordinary human life’”

Here, we have the sense that we’re getting away from the novel merely as a story or entertainment, and towards the novel as a great inward psychological investigation. Lawrence the modernist writer follows from the tradition of the great provincial writer George Eliot. The crucial method that she develops concerns psychology. It’s as if she understands human beings better than any novelist had ever done before.

Historically, George Eliot was also writing at a time when many people lost their faith in God. If such people no longer found orthodox religion credible, they nonetheless wanted something that would replace a sense of meaning and purpose in the world.

You might ask that if you haven’t got something magical to turn to, what is the purpose of what you’re doing? What would make life worth living? These are the questions that get embedded within ordinary lives in the work of George Eliot.

That’s an interesting connection between George Eliot and D H Lawrence. Although both were from the Midlands, didn’t they come from rather different classes? Lawrence’s father was a coal miner.

George Eliot was not working class in the way that Lawrence’s father was. Though if you remember, Lawrence’s mother came from a slightly higher class, and was very keen on education, so there was a tension in their marriage.

But in George Eliot’s case—or Mary Anne Evans as she was born—her father had worked his way up from being an artisan to eventually becoming the land manager of an estate for the local aristocracy. So, he was a craftsman from the higher working classes who was beginning to establish himself within a middle-class background.

But he always thought that he was under-educated, and he wanted his daughter to be properly educated. You can see some of that story in The Mill on the Floss, which is a transmuted autobiography of Marian Evans’s early life.

But it’s not just a class issue because Virginia Woolf, for example—one of the beacons of modernism—admired George Eliot greatly. She thought that Middlemarch was ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. I think that’s a wonderful idea, the novel written for ‘grown-up people’. The novel is no longer treated as an escape or a mere pastime. Rather, the novel offers you, as an adult, the best way of thinking as powerfully as possible about human existence in terms of psychology and purpose.

Why did you chose to recommend the story ‘Janet’s Repentance’ from Scenes of Clerical Life?

I was thinking partly about its chronology—it comes from her first published work. But also it is short, and so is a good place to start from if you’re coming to George Eliot for the first time.

Let’s remember that it’s sort of a miracle that George Eliot became George Eliot, which she did at the age of 37 or 38. She had formed an unconventional relationship with George Henry Lewes, who was already married. This gave her the security to begin a second life, and to transform from Marian Evans into the novelist George Eliot.

Before becoming a novelist, she had been a formidable self-educated intellectual who had virtually run The Westminster Review in London. But she was not content with just being an intellectual, because she needed something that is contained in the power of feeling as well as in ideas.

‘Janet’s Repentance’ is the best story in Scenes of Clerical Life, her first work of fiction. It is about a woman, Janet, who is married to Dempster. He is a local lawyer and alcoholic who, in his increasing degeneration, abuses and beats his wife.

The first move that George Eliot makes as a realist novelist is this: of course, Janet is a victim of her husband. But this is not a simple category. Where normal people will have one thought, George Eliot will have many. Janet, though the victim, begins to collude in what has happened to her and begins to drink herself. That makes her life more complicated.

She also takes her husband’s side in the local religious politics. A new man comes to their small town—a man called Mr Tryan—who is an evangelical, and therefore of a different religious party from Dempster. She joins with her husband in wishing to do this man down.

However, when going to visit a poor old woman who is dying, Janet stops at the threshold of the door into the sickroom and Tryan—her husband’s enemy—is there talking to the woman. As he talks, Janet cannot see him but she can hear him. Her normal prejudices built around seeing are held in abeyance, and she listens to the tone in which he speaks to the sick woman.

Janet no longer thinks of this man as an enemy but suddenly, to her surprise, finds that he is an equal human being. Such a second thought is simple, but it’s also powerful. It’s a moment when conventionalities fall away and something real happens.

This is why we shouldn’t dismiss Victorian realism as conventional. It isn’t just interested in the day-to-day; it’s interested in what happens within the day-to-day, and in revelation: suddenly seeing somebody’s inside manifested in the outside world.

“Victorian realism isn’t just interested in the day-to-day; it’s interested in what happens within the day-to-day, and in revelation: suddenly seeing somebody’s inside manifested in the outside world”

Eventually, Janet is thrown out by Dempster. You’d have thought that this would have been a great relief to her because she hadn’t dared to walk out herself—but actually she feels devastated.

