A reflection on George Eliot

I am reading a book called “In Love with George Eliot – a novel” by Katherine O’Shaughnessy.    I guess it is a novel.  It attaches words and feelings to Ms Evans and her friends and family which must be guessed.  But I gather the basic plot of her life is accurate enough and, apparently, all the letters and diary entries are real.

George Eliot (her real name is Marian Evans) lived with her lover, George Lewes.  They couldn’t marry because Lewes was unable (for technical legal reasons) to divorce his previous wife who was busy having kids with his previous best friend.  For the first several years of their relationship, society was appalled and shocked at Marian Evans and George Lewes daring to flout convention in this way.  Marian Evans lived in almost total isolation from society.  But, as Evans’ writing gained public attention, and the true owner of the pseudonym “George Eliot” became known, some of this judgement was over-ridden by admiration for Eliot’s talent.  She was widely revered and she and Lewes welcomed a large number of intellectuals and artists into their home on a regular basis.

In O’Shaughnessy’s book,  George Lewes (lover/partner/best friend of George Eliot) has just died.  George Eliot (Ms Evans) is absolutely broken by it.  To drown some of the written pain,  I select Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto, on Youtube, played by Vladimir Horowitz.  I was introduced to this piece of music by the movie “Shine”.  I love it.  I am quite a fan of Rachmaninoff – his bold chords countered by  his plaintive, running-water melodies.  I watch Horowitz’s fingers.  I don’t think my fingers look like that when I play.  His are curved,  agile, confident.  Mine tend to flatten.  Is it strength or just well-rehearsed technique?

In a break where the orchestra takes the strain,  Horowitz sits in his suit and tails,  wipes at his large-nostriled nose with a handkerchief.  I am struck by the ordinariness of this action.  I think he is terribly relaxed.  But then, handkerchief returned to some pocket, he closes his eyes.  I can see he is focusing.  I imagine the strength of character being able to launch through all that complicated web of music in front of hundreds of people who know and love the piece, and be sure to get it passably right. Later in the piece, his mouth works as he plays.  His fingers fly like the spinning action of a spider.

Eliot’s characters please me in the same way as Rachmaninoff’s music.  I listened to “Middlemarch” as an audio book last year and was awed by the depth of it, the sheer human knowledge.  The relationship between Casaubon (the bold chords) and Dorothea (the gentle, dancing melody) is so painful and the understanding so lacking.  I want to hate Casaubon.  But Eliot gently reveals to her readers the logic and reasoning for the way he acts.  He is not evil and he is guilty of no greater misunderstanding than Dorothea herself.

In O’Shaughnessy’s novel I gain some insight into the pain writing these novels caused Eliot.  She researched everything to the minutest detail.  She found herself so deep in other worlds that she couldn’t find the fiction she originally intended.  And yet, like Horowitz at the piano, the finished product is easy, beautiful, full of light.

Rachmaninoff and Eliot – both voices from the past – interpreting potential discord for some greater good.

Eliot has critics who deride her lack of contribution to feminism, considering how bravely she lived her own life.  But she saw people so clearly, so fully.  I feel like she would have found it hard to push any political barrow because of her natural empathy.  She wanted to understand all sides.  To take sides is to draw curtains, to block out other light sources.

I return to my book.  The grief of it.

Even, in the pit of her agony,  Eliot left the curtains open.

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