George Eliot's Subversive Vision of Marriage – The Atlantic

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Unlike Jane Austen, the novelist was most interested in what happens after “I do.”
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“Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” George Eliot wrote those sentences in her 1872 masterpiece, Middlemarch, an examination of marriage unmatched by any other. She scrutinized the relationship—its intimate secrets and its public contours—with rare imaginative and moral intensity in her other fiction too. But that fearsome declaration, uttered by her protagonist Dorothea Brooke, stands out. It was meant to disorient a reader, and still does.
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It definitely sounds un-Victorian, framing marriage as the antithesis of a demurely conventional arrangement. Does it sound contemporary? The shudder at suffocation might seem familiar—I need some space. That “awful,” though, isn’t just a way of saying dreadful ; it surely also means awe-inspiring, which delivers a jolt. Americans may marvel at the romantic spectacle of lavish weddings and wonder at the endurance of an institution that has weathered so many rounds of criticism, calls for redefinition, and diagnoses of crisis. But we appear to be more wary than awed. A quarter of 40-year-olds in the United States (where the surgeon general recently issued an advisory on “our epidemic of loneliness and isolation”) have never been married—a new milestone. Who knows whether they’ll change their mind. To those holdouts—as well as the rest of us—Eliot’s sentences say: Don’t take marriage at face value or assume you understand it.
Eliot’s own marital trajectory was anomalous, and not just by the standards of her time. Marian Evans, as she was known when she arrived in London from the Midlands in 1851 to help edit the liberal journal The Westminster Review, had long despaired that “the bliss of reciprocated affection” was out of reach for the homely, brooding misfit she felt she was. In 1854, soon to turn 35, she eloped to live with a married man, and became a social pariah. Evans called him her “beloved husband,” and George Henry Lewes—editor, biographer, philosopher, critic, scientific writer—called her the “best of Wives,” though he never divorced the legal wife with whom he had three children. Evans credited their “blessed union,” and “the happiness which his love has conferred on my life,” with allowing her to discover “my true vocation, after which my nature had always been feeling and striving uneasily without finding it.” George Eliot was born.
By the time Lewes died, in 1878, Eliot was renowned (thanks in part to his promotional efforts) as a novelist-oracle dispensing wisdom to anchor humanity in a godless cosmos. A year and a half later, now 60, she took the surprising step, in an era when many frowned on second marriages, of getting legally married at last—to a friend and devoted admirer two decades her junior, John Cross. She was dead within eight months. Cross spent the next four years editing and arranging her letters and journals into the pious “autobiography” of a sententious paragon. Scrubbed of all traces of humor and pointed opinion, it was designed, as the Eliot scholar and biographer Gordon S. Haight put it, “to perpetuate the fame of the Victorian Sibyl.” A more subversive Eliot has been struggling to get out ever since.
For several decades, Eliot has been enlisted as a guide in women’s quest for fulfillment in love and work. The biographer and critic Phyllis Rose, in her now-classic Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983), pronounced Eliot and Lewes “my favorite couple.” Her Eliot, dovetailing with second-wave feminism, knew what she wanted and secured it with Lewes: a partner dedicated to loving her, reading and talking constantly with her, writing alongside her, and excelling as the ultimate helpmeet and literary agent. For women critics a generation after Rose, Eliot has supplied quieter encouragement on their paths to emotional and vocational maturity. A decade ago, the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead, in her memoir My Life in Middlemarch, wrote of returning again and again to the novel, valuing Eliot’s vision of the ongoing growth of a soul. The writer and Harper’s editor Joanna Biggs takes a similar personal approach in A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again, out this past spring. She is especially heartened, in the aftermath of her early divorce, by Eliot’s rebirth in her mid-30s.
Read: An interview with Rebecca Mead on what Middlemarch taught her about love, marriage, and journalism
A more unnerving Eliot, drawn to the sometimes-terrifying but also transformative depths of marriage, emerges in a fascinating new biography, The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life, by Clare Carlisle, a philosophy professor at King’s College London. As her title suggests, Carlisle approaches Eliot’s life and art as a quest to go beyond the most entrenched of marriage plots: the courtship-centered drama, with its happily-ever-after closure, that Jane Austen mastered and that has indelibly marked not just literature but life. For Eliot, “marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives,” became a beginning—one in theory without an end, other than death.
