I’ve just written a short story inspired by my number one literary heroine, George Eliot, aka Marian Evans. I’m in love with the short story as a form that allows me to experiment; there are so many possibilities and if something doesn’t work and has to abandoned, the failure and waste are much less painful when a mere few thousand words are discarded to oblivion. Now that this one is finished, and I’m happy with it, I’ve begun to explore my own obsessive love for this particular writer and woman. It’s several decades since I read a couple of biographies and began an abortive screenplay of her life, but this year I’ve reread three of her novels, and alongside the obvious critical choice of Middlemarch as a favourite book I have a passion for a less-loved work which was the subject of my student thesis for my degree. The title of that handwritten document was Daniel Deronda: a flawed masterpiece? Now, as an author myself, I find that quote an outrageous nerve. All writing is flawed, but it’s when a novelist exceeds her brief, pushes the boundaries and dares to be different that the flak can fall on her – and I applaud her courage. I also identify with Eliot’s crusading and scholarly sense of injustice, and belief that fiction can help to address such things. At a time when racism has been dragged up from the sewers into the tabloids and the mouths of certain politicians (as a journey, just a hop) her commitment to understanding the experience and beliefs of Jewish people seems worthy and heroic. Marian Evans was no more a perfect human being than a perfect writer, but she cared – deeply and overwhelmingly – about many things. It’s become a cliché of mine that her heart was as big as her brain but it remains transparently true.
My admiration for George Eliot is both objective, then, and personal. We expect from Victorian sentences a structural complexity and expansion, elegance and flow, but while you may be able to name those writers whose formality creates distance or artifice, Eliot’s style has a lyrical beauty and avoids excess. She rarely fails to connect, and not just because her command of the language is virtuoso. Her novels are as profound as they are witty, and her characters established with an acute and tender psychological perceptiveness. I offer two examples: the cadaverous Casaubon in Middlemarch, loathsome in his emotional abuse of the saintly yet full-blooded Dorothea and yet intimately understood by his creator. What she gives us is an unforgettably vivid portrayal of a shrivelled soul. The second is Gwendolen Harleth, anti-heroine of Daniel Deronda. Here Eliot, always tempted to create beautiful women, offers Dorothea’s opposite – as superficial, vain and selfish as Miss Brooke is good, self-critical and compassionate. We might assume that Eliot herself, as an idealistic intellectual incapable of frivolity, might scorn Gwendolen and everything about society that she represents as she uses her looks and shallow charm to manipulate the rules for material gain. Yet she makes us love her – because she finds her soul, even before Gwendolen herself sees the need to uncover and reclaim it. By the end of her tragic story we are moved, beyond anything we could have imagined when it began, by her pain and redemption.
Do I identify in part with Marian Evans because of her physical insecurity as a woman who could never be beautiful? I used to. Strangely, I no longer see myself, with or without alopecia, as unattractive – but then I’ve almost reached the age at which she died and am probably past caring. Certainly I told my mother as a teenager that I’d rather be pretty than clever – how she must have despaired! Women reading this will understand and I hope one day that will change. Eliot also had an unorthodox and challenging love life, shunned by some elements of society for living with a married man and going on, after his death, to marry someone we would now call a toyboy. I can’t claim a life so novelistic but I’m with a second husband who could be labelled a transvestite – although I prefer to call him remarkable. Like her, I’m religious ,although also like her I’ve moved from a Bible-based evangelical faith to belief in love and goodness as God. I make no claims to be her successor but I’m stirred, as a reader of her work and her biographies, by affection and a degree of empathy.
I’m not sure when my short story will appear – I’m building a second collection to follow Ravelled – but it feels like one I’ve been destined for some forty years to write.