“The train had shuddered to a halt. Clatter of doors-opening and shutting, noise echoing in the huge vault of Euston station, a smell of oil-flavoured steam and soot. A last door opens…”
THERE might be a warning on this: do not be tempted to Google George Eliot before you read this, let the story run. It is a good yarn and Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s prose moves, as in the opening quote above, quickly along….
Aptly titled, though the accent is very much on the word love as it confronts a woman in the Victorian era. If you enjoyed any of Eliot’s writings from Middlemarch, often said to be the book of that century, back to Adam Bede this is a good companion, not so much biography as an explainer, a contexturaliser, elegantly written in homage style. If you have not ready any, you probably will want to after this. Take this coy euphemism:
“and for the first time in a long time, they made their way hand in hand up to the bedroom, intent only on each other.”
This is one of those books you might want to read in Highgate cemetery (where Eliot is buried) and dip in and out, slow or fast, so carefully is it composed that its themes take over the characters and consume them.
From the outset there are subliminal waves of pent up emotions. Eliot, aka Polly, aka Marian, aka Mary Ann Evans, aka Mrs Lewis aka the voice of her century, enjoys her admirers. Here is one:
”There is deep charm in that soft, rich voice. The sense too that one is approaching a hinterland behind that soft voice. A vast hinterland, rich with thought and experience, and the golden thread of erudition…”
It is her mind they covet. She needs such support to give her the determination to write and put down her demons. There is a quote from one of her letters at the start asking;
“What shall I be without my Father? It will seem as if part of my moral nature were gone.”
O’Shaughnessy teases the morals of the era into such thorny subjects such as motherhood and the Woman Question. It is 1857. The men seem to all have endless children, the main women none.
We have hardly begun and she is being propositioned with the gift of a grand piano. Scandalously she moves in with a married man and is ostracized, but we already know from the opening page:
“Yes, this is why we live, she thinks, with a sort of joyous sigh, an inner trembling and sensation of release.”
The prose bravely goes into her double even triple life as linguistic polymath, lover and author where she has tactically accepted the necessity of masquerading behind a male pseudonym. We are in her study.
“Enough. She turns to her other notebook. Her notes, in violet ink, on Lucretius. She lets her mind follow him. Drawing back and down into thought. And suddenly her mood changes. The sky outside moving pleasantly further away. At the edges, a moving object, almost in the visual field, yet just out of sight, configurations forming…”
This is all constructed by our narrator Kate who is organizing a George Eliot conference with her colleague Ann who is also writing a book on Eliot but not a fiction, rather a revisionary critique from a feminist perspective. This subplot is key to opening up some of the later emotional heft.
The letters and quotes we are told are from Eliot’s hand, but the portrayal is from Kate, an ardent, faithful, investigative chronicler. The construction is like a train journey through well to do Victorian society, so Mr James, is actually Henry, so, Burne-Jones is Edward, the painter, so the shirtmaker Simcox is Edith, the pioneering feminist, each presented like small tableaux. Eliot is a watcher:
“As if she could fillet them, know them so completely that she would no longer be jealous, she would be inhabiting them instead.”
But also an independent spirit.
“We women are always in danger of living too exclusively in the affections.”
Another bookish joy is how reading in that era was a shared event, ideas swapped and considered, an essential component of elite society conversation. Something to do through long dark unelectrified, oil lamp lit nights. In the morning to write and receive letters. And a jingoistic celebration that publishers always like, we all like, that an author can make a lot of money, as Eliot did. For them. But credit to Scribe, they have made a beautiful job of designing and printing this book, so it feels like literary treasure in the hands.