George Eliot in Love

George Eliot in Love BY Brenda Maddox. Palgrave Macmillan. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.

The cover of George Eliot in Love

There is no more powerful force in George Eliot’s fiction than marriage. It wrecks her characters’ health, forces them to give up their professional ambitions, and reveals them for who they really are. A “liberal allowance of conclusions,” Eliot writes at the beginning of Middlemarch, “has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization. Has any one ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?”

This skepticism about marriage seems at first to be borne out by the best-known detail of Eliot’s personal life: She lived for nearly twenty-five years out of wedlock with the writer George Henry Lewes, who remained for all that time married to another woman. By Eliot’s own account, theirs was a blissful union. As Brenda Maddox writes in her compact, entertaining George Eliot in Love, the pair were “intellectual soul mates.”

Nevertheless, marriage, much more than love, emerges in Maddox’s book as the defining theme of Eliot’s life. Despite its title, the book is not an impressionistic tour of a writer’s sexual persona (like Edna O’Brien’s 2009 Byron in Love), but a streamlined, chronological biography that leaves much of the work of interpretation to the reader. The approach has its pitfalls: Some omissions, particularly close readings of Eliot’s own writing, are glaring. But Maddox gives a strong impression of the facts of Eliot’s life and conveys that by the time she went to live with Lewes, effectively exiling herself from respectable society, Eliot had long felt herself an exile, and that the institution of marriage was partly to blame.

Mary Anne Evans was born in Warwickshire in 1819, the second daughter of middle-class parents, which is another way of saying that marriage was expected of her. But there was an impediment: her “vast ugliness” (as Henry James famously put it). By the age of twenty, Eliot was convinced that “the bliss of reciprocated affection” would never be hers. By twenty-one, she had fallen in with a group of freethinkers who held that marriage should be open, had lost her faith, and had entered into her first close relationship with a married man. There were to be several such relationships throughout her twenties, with men who were intoxicated enough with her daunting intellect to overlook her lack of physical beauty.

She was thirty-four when she moved in with Lewes, who persuaded her to try her hand at fiction, helped her with her plotting, and shepherded her through crises of confidence. It may be easy, given the success of the relationship, to think of Eliot as ahead of her time. But Maddox warns against such anachronistic reading: “Imaginative effort is needed to appreciate the suffering caused . . . by the impossibility of marrying the man with whom she shared her life.” Eliot, Maddox argues, was essentially conservative and, proud as she was of her relationship with Lewes, very much desired the legitimacy a legal marriage would confer: She called herself Mrs. Lewes, and she allowed others to believe that she was. When pressured to announce herself as the author behind George Eliot’s works, she hesitated, Maddox suggests, because she was “embarrassed by her irregular social status.”

This embarrassment never entirely went away, and after Lewes’s death Eliot married a much younger man, John Cross. The marriage seems to have been one of mutual affection, not sexual or financial in nature. It did not give Eliot much, but it gave her legitimacy, if only briefly: She died seven months after becoming a wife for the first time, at the age of sixty-one. And so she ended her life not as a fictional Mr. Eliot or as a fictional Mrs. Lewes, but as the real Mrs. Cross.