George Eliot: A Life

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9780140242911: George Eliot: A Life

This biography of Eliot sets her vividly in the political, social and religious context of the time. She arrived in London in 1851, determined to make her way as a journalist on the "Westminster Review", a paper until then exclusively dominated by men. It was whilst she was working on this journal that she found her writer's voice - ironic, sceptical and broadly sympathizing. The author examines her relationship with Lewes (the subject of a previous biography), his encouragement, battling both against her pride and her fear of failure, her unrequited love for Chapman, her employer on the Review and her love for Spencer, the recipient of her extraordinary love letters, begging attention, yet at the same time strong, self-aware and witty at her own expense. This is a sensitive and revealing portrait of a modern and highly unorthodox life, giving a fuller treatment than any other biography on George Eliot, by an author who has been studying Eliot for 15 years.

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Review:

George Eliot, née Marian Evans, was born before her time; a liberated woman and an agnostic in the sexually repressive and pious Victorian era, Eliot has long been a favorite of modern feminist critics. Biographer Rosemary Ashton also admires Eliot's independence and her refusal to bend to the mores of the society and age in which she lived, but in George Eliot: A Life she proves that Eliot was more a product of her time than some might think. Though Eliot was unconventional enough to enter into a series of sexual relationships without benefit of marriage, her choice of men was curiously traditional, illustrated by her attraction to George Lewes, a man several years her senior who loved her, protected her, bolstered her ego, and managed her affairs.

Though Eliot's sexual liaisons are certainly interesting, Ashton, a thorough researcher and perceptive critic, also delves into Eliot's novels, analyzing them in light of the social and intellectual milieu in which they were written; this milieu forms one of the most fascinating aspects of Ashton's biography: Victorian intellectuals' struggle to find an alternative to Christian orthodoxy in a time when science and philosophy were exploding long-held religious beliefs. From the details of George Eliot's personal life to the attitudes of the society in which she lived, Rosemary Ashton has done a fine job of conveying not only a life but an entire world.

From Kirkus Reviews:

The latest life of George Eliot (n‚e Mary Ann Evans), from the biographer of her lifelong companion, G.H. Lewes, brings out this independent-minded woman's shyness and self-doubt as well as her formidable artistic achievements. The opportunity for the Eliot biography industry began when Evans's young widower, John Cross, extended her strong sense of privacy to destroying some of her personal papers and bowdlerizing excerpts from her letters and journals for his respectful official life. This was not enough to stop the rumors and speculation that had begun after Evans made herself notorious by living with the married Lewes well before ``George Eliot'' gained fame as the author of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede. In the search for the real George Eliot, Ashton (English/University College, London) adds her understated version of Evans's life to the several of the last ten years, the most recent being Frederick Karl's magisterial 1995 volume. Ashton moves swiftly through Evans's life, bringing her up from Midlands provincialism to intellectual cosmopolitanism, without dwelling too long on the religious and personal crises in her life. Evans's break with her family and friends, first over her faith, then over her relations with Lewes, seem especially muted, but the novelist herself always maintained a stoic front in her personal life. Like Evans, Ashton is more at home with intellectual matters, such as her interest in Goethe (and his influence on her), her early journalism for the Westminster Review, and, of course, her novels. Ashton, editor of the Penguin Middlemarch, does her best work in drawing out Evans's perspective from her plots and characterizations. If Gladstone called the first Eliot biography ``a Reticence in three volumes,'' Ashton's is an Admiration in one volume--but a readable and informed one at least. (16 pages b&w photos & illustrations) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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