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I suppose I was always inspired about the brilliant woman being forced to pretend to be a man in order to publish her work "back in the day". Not quite what I thought! Very thoughtfully written with a lot of balance.
To write a biography is a tremendous amount of work, and to write a good one, about such a towering figure as George Eliot, is a very tall order indeed. I do not, therefore, want to make it seem like I do not appreciate the hard work and earnest scholarship that Kathryn Hughes put into this biography. I also don't want to make it seem like I don't recommend it: if you are an Eliot fan, I think it is a must-read.
But, but... I definitely had issues with the book. The main one almost struck me off reading more than a few pages at first, and that is the author's peculiar attitude toward her subject. She seems almost afraid of being too reverential of GE, but ends up going to far the other way. She is downright ungenerous, snarky, and frequently disparaging and assuming the worst possible interpretation of an action by Eliot. Perhaps this is the modern way of writing biographies? But it put me off. Ideally, one wants to feel that the author is doing their absolute best to remain objective. But this author frequently seemed to make "favorite" characters -- and interpret all their actions and letter-writing in positive ways, while the disfavored (including GE) were given very little credit. Sometimes this leads the author into obvious and ridiculous errors, such as when she suggests that John Blackwood, Eliots life-long publisher "may have been sarcastic" when he called Eliot "loyal and ungreedy" in response to Eliot's having thrown him over for a new publisher who promised more money.
The closing years of Eliot's and Lewes' life are oddly rushed, almost like the author got fatigued of writing the book.
All that criticism asside, in the end I did enjoy the book immensely. Putting aside the odd "attitude" and judginess that often came across from the author, she has a real talent for making a good narrative flow out of the raw biographical material. I salute that, and I would not be sorry to read another biography of hers, though preferably, one in which she did not dislike the subject quite so much.
I admit to a certain amount of rumination in choosing between four and five stars for this biography. But perhaps it's better to describe the book. It is a useful biography of Mary Ann Evans from childhood to her long-term unofficial marriage to George Lewes and her final short-lived marriage to John Cross. The story of how she first made her way into the literary avant-garde and her first tentative pieces of journalism is well-told.
Each of the major novels is analysed. The poetry gets short shrift, probably rightly. Kathryn Hughes brings out the major contradiction from the novels that all the George Eliot heroines, unlike the author, end up settling for dutiful work in relative obscurity. Hughes is also right that the Eliot heroes, from Adam Bede to Daniel Deronda, have a tendency to priggishness. But I imagine most readers of this book will have read at least some of the novels, and will have their own views.
I think Hughes' judgements are sound, though I hope not too many people are put off reading Romola. Despite the shortcomings of that novel and the insufferable saintliness of the eponymous heroine, the villain Tito Melema is an interesting psychological portrait of the lazy and comfort-loving route to evil. Most importantly, Hughes does full justice to the towering achievement of Middlemarch. Eliot's innate social conservatism is drawn out as a common thread across all the novels, most explicitly in the analysis of Felix Holt.
So, this book will help you understand the background of the woman that became George Eliot and her remarkable intellect that made a lasting contribution to the novel. Well worth a read.
I came to this biography of George Eliot knowing almost nothing about her. Recent study of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Louisa May Alcott (as well as on going study of the Bronte sisters and Dickens) led me to want to know something of this great writer. Well, I am enjoying this biography as if it were a novel. Style is for me the circulatory system of any book; and here Hughes' style is marvelously readable and enjoyable and brilliantly insightful. I will re-read the book after reading some of Eliot's novels. The book gives a vivid picture not only of this giant of a woman and giant of a novelist but of the remarkable times in which she was born and came of age and the literary London in which she was such an enormously important figure. Frankly, the details of Eliot's life --- her agnosticism, her courage in having a long affair or outlaw marriage with a man who had a legal wife and children --- her deep dedication to moral principles and a great moral vision in her writing, all this dazzled me. I wonder who will eventually make a mini series of Eliot's remarkable life --- which might unfold in episodes as exciting as those of the BBC four part "Daniel Deronda" based on her novel. As so many good biographies are, this one is a rich history of the times, filled with moving portraits of those who knew and were known by Eliot, of those who loved her and those whom she loved. Immensely satisfying, and always entertaining. Highly recommended.
Elliot had a complex life, was unusually gifted, and displayed her bountiful talents in her books. The author of this biography, Kathryn Hughes, did a magnificent job of bringing Elliot, her genius and insecurities, to life.
Despite the unfortunate title (George Elliot may have supported but definitely didn't live by Victorian family values) and misleading cover picture (Elliot was definitely not a looker..) the book itself is very well written and the narrative gives historical perspective to Marian's unconventional personal story. Having read through it, it is astounding what influence she had on the literary scene in England considering the small number of books she written and even smaller number of books which are readable today. Overall well worth the read for the personal story and the historical perspective.
... that goes deep into Evans' motivations and feelings. It also gives interesting historical details for us to understand such a great mind. I did miss a more critical approach to the ouvre, but perhaps it was not the author's intention anyway. It's a light, entertaining read, and a wonderful introduction to Evans' life and work.
I enjoyed the book, but too much of it related to the author rather than George Eliot. Later, after reading "George Eliot, the last Victorian", I also realized how slight and superficial Hughes' research was.