George Eliot in 1849, painted by François D’Albert Durade (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

George Eliot wanted to be buried in Westminster Abbey. At her death in 1880, at the age of sixty-one, she had a towering reputation and a dedicated circle of admirers. Her novels were widely acknowledged as among the greatest achievements in English literature. No less a luminary than Charles Dickens had written to her directly to express his admiration for her first stories, praising their “exquisite truth and delicacy”-—a letter that prompted Eliot to write, “There can hardly be any climax of approbation for me after this.” By the end of her life, however, she dared to dream of one final honor, that of joining Dickens and England’s other great men of letters who rested in Poets’ Corner.

Eliot, of course, was not a man. She was first Mary Ann Evans, later Marian Lewes, and finally Marian Cross—having lived with George Henry Lewes, her “husband” in everything but law, for twenty-four years, and then having lawfully wed a young admirer, John Cross, less than a year before her death. If she had been a man, the irregularities of her private life might have been overlooked—Dickens’s abandonment of his wife for a much younger lover did not exclude him from that hallowed ground when he died ten years earlier. But Eliot’s petition was denied, on account of what the scientist Thomas Huxley described as her “notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage, and Christian theory in regard to dogma.”

In discussing Eliot’s work, it is tempting to pass over the messy details of her private life in delicate embarrassment. (That late-in-life marriage to John Cross, for example, is truly weird.) But Clare Carlisle’s excellent new book The Marriage Question dares to take Eliot’s personal life seriously, as the field in which her finest work was cultivated. And, coming at the end of Carlisle’s empathetic portrait of the woman who called herself Mrs. Lewes, a woman who crowned each of her manuscripts with a sincere dedication to her beloved “husband,” Huxley’s verdict on Eliot’s life lands as an outrageous insult. He had been asked to support her interment in the Abbey, but replied with his reasons for opposing it. “One cannot eat one’s cake and have it too,” he sniffed. “Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards, if they are to be so called, which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters.”

Could any woman hope to be “free in thought and deed” in 1850s England? It would be wildly off the mark to imagine Eliot as an anti-establishment rebel, casting off conventionality to follow her whims. In fact, she longed for social acceptance and labored to convince friends that her union with Lewes was honorable. (Legally, at least, it was adulterous; he was separated from his wife, who was living with another man, but they were not divorced.) If Eliot’s thinking and writing challenged Christian conventions, it was not for the sake of undermining the faith; she pushed herself and her readers to recognize where concerns about propriety and true human kindness were at odds. Carlisle, herself a philosopher, puts it well: “She shone philosophy’s fierce light on conventional mores that passed for ethics.”

Eliot had thought herself doomed to loneliness until Lewes, a fellow writer, came into her life. It was he who first encouraged her to take up fiction, and he managed the business side of her lucrative career. They read to each other. They gave each other notes. They traveled together on research trips. When they visited the Convento di San Marco in Florence to study the work of Eliot’s favorite artist, Fra Angelico, she waited outside while Lewes toured the cloister and took notes on the frescoes within. Women were not permitted to enter.

Lewes found a publisher for Eliot’s work, but they agreed to conceal her true identity; she had high aspirations and wanted her reputation as a writer to be free of both the taint of social scandal and the limitations placed on women writers. When Adam Bede, her first novel, was a critical and financial success, she wrote to her publisher, “I sing my ‘Magnificat’ in a quiet way, and have a great deal of deep, silent joy.” But if she laughed when the Economist, in its review of Adam Bede, declared her a “man of genius,” she also resented being unable to claim any laurels publicly. Soon thereafter, she took the risk of revealing her identity and found that her success as an author remained secure. In time, she developed a following of admirers (including her future husband, John Cross, twenty years her junior) who “worshipped her not only as a great artist and moral teacher, but also as a figure in whom erotic and maternal fantasies could be ambiguously merged.” Still, she was never able to escape the shadows of illegitimacy. Her own brother cut off contact when she began her life with Lewes, and he did not reach out again until Eliot married Cross.

Clare Carlisle’s excellent new book The Marriage Question dares to take Eliot’s personal life seriously, as the field in which her finest work was cultivated.

Eliot described her relationship with Lewes as a “double life,” and by “double” she meant not “duplicitous” or “divided” but “shared.” She felt that she drew strength from living in relationship with him, and their relationship in turn informed her work. A characteristic letter to a friend finds her pronouncing herself “happy in the highest blessing life can give us, the perfect love and sympathy of a nature that stimulates my own to healthful activity.” But Carlisle wonders whether their domestic bliss was truly as “perfect” as Eliot insisted. The pair differed, for example, about how Eliot’s work should be published and how much she ought to ask in payment. Carlisle suggests that Eliot likely worked out her ambivalent or negative emotions in her writing.


