Inside Story

Sense and sensibility

Philosopher Clare Carlisle chronicles the interaction of George Eliot’s public voice and private life

Sara Dowse Books 17 July 2023 1971 words

Lifted veil: detail from Frederic William Burton’s 1865 portrait of George Eliot. National Portrait Gallery/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

It’s a truism bordering on banality that no reader reads the same book. Or, in Clare Carlisle’s case, the whole of a writer’s oeuvre. Carlisle is a philosopher, a professor at London’s King’s College, who has previously published a biography of Kierkegaard. Though literature isn’t her bailiwick, her new book The Marriage Question is nonetheless a substantial work of literary criticism as well as one of the most captivating biographies of a literary figure I’ve read.

There is no dearth of biographies of George Eliot. From markedly unpromising beginnings, the woman who was born Mary Anne Evans became one of the nineteenth century’s most successful authors. Carlisle lists more than half a dozen full-length lives in her endnotes, in addition to the published journals and letters — much of them digitised in the enormous George Eliot Archive — and the books about George Henry Lewes, her spouse of twenty-five years, and by their many associates, all of whom took part in the century’s intellectual ferment.

But although scholarly interest keeps growing, as far as I can tell no other philosopher has been moved to write a book about Eliot. Here, in her preface, Carlisle tells us why:

When I studied philosophy at university, most of the authors I read were unmarried men: Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. Did they regard marriage as a hindrance to the serious work of philosophy, rather than a spur to thought? My friends and I were constantly analysing relationships — our own and other people’s…

Beneath its conventional surface, marriage simmers with tensions between self and other, body and soul, passion and restraint, the poetry of romantic love and the prose of domestic routine… For better or worse, the answers we find to our marriage questions — whether to marry, how to live in a marriage, whether to remain married — are often close to the heart of our life’s meaning. Over centuries these questions have shaped religious, political and social histories.

We could ask why Carlisle chose to embed her discourse in a study of the life and works of the author we have come to know as George Eliot, and not, say, Jane Austen, whose specialty was dissecting unhappy unions with wit and style and guiding her heroines towards happier ones. Eliot read Austen and couldn’t have failed to have been influenced by her. Yet when she did turn her hand to fiction her approach was darker and broader.

Like Charlotte Brontë, whose work impressed her deeply, Eliot was less concerned with finding the right husbands for her protagonists than with what came after the nuptial knots were tied. And it was the complexity and contradictions in Eliot’s own life and work that Carlisle found particularly useful for exploring the enigma of marriage itself.

George Eliot — variously, Mary Anne Evans, Mary Ann Evans, Marianne Evans, Marian Evans, Marian Lewes, Mary Ann Evans Lewes and finally Mary Ann Cross — was born on 22 November 1819 in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, the third child of Robert Evans, an estate manager. Her father saw that she was formally educated until she was sixteen, when he lost his wife and the children their mother.

At that point, as Mary Ann, she became her father’s housekeeper. She still had access to the library at Albury Hall, where he worked, and quickly plunged into a course of self-education, principally in the classics. After the family moved to Coventry she was introduced by a wealthy couple, Charles and Cara Bray, to England’s radical intelligentsia. Then, after her father’s death, she went to Geneva, boarding with an artist and his wife, and after that to London, where her talents expanded and her circle of connections grew.

It’s hard to imagine a better instance of landing in the right place at the right time. It was as though fate had taken her by the hand and led her to milieus where her intellect could thrive. It also, admittedly, reflected her own determination, her lifelong need to define her identity and, not the least of it, her longing for intimacy. Carlisle, like other biographers, traces her failed relationships (the philosopher Herbert Spencer was one) before she found love and the stability she needed with the journalist-cum-philosopher George Henry Lewes.

The Marriage Question opens with the couple eloping in July 1854. She was thirty-four and had established herself in literary circles by her editorial work, now signing herself Marian Evans, at the prestigious Westminster Review and by her own essays, criticism and translation. But she was not a marriage prospect; her age and prodigious intelligence put off duller men than Lewes, and throughout her life people felt free to comment on what were perceived to be her physical deficits. An overlarge chin was the chief problem, if compensated by a surprisingly beautiful voice.

Nor was Lewes — “slight, short,” his face scarred by smallpox — an oil painting; one contemporary uncharitably remarked on his “immense ugliness,” though photographs show him in a better light. Whatever his physical drawbacks, though, they were more than overcome by a lively, gregarious personality combined with the seriousness of his pursuits.

A perfect match? Not entirely, and more on that later. For now it’s important to note that Lewes also came with baggage — namely, a wife and four children, so Marian Evans was taking a huge risk running off with him. But by the time they boarded the train to Weimar, they were passing themselves off as man and wife, and from that moment she discarded the Evans for Lewes. Throughout their twenty-five years together her husband who was not her husband referred to her affectionately as Polly.

