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FIRST THOUGHTS: Clarion call to womanhood

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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”.

 ?? Picture: Hulton Archive/ Getty ?? George Eliot (about 1868) pen name of novelist Marian Evans. She was ostracised by family and society.
Picture: Hulton Archive/ Getty George Eliot (about 1868) pen name of novelist Marian Evans. She was ostracised by family and society.
 ??  ?? In Love With George Eliot Kathy O’Shaughness­y Scribe, €20.30
Review: Mary Leland
In Love With George Eliot Kathy O’Shaughness­y Scribe, €20.30 Review: Mary Leland

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