Mid-Victorian society never forgave George Eliot for setting up home in 1854 with a rackety married man, the journalist and scientist GH Lewes. Late-Victorian society, by contrast, could not forgive her for choosing to wed in church when, following Lewes’s death in 1878, she walked up the aisle with a much younger and duller man called John Cross. On the question of marriage, George Eliot could never seem to get it right.
In this thrilling book, the academic philosopher Clare Carlisle explores the novelist’s interrogation of “the double life”, meaning not only Eliot’s own 25 years of unsanctioned coupledom with Lewes, but also the difficult love relationships she unleashed on her heroines, including Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss and Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Carlisle, then, is less concerned with reheating the stale gossip that still gets Eliot’s biographers going – was Lewes unfaithful, why did Cross jump into the Grand Canal during their honeymoon, how come so many people developed a crush on a woman whom Henry James claimed look like a horse? – and instead takes a more soulful look at what “the marriage question” meant for the girl who had been born Mary Anne Evans in 1819.
The ambiguities and ambivalence had been there from the start. After a series of calamitous and one-sided early relationships, often with men who weren’t available, Evans, still a literary journalist at this point, “eloped” with Lewes in 1854. The new couple spent months in Germany to allow artistic London the opportunity to gossip to its grubby heart’s content without having to mount a defence. When the wanderers eventually returned to Britain, Eliot informed everyone that from now on she would answer only to “Mrs Lewes” rather than “Miss Evans”.
This was even though the real Mrs Lewes was alive and well, busy producing babies with Lewes’s former best friend, the newspaper editor Thornton Leigh Hunt. Carlisle also reminds us that the second, phantom “Mrs Lewes” made a point of having her accelerating income paid into Lewes’s bank account on the grounds that he was her “husband”. A very rich husband, in fact: in 1862 Eliot was offered the equivalent of £1m for her fourth novel, Romola, by far the greatest sum ever offered to a writer anywhere in the world. When you add in the fact that Eliot didn’t think women needed the vote and that she contributed only £50 to the first women’s college at Cambridge, you are left with the unsettling realisation that she was no one’s idea of a feminist “foremother”.
Why was Eliot like this, especially given that recent changes in Victorian law meant Lewes could have got a divorce from Agnes quite easily, and that women now had the right to control their own money without asking permission from a male relative? Carlisle offers no single and reductive answer because, of course, there isn’t one. Instead, she points to the way that Eliot’s response to the challenges of living and loving was always plural and protean, always on the point of taking on shimmering new shapes and dimensions.
In a frankly brilliant reading of Middlemarch, Carlisle shows Eliot’s characters grappling not simply with the stark binary of desire v duty, but also with the “imagined otherwise” of ghostly roads not taken and lives unlived. Ardent teenage idealist Dorothea gets married to dry-as-dust Casaubon because she has convinced herself that he is a great man who will unlock the classical world for her and make her, in the process, a different, cleverer person. The equally ardent but people-pleasing Dr Lydgate finds himself agreeing to marry the worldly socialite Rosamond Vincy simply because it would be too much bother not to.
Readers of Middlemarch have always wanted these two noble but self-sabotaging young people to end up together, building hospitals and eradicating rural poverty in an ecstasy of do-gooding. But, as if to show that life is not like the plots from the “silly novels by lady novelists” that she excoriated in an early literary essay, Eliot refuses to grant the satisfaction of that neat ending. Instead, Dorothea, now widowed, ends up with Ladislaw, a man who never rises from the page to the status of a fully rounded character. Lydgate, meanwhile, is obliged to endure a marriage of attrition with trivial Rosamond and a spoiled career as a society physician.
Examples such as these have led to accusations that Eliot deprived her characters, especially the women, of the freedoms she claimed for herself. For indeed, once the early sniggering and finger-pointing had died down, Eliot enjoyed a rather fabulous life. Lewes created the conditions in which her art could blossom, carefully shielding her from negative reviews by snipping them out of the newspapers before she could see them and negotiating fat fees and innovative publication deals that made her the richest self-made woman in the country. He made sure, too, that the only people Eliot met were ones who could be guaranteed to offer the gush of flattery that she needed in order to carry on writing at all.
At times this greenhousing had a dire effect on Eliot’s work: this, surely, is the reason behind the disappointing run of Romola followed by the poem The Spanish Gypsy in the mid-1860s – there was simply no one who had the courage to tell her how pedantic, overcooked and just plain dull they were. All the same, without Lewes’s fierce care-taking, Eliot might never have risen from this mid-career slump to give us Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest novel in the English language.
Eliot also got a cushier ride with her stepchildren than most Victorian women had any right to expect. Lewes’s three sons were disappointing duds and the thought of having them living at home when she had novels to write and epic poetry to compose appalled her. Charley, the eldest and most biddable, could just about be turned into a house pet-cum-unofficial secretary. The younger two were dispatched with brisk efficiency to what is now South Africa where they were expected to farm, despite having shown very little aptitude for or interest in it.
In her introduction to The Marriage Question, Carlisle speaks of wanting to employ biography as philosophical inquiry and here she succeeds magnificently. With great skill and delicacy she has filleted details from Eliot’s own life, read closely into her wonderful novels and, most importantly, considered the wider philosophical background in which she was operating. As Carlisle shows, philosophy in the abstract meant little to Eliot. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand it – she was the first English translator of texts by Feuerbach and Spinoza – but until that theory came clothed in warm and breathing flesh, it remained inert. The question of marriage mattered to George Eliot not as a rhetorical device or a question of law or custom, but as a series of lived possibilities that needed to be tested and tinkered with in a perpetual cycle of renewal and self-healing.
• The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life by Clare Carlisle is published by Allen Lane (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.