George Eliot is intensely present in her novels. She is there, watching and listening to her characters, often drawing us aside to try to explain their actions. Wise, ironical, psychologically subtle, she speaks to us in the first person. If she is sometimes sententious, it is because she is passing on hard-won lessons. We can feel sure that the narrator of an Eliot novel is the author, reaching out to her readers.
As her novel’s title confesses, Kathy O’Shaughnessy is another of Eliot’s readers who has become a devotee. Her biofiction is a kind of homage, timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Eliot’s birth. After a short prologue, in which Marian Evans, in her early 30s, arrives in London to work for John Chapman, editor of the Westminster Review, there is a jolt forward in time to cover the whole of her life as the novelist “George Eliot”. The novel gives special attention to the half-fearful, half-mischievous charade of authorial concealment, in the period when her first two works of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede, were published to acclaim, but almost no one knew her true identity. It goes on to fictionalise Eliot’s years of fame, as she turned, in the eyes of many, from novelist to sage.
O’Shaughnessy’s title refers not just to her own literary passion. The book depicts the ways in which Eliot drew others in devotion to her. The most important was George Henry Lewes, a married man deserted by his wife; Eliot fearlessly challenged the conventions of her age by living as “Mrs Lewes” for 25 years. Working from their surviving letters, O’Shaughnessy successfully recreates their literary comradeship; their true intimacy proves harder to represent. Major roles are also given to some of her female admirers, especially the feminist Edith Simcox, who sat (quite literally) at her feet and expressed her fevered devotion to “mother” in her autobiographical Monument to the Memory of George Eliot. And there is the adoring Johnny Cross, 20 years Eliot’s junior, who began as her financial adviser but ended up, after Lewes’s death, as her husband. Famous men such as Henry James and Anthony Trollope trip in and out, but, not being exactly in love with Eliot, are only bit-part players.
In Eliot-like fashion, the narration moves between the viewpoints of different characters, though we are most often in the head of “Madonna” herself. Some of the time her thoughts seem too much like the admiring novelist’s own opinions. “Was anybody else doing what she was doing? She asked herself … Her realism struck deeper than Dickens’ and Thackeray’s.” At other times, her private musings are surprisingly believable – as when she is solacing herself after Lewes’s death by reading through the Divine Comedy with Cross, whom she is tutoring in Dante’s Italian, and falling for him as she does so.
The novelist enters where biographers cannot tread. Eliot’s feelings as Cross courts her, about which we know very little, are rendered in convincing complexity, O’Shaughnessy having schooled herself in Eliot’s respect for human contradictoriness. The novel gives us plenty on the honeymoon in Venice, where Cross notoriously threw himself from an upstairs window of their hotel into the Grand Canal. (Heatstroke, sleep deprivation and the strain of being married to the most famous woman in Europe leading to a moment of madness, as imagined here.) Yet his behaviour is no more explicable in this novel than it is in any of the biographies.
Elsewhere, the filling in of unknowable details is modest. Marian Evans does engage in tender embraces with the alluring John Chapman and one day, when the servants are off and his wife and children are in Brighton, she falls into bed with him. The biographers could only suspect as much. There is no doubt that O’Shaughnessy has saturated herself in the most important biographical and critical literature on Eliot. The narrative is larded with passages from Eliot’s own letters and journals. O’Shaughnessy has also plundered these for shards of her dialogue; there is a great deal of Eliot uncontestably there in the novel.
There is also something of our latter-day author. Interleaved with the biofiction are chapters set in the present day, featuring an academic called Kate who works at a fictional London university and is trying to write a novel about Eliot, “based on fact – biography, letters, diaries”. She has a tiresome friend and colleague called Anne, who is writing a feminist attack on the author for not being politically more radical and runs a conference entitled “George Eliot: Saint or Hypocrite?” Meanwhile, Anne’s husband, another academic, solemnly flirts with her. He and Kate end up together at another Eliot conference in Venice, Eliot’s own honeymoon destination. The novelist’s alter ego, as we presume her to be, quotes passages from The Mill on the Floss to soften his heart. Whether we need this proof of Eliot’s capacity to improve our lives is doubtful.
• In Love With George Eliot is published by Scribe (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.