Again, you see the complication. It’s not that leaving Dempster is a solution to all her troubles: rather, she doesn’t know what to do, and suddenly finds the big question of what her purpose is opening up before her.

‘Sympathy’ is a word that is often associated with Eliot. What role does sympathy play in this story?

When Janet hears Tryan comforting the dying woman, she hears the pure tones of human sympathy. He asks the dying woman to pray for him too, as he fears death and admits that it is one of his worst weaknesses to shrink from bodily pain. As a result, Janet begins to feel some sympathetic relation to Tryan: she thinks that he too is a human being, who has troubles like her own.

So, sympathy here is to do with the sudden forming of a relation. It may not be completely certain, it may be across great distances, but there is some emotional and imaginative connection. ‘Sympathy’ is better than the word ‘empathy’, because it conveys the fact that although you can feel for someone, you are not the same as them and you know it.

All the struggles to feel for and with people are involved in that word ‘sympathy’. In George Eliot, although it looks like a soft word, it becomes complicated and deep. Without sympathy as a small version of love, human beings have very little to call upon.

Janet and Tryan go on to develop a close relationship.

George Eliot is unafraid, even in a post-religious age, of the idea that people need to be saved. Janet is saved by Tryan in a secular way by the fact that at some level he loves her and she loves him.

Their relationship is not sexually consummated, but there is something sexual about it. They develop a relationship in which he is her supporter, her counsellor, the person who is going to help her from the despair of her alcoholism, so that, when he dies, she is his work; she is in memory of him.

Their relationship is about having someone to love and be loved by. In the teeth of modern scepticism, George Eliot retains a belief in the strong positive needs that make people feel vulnerable, and about which they’re often ashamed or in denial.

When Janet gets locked out of her home by the furious Dempster in the middle of the night, Eliot writes that ‘she seemed to be looking into her own blank future’. Could you tell us about the story’s presentation of time?

Yes. Suddenly Janet is freed from a situation in her marriage that had seemed endless. The present becomes very abrupt, and separated from the past, but it also seems to have no future. The future appears ‘blank’, as George Eliot puts it.

George Eliot is very interested in those moments of transition, although they don’t always feel like transition. Notionally, you know that there was the past and that there will be a future. Yet you don’t feel that the present moment is going to lead to anything; you don’t know that there will necessarily be a story or a narrative; you could just be stuck between things.

She is brilliant at depicting such ‘in-between’ moments that are deeply uncomfortable and disorienting in time or in space. She can detect them, whereas we might not have understood or even noticed them.

It’s similar to when Dorothea marries Casaubon in Middlemarch, and on her honeymoon finds herself again in that blankness, not knowing what is happening or what it is leading to. It’s in such moments that people struggle with all their resources to see if they can evolve, whilst not knowing whether there will be any emergence. That sense of crisis and predicament where time is almost suspended is crucial for George Eliot.

You mentioned Eliot’s transformation into a novelist. Could you tell us about her relationship to John Blackwood, and how that had an impact on her fiction?

The relationship with Blackwood was almost wholly conducted through George Henry Lewes. Marian Evans was a clever but unattractive woman. She had a series of embarrassing and humiliating liaisons with older men, and was variously rejected. Eventually, although it was by no means ideal because she couldn’t marry him, she found her partner in George Henry Lewes.

It was George Henry Lewes who took over the business end of things. He was the one who provided her with the confidence to try again to be a writer. She’d had some initial goes at fiction but not many, and he encouraged her.

It was he who, on the basis of his literary contacts, made a connection with Blackwood. Initially, he said that George Eliot was a male, and sought to protect her because Blackwood could be critical.

Blackwood was very concerned about ‘Janet’s Repentance’, with its risky subject matter of alcoholism and the abuse of wives. He was a decent man but very conservative. It was up to George Henry Lewes to say to Blackwood that he must not criticize his friend George Eliot because, being very thin-skinned, he would not write any more. Indeed, Lewes had to protect George Eliot throughout her life from reviews and criticism because she was highly insecure.

