Tim Dolin is a research fellow at Curtin University of Technology in Australia, the author of Mistress of the House: Women of Property in the Victorian Novel, and the co-editor of Thomas Hardy and Contemporary Literary Studies. His latest book, George Eliot, is part of the Oxford World Classics ‘Authors in Context’ series; in it he examines Eliot’s life and work and the social and intellectual contexts in which they developed, and explores the ways in which she has been recontextualized for present-day readers. Here he picks the 10 books that offer the greatest insight into her life.
1. The Journals of George Eliot, ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston (1998)
George Eliot is not generally thought a great letter writer. Most correspondents were treated to a version of the measured public voice of her novels – wonderfully empathetic and insightful, but rarely unguarded, impulsive, or funny. Her journals, on the other hand, are a revelation, recording, for example, her intense happiness as she travelled openly through liberal Europe with her married lover, George Henry Lewes, in 1854-55.
2. Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose (1983)
“Perhaps that is what love is”, Phyllis Rose suggests in Parallel Lives: “the momentary or prolonged refusal to think of another person in terms of power”. A marvellous ‘brief life’ of the Leweses in those terms, in company with the Carlyles, Ruskins, Mills, and Dickenses.
3. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans by Rosemarie Bodenheimer (1994)
Rosemarie Bodenheimer disagrees about the letters. Beneath their carefully wrought surface, she argues in The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans, Eliot is fighting to control her self-representation. Wonderfully incisive readings of the letters alongside Eliot’s novels, stories, and poems.
4. Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women and Lovers (1882) and Diary of a Shirtmaker (1998) by Edith Simcox
Edith Simcox was a remarkable person: a social theorist and socialist who ran a progressive shirt-making cooperative and was one of the first women trade union leaders. She was also in love with George Eliot, and wrote two painful and moving accounts of her ‘idolatrous’ feelings for the woman who would only ever accept her as a ‘spiritual daughter’: the fictional Episodes in the Lives of Men, Women and Lovers, and the private Diary of a Shirtmaker (eventually published in 1998).
5. The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick (1997)
In this novel, Cynthia Ozick’s out-of-work feminist lawyer Ruth Puttermesser is a latter-day spiritual daughter longing to meet her own Lewes. At length she does: Rupert Rubeeno, a painter of ‘Reenactments of the Masters’, exact reproductions of works in the Metropolitan Museum, photographed and sold on postcards. Together they begin reading Eliot’s work aloud, just as Eliot and Lewes had done …
6. George Eliot on Blackstone Audiobooks, read by Nadia May
Puttermesser is right. There’s something compelling about hearing George Eliot read aloud, and Nadia May’s complete and unabridged Blackstone audiobook collection of the novels is a gem. It’s really surprising what this reading experience reveals about Eliot. We hear the force and unity of her magisterial narrative voice, yet recognize, as if for the first time, how each novel was a radical new departure: try finishing the Blackstone Adam Bede and starting The Mill on the Floss on the same day.
7. Partial Portraits by Henry James (1888) and ‘George Eliot’ by Virginia Woolf (1925)
Henry James and Virginia Woolf were both profoundly influenced by Eliot, and wrote what are still the best essays on her work. See James’s Partial Portraits (1888) and Woolf’s ‘George Eliot’ in The Common Reader (1925).
8. Darwin’s Plots by Gillian Beer (1983)
Gillian Beer’s pioneering study of the influence of evolutionary narrative patterns on 19th-century fiction includes important chapters on Eliot. George Eliot (1986) is a long, absorbing essay relating ideas of interdependence – the “threats and burdens of connection” as well as its joys – to the Victorian (and late 20th-century) woman question.
9. George Eliot’s Pulse by Neil Hertz (2003)
George Eliot’s Pulse offers, among much else, an exhilarating set of riffs on a range of ethical concepts in Eliot’s writing etymologically rooted in the word ‘pulse’ (impulse, repulsion, compulsion etc). Hertz reminds us what we can do with Eliot’s formidably intellectual texts.
10. A Century of George Eliot Criticism by Gordon Haight (1965)
There isn’t an anthology called Hating George Eliot, but there’s probably enough material for one. Eliot inspired adulation during her lifetime and revulsion for more than half a century after her death in 1880 (and much longer among school children coerced into studying Silas Marner). Read what Arnold Bennett thought of her, in Gordon Haight’s A Century of George Eliot Criticism.