The Life of George Eliot by Nancy Henry - review

Despite 37 previous biographies, there are still questions to be asked about George Eliot

The cover photograph on this new George Eliot biography tells you immediately that something is up. Virtually every book about the novelist in modern times has used one particular image, a highly flattering portrait done by a man with whom Eliot was half in love. In it the young woman has unaccountably become blonde, her nose has shrunk and she has acquired a dear little chin. Nancy Henry's new biography, by contrast, announces its subject with a photograph of Eliot at the age of 40, about the time she published her first novel, Adam Bede. Here her witch's nose is offset by a warrior's jaw. A strained half smile reveals several lost teeth, while the lank brown hair neither lies smoothly nor curls becomingly. Henry's Eliot is not what you'd call a looker.

It is a bold start to what is clearly intended as a different kind of biography. Henry bracingly sets about casting a forensic eye over the way in which 37 of Eliot's previous life-writers have constructed the Victorian novelist by rehashing stories from earlier books without bothering to check their provenance. I should declare an interest here. In 1998 I published a biography of Eliot and, while I mostly escape from Henry's stern gaze, she doesn't spare me completely. "Hughes" turns out to be guilty on a couple of occasions of lazy borrowings from Gordon Haight's path-finding 1968 biography, in the process contributing to a game of biographical chinese whispers in which wishful thinking hardens into granite fact. All I can say is I know better now.

The most obvious point where I – and every other post-Haight biographer, whether scholar or hack – are guilty of fuzzy thinking concerns the business of why Eliot never married her partner of 25 years, the science writer George Henry Lewes. The line Haight took back in the 1960s was that Lewes was unable to divorce his wife Agnes because he had "condoned" her adultery with his best friend Thornton Hunt by registering their illegitimate children as his own. Haight's version of events did a neat trick of turning Lewes into a bit of a hero, with Eliot as the blameless victim of her partner's gentlemanly generosity.

Henry, though, insists that no such selflessness was in play. Instead, a mixture of pragmatism and shrewdness kept Eliot and Lewes living together without benefit of clergy. As long as Lewes remained married to Agnes then, according to common law, he was the father of all her children, regardless of their biological paternity. Or, to put it another way, he didn't have a choice about registering another man's offspring as his own. And the decision not to divorce, which thanks to the new Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 would have been perfectly possible, was a hard-headed attempt to protect the reputation of George Eliot, a writer who was busy earning a fortune by showing people how to be good in a world without God. Niceness didn't really come in to it.

Nor was niceness much involved in Eliot's relationship with her stepsons. Agnes's first three children were probably fathered by Lewes. He certainly agreed to undertake their education and launch them into adult life. Previous biographers have tended to take Eliot at her own estimation as she showily fussed and fretted over the young men's well-being. In fact, says Henry, she couldn't wait to get shot of them. Despite being the richest self-made woman in the country, Eliot provided the Lewes boys with the most modest seed money. The eldest and most biddable was put to work in the Post Office. The younger two – naughty Thornie and backward Bertie – were bundled off to Africa from where they wrote piteous letters about their poverty and ill-health. Both were dead before they left their 20s.

Eliot was too good a writer, though, not to use the boys in her books. Henry is cutting about literary biographers who fall into the slack habit of finding one-to-one correspondences between real life people and fictional characters. It is this unthinking approach that turns Maggie Tulliver into a young George Eliot and gets people flicking through every Victorian bore they can think of to come up with a model for Edward Casaubon. All the same, says Henry, while bodies do not pass from life to page, structures of feeling do. Eliot's disappointing stepsons provided the novelist with a way of feeling herself into all those shiftless young bucks who racket around her fictional world, unable to live up to their fortunate birth: Fred Vincy in Middlemarch, Dunstan Cass in Silas Marner, Rex Gascoigne in Daniel Deronda.

In a particularly paranoid moment, when she was worried about what posterity would make of her controversial life, Eliot declared biography to be "a disease of English literature". She might, though, have exempted Henry's new book from such general opprobrium. Driven neither by hero-worship or spite, Henry's "critical biography" demonstrates what treasure there is still to be found in even the most worked-over subjects. The trick is to ask the questions that everyone else assumed had been answered years ago.

• Kathryn Hughes's biography of Mrs Beeton is published by Harper Perennial.

Contributor

Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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