Blackwood became a very loyal supporter. However, there was a difficult moment when, encouraged by George Henry Lewes, George Eliot decided to leave him because a rival publisher was offering her an enormous amount of money for Romola. She returned to Blackwood later, contrite that she had left the old firm, and achieved great success with works such as Middlemarch.

Is it significant that Lewes claimed that George Eliot was a man in his initial correspondence with Blackwood?

Yes. Marian Evans was contemptuous of many women novelists. If she was a proto-feminist, it wasn’t because she wanted to support women writers. She felt that some women, whether through their own fault or otherwise, were letting down the seriousness of being a woman. So, it seemed to her best to dissociate herself from frivolous lady novelists, in order that the novel should be taken seriously.

“She felt that some women, whether through their own fault or otherwise, were letting down the seriousness of being a woman. So, it seemed to her best to dissociate herself…”

And so, she used the male pseudonym ‘George Eliot’. She had gone through a variety of names—Mary Anne, Mary Ann, Marian and so on—but it was crucial to her that she had this new name. Some people think that it’s a tribute to George Henry Lewes, (‘To George I owe it’) but we don’t know that. It was crucial to her, essentially, that she was creating a better version of herself.

Am I right to think that Eliot’s first full-length novel Adam Bede started life as one of the stories in Scenes of Clerical Life?

It was originally planned as an extension of Scenes of Clerical Life. Already in ‘Janet’s Repentance’, she was clearly moving towards needing the full canvas of the novel. She then turned from ‘Janet’s Repentance’ to write Adam Bede, which includes a transmuted version of her own father as Adam Bede.

Can you tell us about that novel?

The novel can be thought of as a triangle, with characters for its points. There’s Adam Bede: tough, morally scrupulous and self-made, but with an edge to that toughness. So, he doesn’t like his fellow workers downing their tools at six o’clock just because it’s six o’clock. He likes them to finish the job. It’s that sort of artisan strictness. He’s thoroughly straight and decent.

There is also Hetty, a beautiful young woman with whom he falls in love. Hetty hasn’t even begun to think yet, and has no need to: she’s a fantasist. Adam Bede loves her and they are engaged, but—here lies the complication—there is another man.

That other man is Arthur Donnithorne, who is a Squire and becomes Adam Bede’s employer. It is Arthur who takes Hetty away from Adam without him knowing it. He seduces her and leaves for the army, not knowing that Hetty is pregnant.

Suddenly, this provincial novel goes wild. Hetty leaves her home and embarks on a journey to try to find Arthur while heavily pregnant. Her world turns into a nightmare, and she has to bear the most terrible thoughts. It’s as if a limited human being were thrown into a limitless situation.

You might have thought that George Eliot would have been critical of her character Hetty, given that she is beautiful but not very intelligent. But such considerations suddenly drop away (just as they had dropped for Janet in relation to Tryan) when she sets Hetty in this terrible predicament: pregnant, wandering around without direction, unable to find Arthur, not knowing what to do with the baby who is about to be born, and thinking of committing suicide.

At one point, she sits by the side of a pool in which she might drown herself. She had been a vain creature, but here her vanity is transformed. She begins to feel her own arms, and the pleasure of that feeling, the warmth and the roundness of the flesh, makes her think that she should live—that she shouldn’t commit suicide. What had been before silly and weak, is now something on the side of life. George Eliot loves those transitions.

Thinking back to the love-triangle, the relationship between Adam and Arthur comes to a head in the chapter called ‘Crisis’.

It was a chapter that George Henry Lewes had partly suggested: to bring the two men together to create a sort of implosion. But what is remarkable about it is not the anger and violence on Adam’s part, although that is there. Rather, what is interesting, in one of those switches of perspective that are so powerful in George Eliot, is the effect on Arthur.

When Arthur realises how damaged and hurt Adam is by his actions, he experiences something irrevocable. At that moment the feckless Arthur—who is not a bad man but is sexually besotted with Hetty—suddenly sees for the first time, looking at Adam’s face, that there are things that you cannot get away with.

