An unsentimental biography of George Eliot

June 18, 1995|By Carl Rollyson | Carl Rollyson,Special to The Sun

"George Eliot: Voice of a Century," by Frederick R. Karl. Illustrated. 708 pages. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., $30

Overdetermination, to use one of Frederick R. Karl's favorite words, is what characterizes his biography of George Eliot. Pattern, pattern everywhere and everything fits. She is a divided being, a voice of the century, because England is the same: evangelical and high church, reform-minded and reactionary. She adores authority; she abjures it.

Well, his biography is not quite that schematic. He allows that Eliot's divisions are richly "textured," but his narrative forces connections and wills transitions. A speculation on page 22 becomes a fact on page 40. Mr. Karl's sentences boomerang: "In broad cultural terms, we have tended to reembrace the major Victorians, their largeness, their density, their textured social sense. . . . In this embrace of the previous century, however, there is a necessary caution: we must not misread Eliot culturally."

These examples are from two paragraphs in the introduction, which itself begins to seem redundant after ploughing through 700-plus pages. I sympathize with Mr. Karl, having just scrapped an introduction telling the reader what to think of my biography. Trust the reader, biographer, the argument is in the narrative or nowhere.

There are lengthy sections of this biography that make absorbing reading, when Mr. Karl shows just what a unique position Eliot maintained as the most intellectual of Victorian novelists, sympathetic to women's causes, yet steadfastly unwilling to allow herself or her work to be coopted by any movement.

Although fame brought accolades (many considered her the greatest Victorian novelist next to Dickens) and a fortune (she left an estate worth perhaps $2 million dollars in today's economy), she was often depressed. Her "living in sin" with George Henry Lewes, an adulterer married to an adulteress who herself bore several children by another man, meant that Eliot would never be acceptable company for most respectable women and many men, including her own brother.

Mr. Karl provides an unsentimental portrait of Eliot and Lewes, who lived as husband and wife for more than 20 years. A writer of some distinction on literary and scientific topics, Lewes also acted as Eliot's agent, securing her the highest advances and royalties, insulating her from negative reviews, and often inspiring her to continue with her best work. Lewes emerges as a hero, but one who protected Eliot too much, making her creative life rather claustrophobic.

The biographer provides a good deal of social history in his fascinating footnotes and fleshes out the personalities attracted to Eliot, such as Edith Simcox, an energetic writer who threw herself at the great one's feet and insisted on kissing them. Eliot enjoyed admiration but rationed her visits and kisses.

Mr. Karl has so much strong, well-told material at hand it is unfortunate that he resorts to that old biographical ploy of "very possibly," or the more up-to-date, "if we project," when he doesn't know what is happening but wishes that he did.

No one interested in the Victorian novel can ignore this scrupulously researched and often shrewd book, which offers both new interpretations and evidence. But the elaborate academic apparatus impedes the narrative, which needs a shape and considerable pruning.

* Carl Rollyson is the author of seven books, five of them biographies. His "Rebecca West: A Saga of the Century," will be published next year. He is a professor of English at Baruch College, the City University of New York.

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