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Review Book Club: Mary, Mary quite contrary

Born Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot’s life was an unconventional one. A debut novel, says Jane Clinton, examines what made her tick

22 May, 2020 — By Jane Clinton

Francois D-Albert Durade’s portrait of George Eliot

SHE is regarded as one of our greatest writers. George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, later Marian Evans, began writing the masterpiece Middlemarch in 1869 and finished it in 1872 – published over eight instalments.

It was lauded for its realism and psychological insight, and she was the talk of the literati.

Behind closed doors, however, Eliot led an unconventional life: she agonised over her writing, and for a time before Middlemarch had struggled with the knowledge that one day her identity as George Eliot would be revealed.

Speculation about the identity of the mysterious George Eliot only became intense when Adam Bede was published in 1859. By that summer, however, she had slowly outed herself as the author.

Once The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch came out everyone knew exactly who George Eliot was. Fame and riches would follow.

As singular as she was in her pursuit of the perfect novel, she also defied Victorian ideas on relationships between men and women.

Setting up home with the married intellectual polymath, George Lewes, caused a scandal, not least to Eliot’s brother Isaac who cut ties with her until the last months of her life.

When Lewes died in 1878 aged 61, Eliot was distraught and relied on their friend, the handsome and much younger John Cross.

Despite their age difference – Eliot was 20 years Cross’s senior – the pair would go on to marry in 1880 – surprisingly in a church given Eliot’s atheism.

On their honeymoon in Venice, however, Cross appeared to have a breakdown, jumping from their hotel window into the canal. He was unhurt and some have speculated this nervous collapse could have been precipitated by a realisation of a suppressed homosexuality, but this is by no means accepted by all. In the end their marriage was short.

In December 1880 just a few months after their wedding, Eliot died aged 61. She was buried next to Lewes in Highgate Cemetery (East).

After her death Cross wrote a three-volume work biography of Eliot, however, it painted her as an almost saintly figure, vastly at odds with the real Eliot. Some protested that he had made her “too respectable”.

As for Cross, he would not marry again.

The complex romantic life of Eliot serves as the backdrop for the fictional but historically faithful debut novel, In Love with George Eliot, by Gospel Oak writer, Kathy O’Shaughnessy.

Kathy’s career has seen her work as deputy editor of the Literary Review; arts and books editor of Vogue; literary editor of The European, and deputy editor of the Telegraph’s arts and books section. As a book reviewer, she has written across a range of titles including The Guardian and the TLS, and her short stories have been published by Faber.

She has also been a fan of Eliot since her teenage years.

“There was this idea that whatever she did she was running foul of public opinion,” says Kathy.

“She was interested in ideas that were not predictable or considered obvious subject matter. There was a spark and there was an adventure of intellectual exploration.

“There was also a real sense of something that runs contrary to the idea of her as this earnest, slightly worthy, though wonderful, woman.

“And then there was the idea that she had twice in her life shocked the world as it were, [with her union with Lewes and John Cross] and did what she wanted to do.”

Immersing herself in biographies of Eliot as well as letters sent by her and her circle, Kathy decided on the novel form to tell Eliot’s story.

Kathy’s deftly intersperses Eliot’s story with that of a group of modern-day Eliot academics whose relationship dilemmas echo those of the very woman they are analysing and appraising. We see Eliot as ahead of her time and entirely relevant.

Yet ultimately a tension persists between Eliot’s radical spirit and a longing for acceptance.

“The public perception of her and what her friends think of her, which I think is important to everyone, was writ very large with her,” says Kathy.

In Love with George Eliot brings the fascinating, complex spirit of Eliot vividly to life.

“I wanted to bring her story into the public imagination and I wanted my book to be a real inquiry into her,” adds Kathy. “A kind of fact/fiction experiment, and just see how and where that would take me.”

  • In Love with George Eliot. By Kathy O’Shaughnessy, Scribe, £16.99. The paperback is out in September priced £9.99

Writer’s retreat

Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s self-isolation book choices…

The Past by Tessa Hadley. “Very human, true and effortlessly natural. A wonderful book.”

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. “Another great book to curl up with during lockdown.”

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. “You go into the world and it’s challenging but really worth it and such fun.”

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