George Eliot, who was still alive when falsehood began to circulate about her past, shuddered at the thought of what biographers would do to her after her death. "Is it not odious", she asked, referring to a `Life Of Dickens', "that as soon as a man is dead his desk is raked and every insignificant memorandum which he never meant for the public is printed for the gossiping amusement of people too idle to re-read his books?"
She knew she had given the biographers plenty of material on which to do their worst - by rejecting religion, by living a bohemian London life as a single woman, by openly cohabitating with the married George Lewes for years, and by marrying John Cross, a man nearly 20 years her junior, after Lewes's death.
Rosemary Ashton's book however, is not that kind of biography. She analyses thoroughly the life experiences that accompanied Eliot's many name changes - the young provincial Mary Anne Evans, the bohemian free thinker Marian Evans, the scandalous Marian Lewes, the writer George Eliot, and the remarried Mary Ann Cross - and makes obvious her admiration for the woman. But she is most engaged by the writer.
Which is as it should be. Writing was the centre of Eliot's life, a fact often ignored in earlier biographies more concerned with her sexual and social misdemeanours. What is most interesting about her relationship with George Lewes is not that they never married, but the way in which he played midwife to her books: encouraging her to write fiction, guarding her from the criticism that shrivelled her writing confidence, providing the loving background that allowed her genius to flower.
Ashton is an illuminating interpreter of Eliot's work, carefully contextualising her life and intellectual influences. She places her within the literary milieu of the 19th century, discussing at length her relationship to other authors. Also treated are her intellectual and social relations with those great and good Victorians with whom she had most contact - Darwin, Huxley, Tennyson, Browning and the radical and feminist women who, for years, were the only females to associate with her.
As the only Victorian woman writer who rejects society's strictures, George Eliot has always been a bit of a feminist icon. What this biography makes clear, however, is that she was an unwilling rebel, and longed for the approval of those she loved and the admiration of society. But not enough to compromise what she believed to be right or true. "This paradox," says Ashton, "a tension between the urge to criticise, and if necessary to rebel against established ideas and practices, and the counter-urge to belong securely in the family and social group, is at the heart of George Eliot's life in all its stages." And it informs her novels too.
Unsurprisingly, having lived such an unconventional life, on her death the rumours began to fly, especially about her final years. It was said, for example, that while going through Lewes's papers after his death, she had discovered evidence that he had been unfaithful. Ashton quashes such speculation, attributing the rumour to its source. But the events of this stage of Eliot's life raise compelling questions. Why did she marry Cross, a man utterly unlike her beloved Lewes and in no way her intellectual equal? Why did he jump into the grand canal in Venice on their honeymoon? Was there madness in Cross's family? Did Eliot come to think him mad and never recover from the dreadful depression that followed as some claimed?
At this part of the biography, Georg Eliot slips from view. We long to know more, but are left wondering. The sources are not there and the questions are therefore, for a biographer like Ashton, unanswerable. She quotes Charles, Lewes's son, as saying that Eliot had explained her marriage by intimating that it was her human feelings and failings which enabled her to write her books. "This explanation which was good enough for Charles," chivvies Ashton, "should be good enough for us". She refuses to offer educated guesses, psychoanalytic interpretations, maybes or perhapses.
What she gives instead is a scholarly, meticulously documented yet readable Life, which is not a substitute for reading the books, but rather an enticement to explore them. I imagine that even its biography-shy subject would have to acknowledge its worth.