“Suddenly, this provincial novel goes wild”

That reality principle—that there will be consequences—is the astounding depth of the ‘Crisis’ chapter. It’s not about the sensationalism of bringing the two men together in a potential fight. Instead, it explores ‘morality’ (which might otherwise seem a very dull Victorian concept) as an inner psychological process, in which Arthur realises the indelible consequences of his actions.

In those moments when Arthur realises the terrible damage that he’s done, you get an interior language—what Lawrence called ‘action’ on the ‘inside’—which is not spoken out loud. It is what we all silently say in our hearts or minds or brains, and sometimes don’t even want to know that we’re saying it.

Technically, this is called free indirect discourse. It’s not direct discourse in which a character says something out loud, or ‘thinks that…’. Rather, it’s an ambiguous discourse that follows Arthur’s train of thought, even though he himself may not know or want to know what he is thinking. That’s one of the important technical moves that George Eliot makes.

Thinking more about this psychological understanding, you have elsewhere drawn a parallel between Eliot as a realist novelist and psychological field theory. Could you explain that parallel?

Basically, it’s about getting into areas—often of secrecy—where suddenly that which will not be spoken out loud in society, nonetheless begins to find expression in a secret language of unconsummated confession.

These areas can be geographical or prompted by geography. For example, when Hetty leaves her home and goes into the country in search of Arthur, it’s not just that she’s in the wilderness but that she’s in a different psychological place prompted by that wilderness. Her thoughts almost seem outside her, as she looks at the pool as the place of suicide.

For other people, these fields go on inside. For example, there’s the dishonest banker Mr Bulstrode in Middlemarch who wants to forget his past, but eventually that past begins to be uncovered and he begins to feel terrible fear.

George Eliot said that it’s like trying to look out of the window during a dark night. When the lights are illuminated behind you in the room, you can’t see out of the window: what you see are reflections of yourself and the room behind you.

That is a wonderful image of creating a psychological field: you want to look out but suddenly with the reflection, you’re being turned back in, back to the past. You cannot get away from the zone—in this case, of guilt—that has been created around you. It’s a place that you now have to inhabit psychologically.

You mentioned that Eliot achieves psychological interiority through free indirect discourse. Jane Austen is also known for her adept use of free indirect discourse. What’s the relation between the two? Was Eliot inspired by Austen? Did she learn from her?

I think she did learn from her, though there’s no explicit record of this. It’s a deep and complicated question that you’re asking here, but I suppose that it’s different in George Eliot for this reason: she is utterly obsessed with secrets.

It’s true that Jane Austen is very committed to privacy within the public, and in that sense there’s a likeness in terms of hidden psychology and hidden forms of being. But it’s a lot more fraught in George Eliot than it is in Jane Austen, because often her characters either want those things to come out, or they are fearful that they will come out.

For George Eliot, psychology is doubly important because there isn’t anything else. That is to say, if you want to find purpose or meaning in life, you’re going to have to find it in this psychological holding ground. She does not subscribe to a firm theology; she is a big reader of philosophy but does not believe in a single philosophical system. In a world without answers, the great holding ground is within the human psyche, with all of its messiness.

This is why George Eliot’s realism is not just about the external. It’s about trying to find that language that lies hidden beneath the surface. In a better world—a world that we still don’t have—more of it would be in the outside. But so much is hidden, unfulfilled, and unappreciated.

You described The Mill on the Floss as a transmuted autobiography. How is that so?

In one sense, it’s simple. Maggie Tulliver is a portrait of Marian Evans as a young woman: she has powerful emotions and a strong desire to be educated, and wants a life that is not merely dull and normal.

She will look around a room and see a mother, a father, a brother, articles of furniture, and she thinks: what links them all together? What makes them more than bits and pieces? What’s the meaning of these things?

This is why in my book The Transferred Life of George Eliot I talk about George Eliot’s syntax, not simply in terms of the structure of her sentences, but in some deeper sense as a way of putting things together in your mind. And that’s what Maggie Tulliver is after: links to make some sort of meaning.

But, as Maggie moves from her romantic childhood to the dawn of sexuality, she encounters the difficulty of sexual relationships. This is what Marian Evans had herself struggled with the most.

Maggie meets an attractive man, Stephen Guest, who is already engaged to her cousin. Maggie is a decent person, and she doesn’t want to betray her cousin, but the power of Eros and her own emotional needs are very strong.

