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George Eliot. Photo/Alamy

In Love with George Eliot: Kathy O'Shaughnessy's attempt to penetrate the mind of a genius

An insightful debut novel on the woman behind the most famous pen name of the Victorian era.

Who isn’t in love with George Eliot? Charles Dickens was a fan; more recent worshippers include Martin Amis and AS Byatt. And the book they most admire is her masterpiece, Middlemarch, famously described by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels for grown-up people”.

Of course, the life of Eliot – real name Marian (or Mary Ann) Evans – was a novel in itself. Hiding behind her male pseudonym, like the Brontë sisters, Eliot was already a noted contributor to a leading radical magazine when she met fellow writer George Henry Lewes. He was separated from his wife, who had children with another man.

Marian and George fell in love and in an immensely scandalous move for Victorian England, decided to live together. (By allowing his wife’s illegitimate children to take his surname, Lewes had condoned her adultery and divorce was impossible.)

After Lewes died, Eliot created further astonishment by marrying a man 20 years her junior. It is a few years into her relationship with Lewes, which came at a high personal and social cost, that Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s cleverly titled “novel” begins.

The quotation marks are there for a reason. The author, a first-time novelist, uses Eliot’s diaries and letters, and those of her critics and devotees, to build a biographical fiction about this extraordinary woman, who received rock-star adulation in her own day.

O’Shaughnessy also fashions an obbligato of a contemporary storyline in which an alter ego academic named Kate is writing a book about Eliot. Although this works better towards the end, it remains a wobbly, rather unconvincing device; a more even split between the centuries may have been more satisfying and interesting.

O’Shaughnessy has set herself a challenging task, especially as a rookie, and she doesn’t entirely pull it off. After a rather clumsy beginning, she is often guilty of letting the pace slow too much and, perhaps inevitably, the book sometimes reads more like non-fiction.

What she does achieve, though, is a compelling and credible sense of the psychology of a woman many consider a genius. And O’Shaughnessy is sufficiently courageous and honest not to fall into the hagiography trap: she reveals an Eliot who is chronically depressed and often spirit-sappingly prone to self-doubt, about both her work and her behaviour. (The ever-loyal Lewes had much supporting to do.) There is ego here, too, and intellectual arrogance, as well as deep wisdom and empathy.

O’Shaughnessy also succeeds in giving life to her protagonist’s world: the cramped Victorian interiors full of endless talk and angst; the foggy, noisy London streets; the glorious, liberating spring countryside of England and, later in the novel, the sapping heat of a Venetian summer.

Despite the faults born of its uneasy “faction” status and its occasionally flagging narration – it is perhaps rather too long – In Love with George Eliot has a genuine, memorable quality and a likeable authority. This is an intelligent, thoughtful and well-written attempt to penetrate a mind, and a life, that was like no other.

IN LOVE WITH GEORGE ELIOT, Kathy O’Shaughnessy (Scribe, $37)

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.