A landmark of biography retains its appeal more than a century after it’s subject’s death
George Eliot: A Biography. By Gordon Haight. Penguin, 616 pp., varied prices, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
“What Middlemarch is to the English novel this biography is to George Eliot,” a critic for the New York Times wrote when this book appeared in 1968. Just as Middlemarch showed more of English life than any novel that had preceded it, this biography showed more of George Eliot than book that had come before it. Scholars have never stopped building on the work Gordon Haight did for this book, which you can still find easily in libraries and elsewhere.
A few weeks ago, the critic Simon Baker wrote in the British Spectator www.spectator.co.uk that the hallmarks of great biographies include “elegance, quality of analysis, attention to detail, balance, and worthiness of subject.” Haight’s book has those virtues and another: It has a subject whose character and moral courage remain inspiring more than a century after her death. Many flawed – even loathsome – men and women are worthy of biography because their villainy changed the world or has a unique fascination. And you may come away repelled from some of the biographies praised today as “masterpieces,” because the lives they describe are so sordid. George Eliot led a far more public and eventful life than Jane Austen did, but like Austen, she was a novelist whose books derive their greatness from a true greatness of spirit.
George Eliot (1819–1880) was the daughter of a well-off estate agent and had an easier childhood than contemporaries such as Charles Dickens. And she won worldwide fame in early middle age for her fiction, which includes Silas Marner and Adam Bede in addition to Middlemarch. But she faced profound hardships. She was so homely that Henry James called her “horse-faced.” She could never marry the man she loved, the writer George Henry Lewes, because a quirk of English law made it impossible for him to get a divorce, though his adulterous wife had two children with another man. When Eliot lived with Lewes, anyway, she was shunned by friends and family. She suffered from depression and other illnesses, including kidney stones that caused lasting pain. When she remarried soon after Lewes’s death, her second husband jumped off a balcony into the Grand Canal in Venice on their honeymoon, an apparent suicide attempt. Throughout all of it she showed exemplary patience, kindness, and literary integrity.
Haight describes all of this with rich insight and a restrained eloquence. His book avoids all the sins of modern biography, including special pleading, unmerited speculation, and drawing false parallels his subject’s art and life. It has more than 600 pages but never becomes tedious or overstuffed with extraneous detail. And Haight knows just when to turn the floor over to Eliot and let her speak through her own writings. An except from a letter to her closest friend is typical and seems especially fitting for New Year’s Day:
“When we are young, we think our troubles a mighty business – that the world is spread out expressly as a stage for the particular drama of our lives and we have a right to rant and foam at the mouth if we are crossed. I have done enough of that in my time. But we begin at last to understand that these things are important only to our own consciousness, which is but as a globule of dew on a rose-leaf that at midday there will be no trace of. This is no high-flown sentimentality, but a simple reflection which I find useful to me every day.”
I have read many wonderful books in 2006 but none more worthy of being written than this one.
Best line: Haight quotes this line from Eliot’s novel Felix Holt: “It is not true that love makes all things easy: it makes us choose what is difficult.”
Worst line: None, but some aspects of Eliot’s life remain a mystery. One is why she so quickly married her much younger and perhaps mentally disturbed second husband. Haight attributes the marriage to Eliot’s “essential conservatism” and belief in traditional institutions. This is plausible. But other writers have speculated that Lewes had affairs that Eliot learned of after his death and that contributed to her decision to marry. This seems a possibility, too.
Published: 1968 (Oxford University Press hardcover edition), 1985 (Penguin reprint)
FYI: Gordon Haight taught English at Yale University from 1950–1968. He was invited to speak at the dedication of George Eliot’s memorial at Westminster Abbey, a rare honor for an American. An excerpt from Eliot’s journal for New Year’s Eve 1857, taken from Haight’s book, appears in a post below this one.
Consider reading also: Marghanita Laski’s pictorial biography, George Eliot and Her World (Thames & Hudson, 1973), offers a good, shorter introduction to the life of the novelist that draws on Haight’s research and is available in libraries.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com for more information about her comic novels.
Watch this site for the short list Delete Key Awards, which will recognize the worst writing in books in 2006. The list will appear in early 2007.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.