Eliot and Lewes read Austen together early in a relationship that hardly fit the comic Austen script. Eliot had just been spurned by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, with whom she had fallen in love (“The lack of physical attraction was fatal,” he later said). Before that, she had been briefly entangled with The Westminster Review’s young publisher, who already had a wife and a mistress. Lewes, for his part, was in a nonmonogamous marriage that wasn’t going well: His wife also had two children by his best friend, and soon she was pregnant with another. In an 1852 essay for the Review titled “The Lady Novelists,” which Eliot assigned and edited, Lewes extolled Austen’s “exquisite art” and called her world “a perfect orb, and vital.” But he also observed that “there are heights and depths in human nature Miss Austen has never scaled nor fathomed, there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot.”
From the May 1885 issue: Henry James on George Eliot’s life
Four years later, Eliot was poised to give fiction a try, now settled into her “double life, which helps me to feel and think with double strength.” (The pressure was on: In deciding to unite, she and Lewes vowed to support his lawful wife and her many children.) Surveying “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” Eliot the critic especially derided the vogue of “oracular” gibberish, fiction that waded into theories of right and wrong, offering pat Christian solutions. Her ideal woman novelist “does not write books to confound philosophers, perhaps because she is able to write books that delight them.” Fortified by Lewes’s faith in her gifts, she was mustering courage to aspire to such a goal.
Indeed, Carlisle credits Eliot with “creating a new philosophical voice” in her fiction as she feels and thinks her way into the most intimate of relationships. Carlisle is an empathetic and ambitious interpreter. She delves beneath the surface of marriage in Eliot’s novels, finding a world that hums with big questions—about “desire, freedom, selfhood, change, morality, happiness, belief, the mystery of other minds.”
Eliot’s genius lay in her acute awareness of how little we reveal to others about what churns inside our heads and hearts—and how little we may perceive about ourselves. As she wrote in her last novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), “There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.” “It was she,” D. H. Lawrence said, “who started putting all the action inside.”
Carlisle calls attention to just how much of that action in Eliot’s novels transpires in “very dark marital interiors … with their recurring scenes of ambivalence, brutality and disappointment.” The best-known entrant into that shadowed place is vibrantly idealistic Dorothea in Middlemarch, who misjudges pedantic Edward Casaubon so wildly and marries him so quickly. She is devastated to discover his shrunken heart, and instead of “large vistas” in his mind, “winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither.” For other protagonists, “wifely relations” entail a more violent, pathological struggle. Janet Dempster is beaten by her drunken husband and driven to drink herself in Eliot’s debut, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857). In Daniel Deronda, headstrong Gwendolen Harleth is soon haunted by murder fantasies about the cold tyrant, Henleigh Grandcourt, she felt compelled to marry: “That white hand of his which was touching his whisker was capable, she fancied, of clinging round her neck and threatening to throttle her.” She is in turn appalled by her own murderous wish: “My heart said, ‘Die!’—and he sank.”
From the April 1873 issue: A review of George Eliot’s Middlemarch
The contrast between the private agonies of Eliot’s couples and their public displays of composure is striking: Out of pride, they suppress signs of misery at the isolation and subjection that ambush them. The contrast between her characters’ hidden suffering and Eliot’s own radiant marital interior is even starker. In her letters and journal entries, she was effusive in her gratitude for “a life of perfect love and a union that every year makes closer.” She evoked a haven of “thorough moral and intellectual sympathy,” and marveled at “my warm, enthusiastic husband, who cares more for my doing than for his own.”
Pride surely was at work for Eliot too: She chose to flout Church and state, which meant going for years without social invitations, rarely receiving visitors, and being cut off by her brother. She had a stake in saying to anyone who would listen—and in proving to herself and Lewes—that the two of them prized their marriage as a “sacred bond,” legal or not. Why risk embarking openly, as a woman in Britain, on an illicit relationship unless the reward was a loving fidelity, and rare marital equality, that brought “the deepest and gravest joy in all human experience”?
Still, memories of turmoil and loneliness shadowed the idyllic portrayals of what clearly was an exceptional union: a combination of “turbulent, self-critical sensitivity and steady cheerful good sense,” as Carlisle sums up the Eliot-Lewes pairing—plus hard-driving ambition on both sides. Eliot “had not chosen to remain alone for so long,” Carlisle emphasizes, “but all those years without a husband produced a more varied experience of her own heart than most women gained before they married”—and a haunting recognition of how differently things could have gone. Her happiness, after what she referred to as “the long sad years of youth,” was so unexpected, and she had found it in a marriage that ought not to have been possible. In Lewes’s company, Eliot could dare imagine that “all the terrible pain I have gone through in past years has probably been a preparation for some special work that I may do before I die.”