What does George Eliot do in The Mill on the Floss? She creates a situation that’s not autobiographical in the sense that it actually happened, but it’s autobiographical in the sense that it’s the sort of thing that George Eliot and Marian Evans are most interested in. It’s a humiliating middle-ground. That’s to say, Maggie begins to elope with Stephen, but half-way through on board ship, she decides that she can’t go through with it. It is the worst of both worlds: she has lost her reputation but also given up her man.

Almost everyone scorns Maggie when she comes back, other than her mother. This is surprising, because her mother had been completely unimportant in her life, compared to the father whom she adored, just as Marian Evans adored her own father.

But in her great crisis, in her great humiliation, Maggie hears from her mother four words that Marian Evans never heard from her mother: ‘You’ve got a mother’. That’s the link, the love, that Marian Evans herself had never had.

A major focus of The Mill on the Floss is the relationship between Maggie and her brother Tom Tulliver, who is a version of Isaac, George Eliot’s brother in real life. But here for once, it is not the father or the brother who offers the love, but the mother—and Marian Evan’s mother is never really there for her, as we now say.

Can you tell us more about Tom Tulliver?

Tom Tulliver is a hard man. He’s harder than Adam Bede, who was softened by what happened to Hetty and her suffering. Tom is much more rigid. He is practical and Maggie admires him, yet she knows that she is different from him, and in some sense deeper.

Isaac Evans, the brother whom Marian Evans adored, was like this. When Marian Evans formed a relationship with George Henry Lewes, Isaac wouldn’t speak to her. He wouldn’t speak to her until very near the year of her death when, after Lewes died, she married officially for the first time. Then and only then would he make communication.

The hurt of losing the love of Isaac goes very powerfully into The Mill on the Floss. It’s a mixture of admiration for Tom, combined with the counter-judgement that he, in judging her, is wrong.

“For George Eliot, psychology is doubly important because there isn’t anything else – in a world without answers, the great holding ground is within the human psyche, with all of its messiness”

It’s a wonderful conflict between loving someone and having critical thoughts about them that you can’t say out loud, or if you do say them then you’ve forfeited the right for them, simply to be accepted because you’ve done something wrong as well. This is just the sort of messy relationship in which George Eliot was so interested.

In the novel, Maggie and Tom both drown in the great flood.

This is the culmination of the novel. They are in a sort of emotional climax. Maggie begins to voyage in the midst of the flood towards her brother Tom in order to rescue him from drowning. She doesn’t, and they both drown together.

It’s almost a fantasy of how they might reunite, not in life anymore but in a cataclysmic death. It shows the emotional desire for some sort of reunion that couldn’t quite happen in life.

Middlemarch is longer and more narratively complex than Adam Bede.

It’s like several novels in one. It began as two separate novels, one about the town of Middlemarch and its new doctor Lydgate, and another about Dorothea, a young woman who has great intelligence and even greater emotional needs and aspirations.

George Eliot started to join these separate novels together, and to bring in new elements, so that there are four or five things going on at the same time. The wonderful thing about that is the novel stops being linear. Suddenly you move from one character or partnership to another, across the novel rather than along. It is a web shape.

While you’re thinking about the relationship of Dorothea and her scholar husband Casaubon, you are suddenly taken back to the relationship between Lydgate and Rosamond, who (like Hetty in Adam Bede) is a beautiful but selfish young woman.

It’s as if you are being taught to move from one life to another and you become, as a reader, a sort of novelist: somebody who can understand different people across different classes, ages and genders.

The idea is that, while you read successively, the events being narrated happen simultaneously. It makes you appreciate that there are so many lives interconnected and separated going on at the same time in this little world. It’s only a provincial town, but it’s an image of the whole world.

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That’s why George Eliot has the metaphor of the web—of things interconnecting across different stories. That is the complicated form of Middlemarch which, I would say, must be the greatest novel in the language.

That’s extremely high praise. Why is it the greatest novel in the language?

Because it’s a novel that you would go to in terms of ordinary troubles, troubles of vocation, or marriage, all sorts of purpose and loss and frustration. Here is Dorothea who, in an earlier age, might have been a great religious figure, but there’s no religion and there’s no role for women. So, what happens to that content in a person when they haven’t got form? Here’s Lydgate, a doctor with a strong sense of vocation but with certain weaknesses, particularly sexual weaknesses. Will he manage to do the great thing that he wants to do?

