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George Eliot: The Last Victorian Paperback – 1 Jul 1999
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It was a scandal when Victorian society realised that the morally sensitive novelist George Eliot was Marian Evans, lover of the married freethinking journalist George Henry Lewes. It was easier to sling accusations of loose morals than to contemplate the very high ethical standards of a value system all the more rigorous for being self-devised. Kathryn Hughes' excellent new biography of the woman who became one of the most appealing of Victorian sages has, at its heart, a sense of just how scandalous George Eliot was in her day and how much courage and nervous energy she had to expend in living a life by her own rules. Hughes suggests, convincingly, that this energy is heavily paralleled in the virtue shared by her most attractive central characters, a capacity to endure and stand by righteousness. And there is also a capacity to feel pain--Hughes attaches this, but not reductively, to the rejection of Eliot by her family for her apostasy to freethinking agnosticism from the Evangelical Christianity in which she grew up. Eliot's has always been a powerful story because she achieved intellectual independence as well as artistic success in a society loaded against her by propriety and sexism; Hughes does it full justice. --Roz Kaveney
Praise for Kathryn Hughes’s previous work:
‘Seriously scholarly yet nonetheless accessible to the general reader… fascinating.’
Margaret Forster, Sunday Telegraph
‘Hughes has an acute ear for social nuance.’
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Top customer reviews
As ever, Kathryn Hughes brings her subject alive. Fascinating that George Eliot, that literary giant, was so emotionally needy and bu the end of this biography you feel you have known her for many years. Didn't enjoy it as much as Hughes's biography of Mrs Beeton, but that's only because Mrs Beeton was such a cracking good story.
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.