The Transferred Life of George Eliot by Philip Davis – Review
By Barney Bardsley
George Eliot is a writer who was, for many years, paraded in front of me as the one to turn to, for unparalleled insights into the human heart and mind. It was usually women who said so: writers themselves, often, and people of significant intellect. I resisted for too long. I was in my fifties when I first read Middlemarch – and then the scales fell from my eyes.
Forget Jane Austen or the Brontës. George Eliot is the one to turn to, for lessons in how to live. For, as Virginia Woolf opined, she is “the first novelist writing for grown up people”. Her insights and compassion are beyond compare.
In this fat and scholarly volume, Philip Davis takes upon himself a forensic reading of Eliot’s key texts – and relates them closely to Eliot’s own developing life as a writer– to show how a great novelist is made, and what lies beneath the surface of her creation.
This is not a work for the casual reader, or for the faint hearted, since it is written in a dense and intricate style. There is no concession to contemporary ‘soundbites’ here. But fans of George Eliot will be fascinated by the penetrating insights – and the wealth of source material – that he brings to the table. I came away from his book more full of admiration and awe for his subject matter than ever before.
“A remarkable ability, not just to understand the world – but to feel for it, too”
Perhaps the most compelling element of the book is the section on Eliot’s early life – her emergence from being the awkward, introverted Mary Anne Evans, to the dazzling, successful novelist, George Eliot.
Always painfully insecure about her looks and her abilities, Eliot was slow to emerge on the public stage. But all her life she obeyed “her compulsion to write if she could not otherwise speak or be heard”. She took refuge in her pen. And it did not let her down.
Despite this painful reticence, Eliot revealed, from very early on, a remarkable ability, not just to understand the world – but to feel for it, too. She was, as a friend wrote, deeply intuitive around other people, and when she spoke, did so “’with the voice of a soul… low and deep, vibrating with sympathy.’”
Another friend, Bessie Parkes, was prophetic when she wrote of the young Evans: “Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings; but when they do, soar out of sight.”
“Almost scientific equivocations on life”
George Eliot did indeed take flight as an adult. She met and lived with George Henry Lewes – despite the scandal of his being a married man – and he became a champion of her writing to his dying day. They were true soul mates.
She was fifty when she published Middlemarch, and its perceptions on relationships, its almost scientific equivocations on life, combined with its huge compassion for humanity – in all its flaws and triumphs – could perhaps never have been written by a younger, less experienced woman. It is her finest work. (Though Silas Marner comes close.)
George Eliot is often overlooked for the more hyperbolic excesses of her contemporary Charlotte Brontë. They are both giants of literature – but it is Eliot, the nuanced, tortured, supremely gifted artist, evoked so painstakingly by Philip Davis, to whom I turn, when it is not just that my imagination needs feeding, but my heart needs solace, too.
‘The Transferred Life of George Eliot’ by Philip Davis, £25 hardback