Eliot’s special work lay in giving her characters marital struggles that occasion a “questioning of self and destiny”—something she believed happened too rarely in women’s lives. She resisted simply doling out the tidy fates prescribed for unhappy couples in the conventional Victorian novel’s wedlock plot: spouses wisely reawakened to romantic love (the comic version) or else sundered, having transgressed accepted standards of wifely subservience or master-of-the-house dominance (the tragic version). Eliot wasn’t interested in confirming the prevailing ideal of marriage as a patriarchal, insular bulwark in a troubled world.
She focused instead on inner transformation and growth through the experience of crisis in those desolate marital interiors. Carlisle usefully highlights Eliot’s idea of the “imagined ‘otherwise’ ” as a key to her understanding of how a mind thinks, how a self can be opened to change. By that phrase, as Eliot explains it in Middlemarch, she means the universal human habit of conjuring up alternative possibilities along life’s path—“what if?” visions about the past and future that swirl with mistaken choices, missed chances, suppressed desires.
Eliot understands marriage as a ready incubator of that sort of imagining: It is such a far-reaching commitment, inadequately prepared for by courtship and inevitably subject to unforeseen flux and stress. How could its daily reality—two partners in constant proximity, with competing needs and expectations—not sometimes fuel fantasies of other prospects, both threatening and alluring? Yet escapism isn’t what Eliot has in mind.
From the February 1883 issue: Maria Louise Henry on the morality of Thackeray and of George Eliot
In Middlemarch, she distributes the what-if impulse generously. Her readers are invited to contemplate destinies for her various couples other than the ones that play out: What if, we wonder, Dorothea had not already been engaged to Casaubon when Tertius Lydgate, the idealistic young doctor who looks like a perfect match for her, arrived in town? Or what if Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s artistic young cousin with “bushy light-brown curls” but “no property, and not well-born,” had won her heart right away? These other fates glimmer like mirages while couples stumble through “pain and weakness and sheer limitation,” as Carlisle writes, and the “unmapped country” within acquires new markers.
Dorothea and Ladislaw unite in the end (after Casaubon’s death), more maturely compassionate for having endured psychic turmoil. Even so, the match stirs comment. In the novel’s finale, the narrator records Dorothea’s friends lamenting that so “rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother.” But Eliot telegraphs the error of such a verdict. Dorothea never becomes a wife who feels eclipsed, nor are the Ladislaws what we now call “smug marrieds,” their backs turned to the world. Dorothea, devoted at home, is also quietly but ardently joined with Will, who has been elected to Parliament, in the uphill pursuit of social reform.
Daniel Deronda leaves Gwendolen Harleth facing a far more disconcerting prospect. Unromantic and willful, she resists getting tied down by marriage and at first spurns Grandcourt’s proposal. (“I wonder how girls manage to fall in love,” she says. “It is easy to make them do it in books. But men are too ridiculous.”) Yet sudden family financial troubles change her calculus. She tells herself that at least the supremely aloof Grandcourt won’t crowd her—only to find that she is his captive.
She turns in desperation to Daniel Deronda, a man who possesses “perhaps more than a woman’s acuteness of compassion,” and an imagined otherwise—a sense of much-needed intimacy—starts to take shape in her consciousness. But no rescue awaits, even after Grandcourt abruptly drowns. She learns in the novel’s final pages that Deronda plans to marry someone else and go in quest of a Jewish homeland. Though strengthened by his prediction that she “may live to be one of the best of women,” she has no idea “how that can be.” Gwendolen is alone, “dislodged from her supremacy in her own world” for the first time.
Eliot never aimed to set forth a philosophy of marriage. In her art, she found room for a many-layered, tension-infused conception of it that can feel at once capacious and stifling, daring and intimidating—marriage as a suspenseful adventure and an arduous endeavor. She has a way of leaving her characters, her women especially, with their souls expanded, yet seeming somehow chastened. You would not, in other words, mistake them for Jane Austen characters. Austen’s comic ideal is of “spirited, rights-holding individuals living in social concord,” as the Columbia professor and critic Nicholas Dames has written; her women—left on the threshold of marriage—thrive and take joy in “the very idea of having a self.” Eliot’s protagonists flourish differently. Their youthful defiance and assertive independence may ebb, but they have been jolted into seeing beyond their own needs, desires, and delusions—into recognizing an “equivalent centre of self” in another person. Marriage, in Eliot’s pages, unfolds as a challenge unlike anything else.
This article appears in the October 2023 print edition with the headline “Life After ‘I Do.’”
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