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In Love with George Eliot

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Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of George Eliot's birth, Kathy O'Shaughnessy's debut novel In Love with George Eliot is a real pleasure to read, even if you haven't read any of Eliot's novels.

I've read them all, and also her short stories Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) (the only title, alas, reviewed here on this blog). I have lost count of how many times I've read my favourites, Middlemarch (1871-2); Silas Marner (1861); and The Mill on the Floss (1860). I liked the others too: Adam Bede (1859); Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) and Daniel Deronda (1876); I just haven't got round to re-reading them yet.

The only one I wasn't keen on was Romola (1863), and now, thanks to O'Shaughnessy's novel, I know why. But I also now know more about the guiding principles and common themes in all Eliot's books. I knew the basic outline of her biography from the introductions to the Penguin editions I've read, and you can see this too at Wikipedia, but IMO the WP summary focusses overmuch on the political aspects of Eliot's fiction. It gives entirely the wrong impression of her fiction, which is a shame if it puts some people off because the novels are often very amusing in the way that Jane Austen's are. Kathy O'Shaughnessy's intimate knowledge of Eliot from her reading of her letters and journals, and from the welter of biographies, brings a different George Eliot to light.

What I have always loved about Eliot's fiction, especially the novels set in provincial England, is her portraits of human dilemmas. People struggling with everyday life; people making heroic choices even when things go wrong and other people misunderstand; people making judgements based on gossip or societal mores instead of seeing the need to see people in the round. In this novel, O'Shaughnessy shows how thoughtful Eliot was, not in the sense of being kind to others (though she was), but in the sense that she thought deeply, whether she was in conversation with those around her or at other times in contemplation about the relationships she had. Without the benefit of modern psychological insights, Eliot was brilliantly observant of the way people behaved and their motivations for doing so. She was mostly so restrained and tactful in her responses, that when on reflection she thought she had not quite meant what she said or might be misconstrued, she dashed off letters to her friends to clarify and apologise if necessary.

There were, of course, good reasons why she was so circumspect with her friends. George Eliot's real name was Marion Evans, and though she took the name 'Mrs Lewes' she was never able to marry the love of her life. The scandal of her life with the married George Henry Lewes meant that her place in society was compromised, and relationships that mattered to her were gravely affected. She was estranged from her brother Isaac, and he saw to it that her sisters broke off contact as well. The loneliness of her early years with Lewes made her miss the companionship of women; it was typical of the hypocrisy of the era that men could visit without compromising their reputations or setting a 'bad example' to the detriment of conventional marriage, but women of her own class could not and would not be seen to associate with her.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2019/11/08/in-love-with-george-eliot-by-kathy-oshaughne... ( )
  anzlitlovers | Nov 8, 2019 |
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