Irish Examiner Saturday - Irish Examiner - Weekend
FIRST THOUGHTS: Clarion call to womanhood
IN this 200th anniversary of the birth of Mary Ann Evens, thanks must go to Kathy O’Shaughnessy for her intriguing invitation to revisit George Eliot, as if in real time.
In a risky undertaking for a first novel the plan is to unite a minor modern theme with a major engagement in the social, emotional and literary life of an author of monumental intellect. This takes courage amounting to audacity in forging a creative kinship and also demands insight and intuition to a high degree. As a respected literary critic, O’Shaughnessy would know that Eliot must be one of the most challenging writers possible on whom to attempt such an intimate engagement.
Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans was born in rural England in 1819 and, although publicly disguised by her own pseudonym George Eliot, ostracised herself from family and society by living as if in an orthodox marriage with the philosopher and editor George Henry Lewes.
Lewes was already the father, by his estranged wife, of three sons but the loving pseudo-marriage with Marian lasted until his death in 1878. Eliot outlived him by two years, having sensationally married the couple’s much younger friend and adviser John Cross.
His possibly intentional fall from a hotel balcony during their honeymoon in Venice has ever since seemed to eclipse, in public attention at least, Eliot’s death only seven months later in London in 1880.
Separated by chronology and plot, the interleaving chapters interrogate the adult life of George Eliot and that of modern Kate Boyd, academic and aspirant novelist and bemused by love as she prepares for a conference on the author.
Despite some clunky sentences from O’Shaughnessy the Eliot strand predominates as if Eliot herself was dictating like a whispering ghost across the chasm between a modest 21st century scholar and the vast scope of a woman described by FR Leavis (in The Great Tradition, 1948) as: “not as transcendently great as Tolstoy, but she is great, and great in the same way”.
While Leavis has hardly the last word on the transcendental stature of George Eliot his critical assessment of her work, rather than her life, indicates the dilemma inherent in O’Shaughnessy’s task. The differential is that the Eliot chapters contain so much from Eliot herself, from her contemporaries among critics, editors, admirers, authors and readers that the responses of our modern environment cannot compete.
O’Shaughnessy is generous in her bibliography and attributions, and her extensive research allows her to illuminate these pages with the voices of men and women extraordinary in their own day and their own way. Their vigour and variety squelch the indifferent London academia offered by Kate Boyd.
The implied biographical element of these sections has the interest of theme only; there is no real evidence of complex, still less profound, thought, and divorce, class and even academic ambition are no longer revolutionary issues today.
Instead the conviction is that there is no Eliot without the artist, or even, in this case, without George
Lewes. The modern conversations only hint at the yearning, the contradictions, of a life perpetually questioning its conflict between the cerebral and the sensual.
Eliot’s novels are essentially moral fables in some of which, as Robert Speaight has said, the artist and the moralist have difficulty in coming to terms.
Whatever about coming to terms, the two themes almost come together when George Eliot’s attitude to women’s rights and female suffrage are questioned.
Although her closest friend, the painter Barbara Bodichon, actively campaigned for legal and educational reform and whose work with Emily Davis resulted in Girton College, Cambridge, Eliot herself preferred to let her writing make the case for women.
And what women! Dorothea, Mary Garth, Mrs Bulstrode of
Middlemarch; Mrs Poyser and Lisbeth of Adam Bede; Maggie Tulliver and Aunt Glegg ; Dolly Winthrop of
Silas Marner, Mrs Transome of
Felix Holt, the Radical, Gwendolyn Harleth and the Princess Halm-Eberstein of Daniel Deronda.
It is with the Princess that Eliot sent out her clarion call to womanhood: defending herself to the adult son she had abandoned in his infancy the Princess says he can never imagine what it is “to have a man’s force of genius in you and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl. To have a pattern cut out … a woman’s heart to be pressed small, like Chinese feet”.