Any understanding of George Eliot's mature art must begin with an appreciation of the rich, difficult family dynamic out of which it was forged. Her friends and relations understood this, and went into print with their own accounts of the process by which George Eliot's early recollections became the basis, not just for her fiction, but also for her philosophic conservatism. The past - and memory of that past - was the cornerstone on which Eliot believed any chance of social or political progress must securely rest.
This set, the fifth collection in the Family History series brings together valuable sources, including manuscript material from letters and diaries which give insights into these crucial influences. A new introduction places the material in its literary and historical context.
The third biography in scarcely as many years gets personal with the Victorian novelist known primarily through her intellectual achievements. While Frederick Karl's George Eliot: Voice of a Century (1995) perpetuated Eliot's image as a Victorian Sybil ("a massive, mythic figurehad, given to spouting riddles") and Rosemary Ashton's George Eliot: A Life (1997) tried to maintain a balance between her life and her work, Hughes (The Victorian Governess, not reviewed) focuses on her character behind the facade of fame, which Eliot could have done without. Although this approach requires some reading between the lines of early correspondence and Eliot's fiction, while Hughes often skims her intellectual and philosophical development, it also brings a sense of close familiarity with this private, inward woman. Hughes's rendering of Mary Ann Evans's life avoids gossipy revisionism and credibly fleshes out her transformation from Midlands evangelical to cosmopolitan Victorian intellectual and from an unnoticed London literary journalist to world-famous novelist George Eliot. In these pages, Mary Ann's youthful puritanical priggishness is offset by her deep emotional needs, which often arose in egotistic demands for attention from older, maternal women and in affairs with older, libidinous men, such as the philanthropist Charles Bray and the publisher John Chapman - and which typically led to "embarrassingly sudden departures from other people's houses." Evans's break with her family is particularly painful here, as Hughes shows her first quarreling with her revered father over religion, then with her adored brother over her longtime liaison with the married George Henry Lewes ("one of the few people in London who was demonstrably plainer than herself'). Hughes gives Lewes special credit not only for his attentive support of Eliot's doubt-ridden career in fiction, but also for their emotional union, which flourished despite his reputation for frivolity and bohemianism. Not the whole story, but a refreshingly intimate portrait. (Kirkus Reviews)