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.