The Transferred Life of George Eliot by Philip Davis review – how a novelist shared her wisdom

Eliot steps in to her narratives to unravel the contradictions of human behaviour. This study skilfully explores how in doing so she drew on her own experiences

Some great novelists are there in their novels. None is more present than George Eliot. Take a small example from The Mill on the Floss. Mr Tulliver, the mill owner, has well-nigh ruined himself by pursuing a doomed legal suit against a cleverer rival. Now he must get his wife to borrow some money from her affluent brother-in-law.

Mr Tulliver would never have asked for anything from so poor-spirited a fellow for himself, but Bessy might do so if she liked.
It is precisely the proudest and most obstinate men who are the most liable to shift their position and contradict themselves in this sudden manner …

The first sentence inhabits Tulliver’s self-deluding thoughts; in the second (separated by that chasm of a paragraph break), the narrator discovers a psychological pattern that any of us might recognise.

The narrator offering this reflection is Eliot. Over and over again in her fiction a precise description of a character’s thought processes generates, in the next sentence, a generalisation about some paradox of human behaviour. She steps into her narratives not to hector or exclaim, as Dickens will do, nor to nudge and tease, like Fielding or Thackeray, but tolerantly to unravel the contradictory motivations and ready self-deceits of ordinary men and women. So admirers of her novels have always felt that they were in touch with its author – with her wisdom and her solace. Philip Davis, a notable scholar of Victorian literature, feels so, too. Wise critics warn against finding the experiences of the author in his or her fiction, but this is precisely what Davis sets out to do: “I look for the use of her life in her work,” he writes.

Thus his peculiar title. “It was to her work that she transferred and dedicated her life”: her novels were where she (and therefore her readers) could realise all that she had seen and all that she had understood. They were the means by which Eliot invited the reader to share her life and what it had taught her. Davis seizes on her experiences of suffering, delight or disillusion in passages of passionately appreciative close reading that are the meat of his book. As well as tackling all her novels in turn, he brilliantly analyses some of her early letters, which are as subtle and psychologically astute as her fiction.

Eliot also “transferred” her life into her novels in a narrower sense. She took material from her life and from the memories of those she knew. The prototypes of leading characters in her earliest fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, were real people from the Nuneaton area of the West Midlands. Adam Bede, her first completed novel, used the experiences of her Methodist aunt Elizabeth Evans for the characterisation of Dinah Morris and took many of the facts of Adam’s life from her own father’s. In The Mill on the Floss, which followed, Tom Tulliver’s repudiation of his sister Maggie after her apparent elopement with Stephen Guest allowed Eliot to fictionalise her own terrible rejection by her brother Isaac when she began cohabiting with the married George Henry Lewes.

Yet any reader expecting a conventional biographical narrative will be disappointed. Certain episodes from Eliot’s life – her conflict with her father over Christian observance, her unrequited tendresse for the austere intellectual Herbert Spencer – are prominent, but only because they have their “transferred life” in her novels. There are threads of intellectual biography, detailing her engagement with the religious scepticism of first Feuerbach, and then Spinoza, or with the nascent sociology of Auguste Comte. But even here it is to show how theories fare in “the unsettling presence of human psychology”. Her novels were created not just to display her knowledge of human nature, but also to test and stretch the sympathies of her readers.

Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey in the 1994 television adaptation of Middlemarch.
Winning sympathy … Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey in the 1994 television adaptation of Middlemarch. Photograph: Minke Spiro/REX

It is clear that, for her friends, the power of the fiction was due to a special facility in their author, shown as much in her dealings with people as her writing of novels. The young psychologist James Scully, a slightly awed attendee at the Sunday afternoon intellectual soirees at the Priory, her home near Regent’s Park, recalled that she displayed “a clairvoyant insight into mind and character, which enabled her to get at once into spiritual touch with a stranger, fitting her to talk to his special tastes and needs”. (The male pronoun is appropriate, as her irregular domestic affairs restricted the company to men of liberal principles.) Her capacity for sympathy was that of her novels.

“Sympathy” is commonly our laziest word for what we feel about a fictional character, but Eliot made sympathy the most rigorous demand of her fiction. Davis cites more than once the extraordinary moment in Book Three of Middlemarch when the narrator suddenly shifts her sympathy from Dorothea to Casaubon, the desiccated, self-regarding old scholar whom she has foolishly married. Eliot is pursuing Dorothea’s story as before, until she catches herself. “One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” Suddenly the narrative protests against the sympathy that it has itself encouraged. It promptly turns against itself and takes us into Mr Casaubon’s “intense consciousness”.

This turn involves the author drawing on her own observation of marital misunderstanding and her own experience of the vanities of scholarship. Casaubon is supposed to have been modelled on the Oxford academic Mark Pattison, who wrote a learned study of the Renaissance scholar Isaac Casaubon and married a woman 27 years younger than him. Yet Eliot, asked from whom she drew the character, “with a humorous solemnity, which was quite in earnest, pointed to her own heart”. She especially drew on her life for the characters we find hardest to admire.

Davis shows how essential to Eliot’s art is her turning from one character to another. In Adam Bede, we see the beautiful, 17-year-old Hetty in a garden through the besotted Adam’s eyes. Adam “believed that she was thinking of him, and that there was no need for them to talk – Adam remembered it all to the last moment of his life”. There the paragraph ends – and we shift to something else: “And Hetty? You know quite well that Adam was mistaken about her.” She is thinking of another young man, Arthur Donnithorne, one much less deserving but much more alluring than Adam. “It palpably hurts to turn from Adam to Hetty.” “You” – the reader often directly addressed by Eliot – must painfully know the gap between the worlds of these two characters.

Davis’s book is a celebration of her “realism”, which allows us to see minutely the differences in consciousness of different characters – before we return to our sole selves. As an omniscient narrator Eliot has often been called God-like, but Davis thinks even more of her wisdom than this. He recalls his English teacher, the novelist Stanley Middleton, saying, “wryly but in earnest” that if there is no God, “then George Eliot will do, will serve instead”. He seems to concur.

The Transferred Life of George Eliot is published by Oxford. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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