The dash to Weimar was a momentary escape from the scandal that would dog her in Victorian England, but also served to widen her horizons further. Lewes and she were following the path “trodden by other intellectual pilgrims — Romantic radicals who worshipped… the miracle of Genius.” The genius in question was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Frankfurt-born polymath poet, novelist and scientist who had settled in Weimar as a young man and remained there until his death in 1832. The couple had learned of him by reading Madame de Staël, who had taken the pilgrimage when Goethe was still alive.

With a letter of introduction from Thomas Carlyle, they attended the salon of Goethe’s daughter-in-law, befriending the composer Franz Liszt and other members of Weimar’s creative society. Lewes was halfway through his Life of Goethe, but Marian, Carlisle writes, was particularly ripe for inspiration. Moving among free-thinking artists and intellectuals in Weimar led her to wonder if she could match them.

Into the biography Carlisle weaves many influences of the time. Chief among these was the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose writings were gaining serious attention some hundred and fifty years after his death. Marian began translating his Ethics into English in 1855. The translation languished for a publisher as Spinoza’s works had, and like his only appeared well after its creator’s death. (Carlisle has edited the 2020 edition.) But the undertaking was a clear indication of the strength of Marian’s ambition and the depth of her intellectual capacity.

It was also a measure of Lewes’s support. Knowing what we do of many couples in which the woman’s aspirations take a back seat, the extent of his interest was rare. Aside from the demands of his own work, he was both her critic and agent, assuming control of her business transactions, eventually leaving her free to concentrate on her writing. It turned out to be a wise investment. With the success of her first novel, Adam Bede, she was making more than he did, and she turned it all over to him in accordance with the rules of marriage at the time.

More importantly perhaps, she found that, more than poetry or essays, fiction was her true metier. Here she would combine her prodigious capacity for thought with the heightened emotional sensitivity that was equally part of her nature. Like the Brontës before her, and for the same reasons, she adopted a male pseudonym (George being Lewes’s given name, Eliot the most English surname she could think of) for her collection of stories, Scenes of Clerical Life, but with Adam Bede the author’s identity became an open secret.

Then, in 1859, while researching for what would become The Mill on the Floss, she produced “The Lifted Veil,” a short story along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s science fictions. The clairvoyant protagonist describes his gift as a form of “double consciousness” — a term, Carlisle tells us, that Eliot used to describe “her own self-doubting, self-critical inner voice.”

It’s telling how often the phrases “lifted veil” or “lifting a veil” recur in this biography, acting as a key to other kinds of double consciousness, and how suited the words are for interrogating the questions about marriage that Carlisle has chosen as her theme. Almost to a woman, Eliot’s heroines, unlike Austen’s, make poor choices and suffer terribly for them before they find happiness, if they ever do. Domestic violence, sometimes in the extreme, is a constant in Eliot’s fiction, and Carlisle’s examination of her partnership with Lewes does raise questions about what today we might call coercive control.

Yet that didn’t seem to put Eliot off marrying. Fifteen months after Lewes died Eliot wed John Cross, a man twenty years younger than she was, as devoted to her as Lewes had been, and who authored the first of her posthumous biographies. She also changed her name to Mary Ann Cross, which appears on the headstone of the grave where she was buried, near Lewes, in Hampstead. It’s not too farfetched to take this as yet more evidence of her deep need for the stability and companionship marriage can offer and how much she must have missed the one she had with Lewes, however irregular and scandalous for the times it was.

I make no claim to Eliot scholarship. Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda are the only two works of hers I remember having read. But if one of the aims of literary biography is to rekindle interest in an author’s work, Carlisle has certainly succeeded with me. Everything Eliot wrote is examined in the round as the life and thought that nurtured them unfold — an approach I found as illuminating as it is thorough.

As for myself, I’ll be reading whatever of George Eliot’s I can lay my hands on, and rereading what I have read with renewed understanding and attention — how the gambling scene that opens Daniel Deronda, for example, is not just a clue to Gwendolen Harleth’s character but can also be read as a metaphor for marriage itself and the risks it inevitably entails.

Did I pick that up on my first reading? Possibly unconsciously, but probably not, because my interest in the book began with Eliot’s philosemitism and that’s largely where it stayed. But The Marriage Question chronicles Eliot’s wide, encompassing vision, her impeccable research, the complexity of her fiction and, as a sidelight, her exasperation that the reviews of her books were generally restricted to commenting on the development of character and plot.

Carlisle, a philosopher, has shown literature to be much more than that. A lot has changed in the world and in the world of letters since Marian Lewes starting writing fiction, but how surprising it is to learn that on the whole reviewing hasn’t changed much at all. That said, I hope I’ve given you in the space I’ve had some idea of the level of Carlisle’s achievement. •

The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life
By Clare Carlisle | Allen Lane | $45 | 367 pages