Friday, February 2, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life by Clare Carlisle

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I’m slowly embarking on reading biographies of writers I admire. So I was happy to receive a galley of The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life by Clare Carlisle for review. This biography intertwines the life story of Mary Anne Evans/Marian Evans Lewes/George Eliot with her writing, leaving me with the sense that her novels included a good deal of semi-autobiographical…not events, but emotions.

Eliot was the longtime partner of a man who was legally married to someone else (George Lewes.) However, they were devoted to one another and she always considered herself to be his wife. This was in the mid-nineteenth century, so the scandal it caused cannot be overstated. Running away with Lewes meant breaking with her family and a good many of her friends. 

This was also a time wihen women writers were considered to be “silly female novelists.” In order to find a publisher, and to be taken at all seriously, she had to write under a male pseudonym. 

Carlisle makes all this abundantly clear. She also emphasizes both the positive and negative aspects of their partnership while bringing up philosophical questions about marriage and relationships. Eliot (and her husband) read, studied, and even translated philosophy. These themes found their way into her novels. Carlisle traces the chronological development of Eliot’s writing and correlates it to the philosophies she was engaging with at the time.

This makes for a fascinating literary study, but one that is also fairly dense. Usually when I read author biographies, I come away wanting to add all their work to my TBR pile. This time, I came away more daunted than inspired. I loved Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. But now I feel like I didn’t read them slowly and carefully enough. And I think that to tackle more of Eliot’s work, I need to be in a classroom. 

George Eliot is a fascinating person, widely regarded as a brilliant novelist who pioneered psychological fiction. This biography explores Eliot’s own psyche and the impact of marriage and her views of marriage on her life and her work.

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