It’s not as if ordinary people simply begin ordinary and remain ordinary. There are extraordinary things that happen, and there are also great disappointments. It’s the hidden story of what doesn’t happen that constantly runs throughout the novel.

In terms of the relationship between Dorothea and Casaubon, Dorothea makes a bad choice in marrying him. She stupidly choses to marry an aged scholar who isn’t anything like the idol she had been looking for. And clearly, sexually, he’s as impotent as he is in his work which he never finally produces.

You feel for Dorothea because Casaubon is unattractive and he’s horrible to her. Yet, George Eliot also manages to make you feel for Casaubon. It’s an almost impossible feat.

This is how your mind is going to be expanded by reading the novel: you feel for Dorothea, you feel for Casaubon, and you feel for both of them almost simultaneously, in the space between them all at the same time.

You’ve talked about George Eliot’s ability to create remarkable switches of perspective. Can you explain how she does that with Casaubon in this novel?

She begins a chapter by simply asking: ‘but why always Dorothea?’ All the neighbours think that Casaubon is dull and unattractive: Dorothea’s sister objects to his blinking eyes and white moles.

But then George Eliot intervenes, and says suppose we turn from outside estimates to wonder what is actually going on within Casaubon. Suddenly you see, for example, that his unkindness to Dorothea when she offers to help him with his work does not constitute a simple rejection. It comes out of his fear that she knows that he’s never going to be able to finish this work. She doesn’t think that—it is his own fear, projected.

So, they are people who should be within inches of each other within their marriage, but are separated across a vast gulf of misunderstanding because her love seems to him like criticism, and his criticism of her seems to be hatred rather than something pitiful.

Dorothea, in the midst of her victimisation, chooses to help him. This is not female submissiveness. She doesn’t love him, she only pities him, but she realises that she is the greater body.

“It’s as if you are being taught to move from one life to another and you become, as a reader, a sort of novelist: somebody who can understand different people across different classes, ages and genders”

Casaubon is going to die, and Dorothea wishes to be ‘the mercy’ for his sorrows. She doesn’t say ‘merciful towards’. She thinks she should be ‘the mercy’, as if there were a thing called mercy that can exist in the world, and should be embodied. So, she thinks that whatever has happened to her, she will be the mercy for Casaubon, as George Eliot often is for her characters.

I like your idea of the reader of Middlemarch learning to appreciate life as a sort of interconnected web. Thinking back to Adam Bede, is that exactly the sort of ability that Hetty lacks?

Yes. Hetty would read novels, if she read at all, to have the fantasy of running off with Arthur. When you read Middlemarch—this novel for grown-ups, as Virginia Woolf says—you get the sense of a complicated human geometry: you move around different angles, perspectives and dimensions.

Beneath the conscious behaviour, or the words that are spoken, lies the depth of the unconscious, the small things that happen in transition. So, suddenly, you’ve got the most powerful working model in fiction of what human life is like. It’s as if somehow George Eliot has found the building blocks—the DNA—of existence. She can see all of that framework, all the underlying stuff, all the different connections, as well as producing the individuality of feeling within each separate person.

This amounts to an almost superhuman activity: to be able to feel with people, but to criticise them; to be able to imagine radically different people, while seeing how radically different they are; to be able to put them together in a marriage and feel for them both at the same time. It’s constantly creating a content that bursts through simple containers and makes you have to think more difficult things than are quite comfortable.

To give just one example, in the marriage between Lydgate and Rosamond, the doctor knows they’re in financial difficulties and asks his wife to economise. Rosamond doesn’t want to do that and she takes no notice. Lydgate desperately wants to keep their marriage together although he knows that it is falling apart.

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We read that ‘his marriage would be a mere piece of bitter irony if they could not go on loving each other’. And then comes this devastating sentence: ‘In marriage, the certainty, “She will never love me much”, is easier to bear than the fear, “I shall love her no more”’.

He daren’t think to himself that he will love her no more. He daren’t even think the sentences that George Eliot’s syntax is producing, though they are there in his own consciousness.