One of the revelations of Carlisle’s approach is how Daniel Deronda, too often dismissed as merely a disappointing follow-up to Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, appears instead as the clearest expression of many themes that had preoccupied the author throughout her career. As Carlisle says, “Daniel Deronda brings together the different aspects of the marriage question—political, metaphysical, moral, emotional, spiritual—which had taken shape in Eliot’s previous works.” Its heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, is vividly self-centered and disinclined to sacrifice, a personality that might lead to success in a man but can only spell misery for a woman. Her uncle, working to secure a suitable match, worries that Gwendolen has “too much fire in her” to attract a mate. “When you are married, it will be different,” he counsels her; “you may do whatever your husband sanctions.” Chafing at playing the part of an eligible maiden, Gwendolen believes marriage will bring about freedom. Readers have the terrible thrill of watching her walk into the trap that will teach her otherwise. There is no having one’s cake and eating it too for Gwendolen, or for any woman facing down the marriage question, as Eliot knew quite well.

In this and all of Eliot’s work there lurks what Carlisle calls the “imagined otherwise”: alternative possible endings; couplings that might have led to happier outcomes; squandered potential that might have been nurtured in other settings. Readers who grow attached to Eliot’s female protagonists have often wondered whether the endings of their stories are quite right; sometimes Eliot comments on these frustrated expectations within the text itself (as in the epilogue to Middlemarch, where she wryly notes that “many who knew” Dorothea, her heroine, “thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done”). Eliot could also imagine a world that was more open-minded, less hypocritical, or more egalitarian than the one she lived in, and she wrote about humanity striving toward it. But her characters must finally make their choices and broaden their own horizons within the limitations that life (or their author) has placed on them.

Carlisle’s portrait draws on a vast field of material: diaries and letters written by both Eliot and Lewes; Eliot’s notebooks documenting her creative process; the novels themselves, of course, as well as critical responses to them. There are brief and illuminating forays into matters such as the development of clerical marriage in the Church of England, literary expressions of Victorian feminism, and the figure of the Madonna in Medieval art and Protestant thought. And there are the author’s own perceptive readings of the novels and what they reveal about marriage as a concept, a limitation, a convention, and an ideal. Carlisle combines all this into an absorbing and surprising portrait of the emotional life of an author I thought I knew well.

“Each day our partners watch us cross the precarious bridge between our intimate and our social selves,” Carlisle writes. No one could have known George Eliot better than George Lewes. He helped his wife keep her footing on that precarious bridge, and she loved him for it: “I can’t tell you how happy I am in this double life,” she wrote to a friend, “which helps me to feel and think with double strength.” But aside from the tender inscriptions on her manuscripts, we do not know what she wrote to Lewes. The couple agreed to shield their correspondence from posterity, and the letters they exchanged were buried with Eliot. It is a testament to Carlisle’s thorough research and insight that this absence is seldom felt in her book.

Eliot’s humanist philosophy, which she developed over many years of reflection and articulated in various ways in her writing, held that men and women must recognize their mutual dependence, and thereby grow in empathy for one another. Marriage, for her, was a school of virtue. She lost Lewes in 1878 and married Cross eighteen months later, apparently deciding the single life was not for her. Explaining this surprising turn, she wrote to a friend, “I shall be a better, more loving creature than I could have been in solitude.” It is difficult, for me at least, to read those words and still snicker about the incongruity of the match.

In her final chapter, Carlisle reflects on the hold that other people’s relationships have on our curiosity. “Beneath the superficial pleasure of gossip and the fleeting sensations of power felt in passing judgment on another person, lies some grasp of the moral stakes of marriage,” she writes. “These stakes are so high precisely because they concern the growth of our souls.”

When I first heard about The Marriage Question, I thought of Rebecca Mead’s 2014 book, My Life in Middlemarch, which I reviewed enthusiastically in these pages (“The Larger View,” July 11, 2014). I wondered whether there could be more to say about Eliot’s emotional life and her relevance for women readers in the twenty-first century. But I found in this new book a new set of revelations. Both Mead and Carlisle express a sense of being enlarged and challenged by Eliot’s generous vision of humanity, and that ennobling effect on readers is surely Eliot’s richest legacy—the “climax of approbation” she might have cherished most. Carlisle’s perspective is original and fruitful, and The Marriage Question shines both as a biography and as an inquiry into the “moral stakes of marriage.” Its pleasures are anything but superficial.

The Marriage Question
George Eliot’s Double Life

Clare Carlisle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$30 | 400 pp.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the October 2023 issue: View Contents
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