So, instead of thinking that he will love her no more, he has to think that ‘She will never love me much’. Isn’t it wonderful that that ‘much’ would be the most powerful, hurtful thought, the one he has to bear? It’s not the black-and-white extreme that she will never love him at all, but rather a deep grey middle-area that is typical of Middlemarch: ‘never much’. Those are the terrible compromises that people have to live with.

Your last recommendation is J W Cross’s George Eliot’s Life. Who was Johnny Cross and what was his relationship to George Eliot?

Johnny Cross was a young friend to George Henry Lewes and George Eliot—or Marian Lewes, as she was known then—and almost had the status of a nephew. When Lewes died, she spent more time with Johnny Cross who comforted her. They read Dante together and Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, as part of a process of mourning and seclusion.

She had waited so long to find someone and then she lost Lewes. She always needed someone to lean on. Although Johnny Cross was decades younger than her, she turned to him and married him.

It was the first formal legal marriage she had. That’s when Isaac Evans wrote to congratulate her, twenty years too late.

There was a terrible incident in Venice on their honeymoon when Cross, who was a depressive, threw himself out of the window. Some people think—we can never know for sure—that he didn’t want to sexually consummate the marriage. If that were true—and I hope it isn’t—then that must have been a terrible experience for George Eliot. She had gone full circle—still ugly, as she had always feared she was.

Whatever the truth of that particularly story, Johnny Cross later wrote the life of George Eliot. The great achievement of this work is that there is very little written by Cross himself. He tried to create a surrogate autobiography, by compiling three volumes of letters and diary entries in chronological order, from Marian Evans through to George Eliot.

“We write biographies as if they could take the place of novels, yet they can’t: novels offer more truths than biographies ever can”

In George Eliot’s Life, you begin to read between the lines. It’s as if you’ve got the original text, and you have to guess; he doesn’t fill in the gaps. You begin to see the suffering of Marian Evans. There are some details, such as sexual details, that he omits, but nonetheless you get the general feel of the struggle that she had in those first 37 or 38 years to grow up, to find a life, and to be somebody.

George Eliot always said she didn’t want a biography, and that she wouldn’t write an autobiography. The only reason for ever having either, she said, would be if it showed an equivalent person that despite and because of all of their struggles, they could make something of themselves. Well, that’s what you can feel, particularly in the first of the three volumes.

Cross’s approach has served as a model for me, as a biographer. I think biographies are often bad fiction. We fill in the gaps and offer explanations and get all chummy. We write biographies as if they could take the place of novels, yet they can’t: novels offer more truths than biographies ever can.

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Like Cross, I try in my own book to use as many of George Eliot’s words as possible. But I reuse the words not only from her diaries and letters, but also from the literature itself, because the deepest biography is always going to be that which gets into the heartfelt mentality of the author.

I like to think that there could be a George Eliot part of us that looks out from within our lives, in lieu of God, trying to do passionately informed thinking in relation to oneself and others. That’s what the novelist does, and I would like the novelist to be taken seriously as a producer of the deepest form of human thinking that there is.

Interview by David Shackleton

November 6, 2017

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Philip Davis

Philip Davis

Philip Davis is the author of The Transferred Life of George EliotThe Victorians 1830-1880, and a companion volume on Why Victorian Literature Still Matters. He has written on Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, the literary uses of memory from Wordsworth to Lawrence, and various books on reading. His previous literary biography was a life of Bernard Malamud. He is general editor of the Literary Agenda paperback series from OUP, on the future of literary studies, for which he wrote Reading and the Reader. He is also editor of The Reader magazine, the written voice of the outreach organisation The Reader.

Philip Davis

Philip Davis

Philip Davis is the author of The Transferred Life of George EliotThe Victorians 1830-1880, and a companion volume on Why Victorian Literature Still Matters. He has written on Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, the literary uses of memory from Wordsworth to Lawrence, and various books on reading. His previous literary biography was a life of Bernard Malamud. He is general editor of the Literary Agenda paperback series from OUP, on the future of literary studies, for which he wrote Reading and the Reader. He is also editor of The Reader magazine, the written voice of the outreach organisation The Reader.